At the start of the season, bundesliga.com took a look at the Top 20 Under 20 players in the league. Jadon Sancho has more than lived up to expectations at Borussia Dortmund, but who else has been getting their teenage kicks in the Hinrunde? Join us as we look back at the top five under-age, over-performing players of the season so far…
Club: Borussia Dortmund
Plays a bit like: Kylian Mbappe
Sancho had already won significant praise last season; firstly, for having the guts to swap Manchester City and the home comforts of England for the mythical foreign fortress that is the Signal Iduna Park, and secondly, for seizing his opportunity with both hands – or should that be feet? – once he got there. Whilst a goal and four assists in 12 games were an impressive tally, few would have backed him to become BVB’s first-choice wide man this season, let alone the apple of Europe’s eye.
This season Sancho has racked up eight assists – more than captain Marco Reus – as well as chipping in with six goals, which outstrips Jacob Bruun Larsen, Christian Pulisic and Mario Götze put together, as Dortmund have raced to the top of the league. Sancho says himself that Brazil captain Neymar is his favourite player, but with his selfless streak and teenaged precocity, he perhaps bears an even closer resemblance to Neymar’s Paris Saint-Germain teammate, Kylian Mbappe. The Frenchman won the FIFA World Cup last summer, and if England are to end nearly 60 years of hurt in Qatar, Sancho looks sure to be central to that ambition.
Watch: A tactical look at what makes Jadon Sancho so special
Club: Bayer Leverkusen
Position: Attacking midfielder
Plays a bit like: Michael Ballack
Provided he steers clear of injury, Havertz could well end the season just 12 games away from a century of Bundesliga appearances. He is 19. While his club, Bayer Leverkusen, have regressed this season – Die Werkself only missed out on the UEFA Champions League on goal-difference last term; they are 10th this – Havertz’s star has stayed nascent. In a youthful attacking midfield stable which also includes Julian Brandt, Leon Bailey and Paulinho, Havertz has become the stand-out thoroughbred, with his six goals and two assists meaning only Kevin Volland, a striker, has had a hand in more goals.
Able to make and take chances with both feet, the nominally left-footed Havertz was given his full Germany debut by Joachim Löw in a 2-1 win over Peru in September, with his first assist for Die Mannschaft coming in November’s 3-0 win over Russia. Boasting the requisite steel to go with the silk – Havertz stands at an increasingly muscular 6’2” – comparisons with former Leverkusen and Germany great Michael Ballack are almost as inevitable as they are justified.
Watch: All of Havertz's goals and assists so far!
Club: Hertha Berlin
Position: Defensive midfielder
Plays a bit like: Toni Kroos
Sold on Sancho? Already heard about Havertz? Perhaps Arne Maier remains a mystery? Not for much longer. Hertha Berlin won the Bundesliga U19 championship last year, but Maier’s progress was so swift that he was promoted to the first team mid-season before going on to feature in half of their top-flight games.
Midfielders that anchor their team can take longer to capture the popular imagination, but Maier’s already making a steady rise to the top, and his numbers speak for themselves. Meier has started 16 of Hertha’s 17 Bundesliga games this season, with Ondrej Duda and Liverpool-owned Marko Grujic competing for the right to partner him in the middle. Maier can beat his man, has a fierce shot from range, but knows when to keep it simple. A pass completion of 90 percent adds further weight to the claim that he could be the long-term successor to Toni Kroos for Germany.
Plays a bit like: Neymar
With Sancho having blazed the trail, Reiss Nelson wasted little time in following his childhood friend to the Bundesliga, with limited first-team opportunities at Arsenal seeing Nelson join Hoffenheim last summer on a season-long loan deal. Six goals in 490 Bundesliga minutes later (or one every 82 minutes), and Sancho isn’t the only London-born, Bundesliga-bred attacker tearing up the league.
Sancho may be the one of the pair who has publicly declared his admiration for Neymar, but Nelson is the one who, with his right foot, prefers playing on the left or through the middle. The propensity to skip past his man and shoot early before the goalkeeper has had chance to get his angles right is also reminiscent of the Brazilian, and goes a long way explaining his incredible strike-rate so far.
Club: Eintracht Frankfurt
Plays a bit like: Holger Badstuber
When Evan N’Dicka joined Eintracht Frankfurt from Auxerre last summer, few would have guessed how quickly he would become central to their assault on the Bundesliga, and indeed Europe. A promising France U20 international, he nonetheless faced fierce competition, with David Abraham, Simon Falette and Carlos Salcedo hogging the central defensive roles. To make matters worse, the man who signed him – Niko Kovac – left for Bayern Munich.
Fans have quickly got over Kovac’s departure, with new coach Adi Hütter bringing fresh ideas despite persisting with three at the back. The difference has been in personnel, and N’Dicka has become first-choice, starting just one fewer game than Abraham, Falette and Salcedo put together. At 6’3”-tall it’s perhaps unsurprising that N’Dicka has won an aerial duel once every 15 minutes he has played, but a left foot and balance that belies his frame means that he could play out wide should injuries strike the squad.