Serge Gnabry and Jadon Sancho are part of a motely crew of Bundesliga players with intriguing pasts, including stints at Real Madrid, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain. - © DFL
Serge Gnabry and Jadon Sancho are part of a motely crew of Bundesliga players with intriguing pasts, including stints at Real Madrid, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain. - © DFL

Serge Gnabry, Jadon Sancho, Vedad Ibisevic, Adam Szalai and the Bundesliga players with a surprise past

Bayern Munich's Serge Gnabry and Borussia Dortmund's Jadon Sancho are living proof that there are many ways to the top. The duo have become world football stars in their own right since moving to the Bundesliga after being overlooked in England - but which other German top-flight names have a forgotten past worth talking about? investigates...


Peter Gulacsi (RB Leipzig)
Previous clubs: MTK Budapest, Liverpool, Hereford United (loan), Tranmere Rovers (loan), Hull City (loan), Red Bull Salzburg

Nowadays Gulacsi is a genuine contender to Manuel Neuer’s throne as the Bundesliga's best goalkeeper, but it wasn’t always the case. There was a time when the RB Leipzig custodian was allowed to stagnate in the Liverpool reserves. With Pepe Reina and Diego Cavalieri Liverpool’s No.1 and back-up respectively, the Hungary international didn’t make a single first-team appearance for the Anfield club between 2007 and 2010. Instead he turned out 23 times for the U23s before being farmed out on loan to the lower leagues.

The pre-match warm-up was as close as Peter Gulacsi got to playing in the English Premier League with Liverpool. - imago sportfotodienst

A spell with Hull City in the English Championship steered his career in the right direction and, after winning back-to-back Austrian Bundesliga and Cup doubles with Salzburg, Gulacsi made the switch to Bundesliga 2 outfit Leipzig in summer 2015. Twelves months later, he was playing in the Bundesliga for the first time and he has not looked back. Last season alone, Gulacsi shipped the fewest number of goals of all German top-flight stoppers (28) and kept a league-best 15 clean sheets.


Joshua Kimmich (Bayern Munich)
Previous clubs: VfB Stuttgart, RB Leipzig

Watching Joshua Kimmich leave it all out on the pitch in a Bayern shirt, anyone would think he’d been born and raised in the centre of the Allianz Arena pitch. He, in fact, began life in the same VfB Stuttgart youth academy that churned out the likes of Sami Khedira, Mario Gomez and Timo Werner, before fleeing the nest in a move that would break his career. Joining Leipzig in summer 2013, Kimmich was instrumental as the Saxon go-getters continued their ascent of the German football ladder, winning promotion to Bundesliga 2 at the first attempt.

"Remember the name" - Joshua Kimmich moved from Leipzig to Bayern whilst playing in Bundesliga 2, with the likes of Yussuf Poulsen. - imago/H¸bner

A certain Pep Guardiola soon got wind of Kimmich's all-round talent, and duly hit the road on a one-man scouting mission, attending a Bundesliga 2 game between Leipzig and 1860 Munich on 22 December 2014. It was Christmas come early for everyone but Leipzig. "I've never seen anything like it," Kimmich's former Leipzig mentor, Ralf Rangnick, explained. "He came to us and, within two years, has become a regular for Bayern and Germany.”

Frederik Sörensen (Cologne, on loan at Young Boys)
Previous clubs: Juventus, Bologna, Hellas Verona (loan)

Frederik Sörensen’s show of bravura in shutting down Samuel Eto’o and providing the match-winning assist in a Serie A game against Inter Milan back in 2010/11 must have had Juventus fans licking their lips. The Denmark defender had managed to muscle his way into then Juve coach Luigi Delneri’s plans thanks to a combination of injuries to regular starters and robust displays at centre and right-back. Sörensen was rewarded with a long-term deal, only for his progress to be stopped in its tracks following the appointment of Antonio Conte.

Frederik Sorensen (c.) passed his first real test at Juventus with flying colours. - imago sportfotodienst

He remained in Italy with Bologna and Hellas Verona, but it was only after moving to Germany with Cologne that he was able to rediscover his former strengths, providing the foundation for the side that qualified for Europe for the first time in the club’s history in 2015/16. Despite that early promise, Sörensen has been overtaken in the Cologne pecking order and is currently playing on loan in Switzerland with Young Boys.

Karim Rekik (Manchester City)
Previous clubs: Manchester City, Portsmouth (loan), Blackburn Rovers (loan), PSV Eindhoven (loan), Marseille

Injuries to Aymeric Laporte, Benjamin Mendy and John Stones may have Pep Guardiola cursing the day Manchester City let Karim Rekik slip through their grasp. The Dutch defender made just one English Premier League appearance across four pre-Pep seasons at the Etihad Stadium, also spending similarly fruitless spells on loan at Portsmouth and Blackburn Rovers.

Karim Rekik (r.) moved up from the Man City youth team to the senior side in 2012. - imago sportfotodienst

Rekik's big break eventually came whilst at PSV Eindhoven, where he won the 2014/15 Eredivisie and earned the first of his four senior international caps with the Netherlands. After two seasons in France with Marseille, he was cherry-picked to fill the void of USA international John Brooks at the heart of the Hertha Berlin defence.

David Alaba (Bayern Munich)
Previous clubs: Austria Vienna, Hoffenheim

Contrary to popular belief, Bayern left-back David Alaba is not a one-club man. Bayern signed the Austrian as a 15-year-old, and made him their youngest first-team debutant, but they also dished out what might have been perceived as a dose of tough love in the form of a loan move to Bundesliga rivals Hoffenheim. Alaba, having made eight appearances for Bayern, went on to play 18 times in all competitions for Hoffenheim during the second half of the 2010/11 season, scoring his first two career Bundesliga goals.

Bayern Munich left-back David Alaba made the most of a short spell with Hoffenheim, and even faced future teammates such as Thomas Müller. - imago sportfotodienst

He returned to Bayern to bolt down his place in the starting XI, and before he knew it was rightly being talked up as the world’s best left-back. A relative veteran of 350 competitive appearances in red and an eight-time Bundesliga champion, it beggars belief that he is still only 27. But that’s Bayern’s parenting for you - fail safe.


Serge Gnabry (Bayern Munich)
Previous clubs: VfB Stuttgart, Arsenal, West Brom (loan), Werder Bremen, Hoffenheim (loan)

"Tony Pulis felt I wasn’t Premier League level!" Revealing and quite frankly mind-boggling words from Bayern and Germany winger Gnabry. It’s well known Arsenal dropped a clanger when they let Gnabry leave the English capital for Werder Bremen, but the thought of him being frozen out whilst on loan at West Bromwich Albion does make you wonder what was Pulis was supping.

Serge Gnabry (l.) made 11 Premier League appearances, but only one for West Brom. - imago/Sportimage

The 23-year-old was limited to just three appearances for the Baggies during the second half of the 2015/16 Premier League campaign, before Werder brought him in from the cold for a bargain basement €8m. Eleven goals in Green and White prompted Bayern to make their move, while back-to-back 10-strike hauls - one whilst on loan at Hoffenheim, one in his title-winning debut season at Munich - have left Pulis with some serious egg on the face.

Josuha Guilavogui (Wolfsburg)
Previous clubs: Saint-Etienne, Atletico Madrid

It's testament to Josuha Guilavogui's innate fighting spirit that he's still playing top-level football after breaking his neck in a summer friendly against Sporting Lisbon in July 2016. The Frenchman only missed 15 games of the ensuing Bundesliga campaign - his third at Wolfsburg and first since joining the 2009 champions on a permanent deal from Atletico Madrid. Despite being a staple in Ligue 1 at Saint-Etienne early on in his career, Guilavogui made just seven appearances in all competitions for Ateltico under Diego Simeone in 2014/15, before returning to France on loan.

Josuha Guilavogui was deemed surplus to requirements after just one full season at Atletico Madrid. - imago sportfotodienst

It seems a touch strange that Simeone, who was once a tough-tackling midfielder, couldn't find room for the seven-time France international in Madrid - not that Guilavogui will be complaining. He's fast approaching his landmark 200th outing for the Wolves, whom he has helped win the 2014/15 DFB Cup and 2016 German Supercup. Proudly sporting a rainbow armband since the start of 2018/19, the Wolfsburg skipper has also been commended for his role in the fight against homophobia.

Kerem Demirbay (Bayer Leverkusen)
Previous clubs: Borussia Dortmund, Hamburg, Kaiserslautern (loan), Fortuna Düsseldorf (loan), Hoffenheim

Marco Reus, Mario Götze and Kerem Demirbay: Borussia Dortmund have a history of producing cultured midfielders - but while Reus and Götze were busy laying the foundations for glittering careers for club and country, plotting the Black-Yellows’ path to the 2012/13 UEFA Champions League final, Demirbay was stuck in the fourth tier with the club’s reserves.

Kerem Demirbay (l.) played under Jürgen Klopp (r.) at Borussia Dortmund - just not in competitive first-team action. - imago/Camera 4

These days he’s a household name, a 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup winner with Germany and proud owner of one of the Bundesliga’s finest left boots, but he didn’t play a second of first-team football for Dortmund. His senior debut came instead in the colours of Hamburg. Formative spells in the second division with Kaiserslautern and Fortuna Düsseldorf gave his career belated lift-off; Julian Nagelsmann took it to another level at Hoffenheim. The 26-year-old joined Bayer Leverkusen in summer 2019.

Jadon Sancho (Borussia Dortmund)
Previous clubs: Watford, Manchester City

There's not much to say about Sancho that hasn't been said before. He's hit world-class level at Dortmund before the age of 20, is arguably the most exciting attacking player England has ever produced, is Europe's leading assist provider and yet he didn't get a look-in at Man City beyond the reserves. All those associated with the reigning Premier League champions don't need reminding how they dropped the ball - but just like anyone else Sancho has a past.

Prior to the England international's two-year stint at Man City, during which time he made 35 appearances for the U18s, 19s and 23s, Sancho belonged to Watford. "At first it was difficult when I left home and went up to Watford," the Londoner recalled. "Then I got used to it, because I lived in digs and I got used to my family not being there." All told, Sancho spent seven years as part of the Watford youth set-up, before joining City at 14.


Vedad Ibisevic (Hertha Berlin)
Previous clubs: PSG, Dijon (loan), Alemannia Aachen, Hoffenheim, VfB Stuttgart

The life and times of Vedad Ibisevic have been eventful to say the least, and that's even before he made his breakthrough as a professional footballer. Escaping the horrors of the Bosnian War, Ibisevic was called up to represent his country's youth national team at 16, but upheaval followed as his family sought a new life in Switzerland and later some 4,600 miles away in St Louis, USA. It was a roll of the dice that changed the course of Vedad's career. After earning a scholarship to the prestigious Saint Louis University, Ibisevic started banging in the goals for St. Louis and Chicago – 39 goals in 46 games to be precise. He was spotted by fellow Bosnian Vahid Halilodzic - the coach of French giants Paris Saint-Germain, who were on tour in America - and was duly offered his first pro deal.

Vedad Ibisevic's move to Paris Saint-Germain was something of a false dawn. - imago

But if things did not go well in France - he was sent off on his fourth Ligue 1 appearance and never played for PSG again - they only got better after he moved to the Bundesliga, via Dijon, in July 2006. Aged 35, the veteran front man - presently of Hertha - is still going strong with some 122 goals in 320 Bundesliga outings to his name.

Adam Szalai (Mainz)
Previous clubs: VfB Stuttgart, Real Madrid, Mainz, Schalke, Hoffenheim, Hannover (loan)

Adam Szalai recently returned to Mainz for a second bite of the cherry. In another life, he might have been banging in the goals alongside Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid. That’s right, between 2007 and 2010, Szalai was a Madrid player. He didn’t make it into the first team, but he did score 23 goals in 79 appearances for the reserves. The likes of Ronaldo, Gonzalo Higuain and Kaka forced him to look elsewhere for his senior break, and he found it at Mainz in 2010/11 as part of the fabled ‘Bruchweg Boys’, alongside Andre Schürrle and Lewis Holtby.

Adam Szalai (r.) joined Real Madrid Castilla from the VfB Stuttgart academy. - imago sportfotodienst

Under the guidance of then coach Thomas Tuchel, the trio and their ‘boy-band celebration’ rocked the Bundesliga, with Holtby on vocals, Schürrle on guitar and Szalai on drums. Although Mainz finished the season in fifth and qualified for Europe for the first time, it wasn’t enough to keep the band together - but if it was Bye, Bye Bye for Szalai in 2013, it is Back for Good six years on.