Bayern Munich and Germany suffered a blow in October when defensive stalwart Niklas Süle was ruled out for the long-term with a cruciate ligament injury. bundesliga.com examines how much time the centre-back could miss – as well as why he's so important for both club and country.
The worst fears for Süle were confirmed publicly the day after he limped out of Bayern's 2-2 draw at Augsburg on Matchday 8. The 24-year-old had ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament of his left knee following an innocuous incident that saw him leave the field after only 12 minutes.
Surgery was required, and a lengthy absence guaranteed. It was, said outgoing Bayern president Uli Hoeneß, "a total catastrophe." A closer look at what Süle offers to the German champions makes it easy to see why he felt that way.
Bayern had invested heavily in their backline over the close season, signing up French World Cup winners Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez. They did so looking to supplement what Süle brings to the team, however, rather than to replace him. Further evidence of his growing influence could be taken from the decision to let experienced defensive partner Mats Hummels return to Borussia Dortmund last summer.
Standing at 6'5" tall, Süle cuts an imposing figure. The Hoffenheim academy graduate has won 81 per cent of his aerial challenges in the 2019/20 season – more than any of his defensive teammates.
Despite his considerable frame, Süle is also swift over the ground when he needs to be. He has a top speed of 21.7 miles per hour in his Bundesliga career, which – to put that in context – is Bayern winger Kingsley Coman quick.
Just as important, of course, is the Frankfurt native's ability on the ball. In his eight Bundesliga matches this season, Süle had a passing accuracy of 94 per cent. Those figures compared favourably with the 2018/19 campaign, when he was amongst the top five players in the league in that category.
No surprise then, that Germany boss Joachim Löw was sorry to hear of Süle's injury.
"It's a real blow, first and foremost for Niklas himself, of course," the 2014 FIFA World Cup-winning head coach said. "He's a real loss for us too, though, and it certainly affects the ongoing development of our young team.
"Niklas is one of the faces of this new generation and was no doubt a central figure in our planning. He's been getting regular game time both at club level and in the national team. I'm confident that he'll work his way back into the team, but we won't be putting any pressure on him whatsoever and will support him as best we can."
While Süle only started one game at the 2018 World Cup, it's clear that he had been picked out as one of the leaders of a new-look side. Löw favoured the 2016 Olympic silver medallist over Hummels and his Bayern teammate Jerome Boateng, and he had started six games in Germany's UEFA Euro 2020 qualifying campaign.
The good news is that – unlike decades ago – a cruciate ligament issue is no longer career threatening. Just ask Süle, who suffered a similar setback – with the same knee – in December 2014.
Lesser players might have seen their progress derailed by a blow like that, but – then aged 19 – the defender knuckled down to start all but one of the following season's Bundesliga matches for Hoffenheim. He made 33 starts in 2016/17 as well, enough to convince Bayern that it was time to sign Germany's most promising centre-back.
Watch: Süle got a vital goal in the title race against Werder Bremen in April
When he first suffered a cruciate ligament injury, Süle was out for around 200 days including the off season. Using a similar time frame – and assuming his recovery goes without a hitch – on this occasion he could target a return in late April. That would mean that – in an ideal world – the uncompromising defender could make himself available for the latter stages of the Bundesliga, the DFB Cup, and the UEFA Champions League.
While Hoeneß has been pessimistic about Süle's chances of returning this season, Bayern sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic sounded a more positive note.
"The operation went very, very well," the former Bayern winger told Sport1. "I know from experience – Niklas will obviously have to work really hard to get himself fit again. But he's a great lad with a really good attitude – that's why I'm certain that he'll get back to fitness and play for Bayern again."
Former Germany striker Sandro Wagner – who played with Süle at both Hoffenheim and Bayern – has also backed his teammate to come back strongly. Wagner knows what he's talking about, after all, having overcome a cruciate ligament injury of his own early in his career while playing at Duisburg.
"My friend Niki is a world-class defender, who in terms of potential could match Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk," Wagner, who now plays in China with Tianjin Teda, wrote in a column for Bild.
"But above all he's also a great guy. Bayern will miss him, but he'll come back like a bear after his little spell on the sidelines."
A striker until the age of 15, Süle has turned into one of the finest defenders in Europe. He has also proven in the past that he can bounce back from adversity. Whether it's during this season or next that the two-time Bundesliga winner returns, however, both Bayern and Germany be delighted to have him back.
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