Kai Havertz, Leon Goretzka, Timo Werner, Mario Götze, Mats Hummels, Julian Draxler, Nuri Sahin — given Florian Wirtz has bettered that clutch of Bundesliga icons already in his fledgling career, it's no surprise Leverkusen have decided to offer the teenage talent a new and improved contract.
"We're optimistic that Florian will be staying longer," Leverkusen sporting director Simon Rolfes had said before Wirtz inked the extension that puts another 12 months on the deal that was due to expire in 2022. Now, former Leverkusen captain and Germany international midfielder Rolfes will be rubbing his hands at the prospect of watching one of the game's hottest properties continuing his prodigious progress at the BayArena.
And there is good reason for Rolfes to be positive, very very positive, in fact, about Wirtz's future.
"Florian is one of the most impressive talents in Germany," said Stefan Kuntz, the Germany U21 coach who handed Wirtz his debut at that level with the teenager aged just 17 years and 159 days. That's a record. For Germany. Just think about what that means…
Watch: Florian Wirtz becomes the Bundesliga's youngest-ever goalscorer
It put Wirtz on top of a hugely impressive top 10 featuring Borussia Dortmund stalwart Hummels, Paris Saint-Germain man Draxler, Bayern Munich's midfield general Goretzka and Götze, now playing at PSV Eindhoven.
Götze, Germany's 2014 FIFA World Cup final matchwinner, might have instead been wearing the colours of Leverkusen this season. But Die Werkself are very happy with the attacking midfielder they have.
"Mario wanted to come to Leverkusen," coach Peter Bosz claimed in an interview with De Telegraaf following ex-Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich star Götze's free transfer to PSV last summer. "But we already have young Florian Wirtz in his position. He's an intelligent player, and a massive talent."
It's a bold statement and a ringing endorsement of Wirtz's potential, but certainly not the first the teenager has provoked since becoming his club's youngest-ever Bundesliga debutant when he appeared in Leverkusen's 4-1 win over Werder Bremen on Matchday 26 last season at 17 years and 15 days. Havertz was 111 days older when he had made his top-flight debut — coincidentally, also against Bremen — during the 2016/17 campaign.
"He was important to us, that’s why I'm making an exception to speak about one player specifically," explained Bosz following his teen prodigy's promising debut.
"He played well right from the off, kept the ball well and pushed forward well too. It's always something special when you make a debut, especially when you're 17. All in all, it was a good performance by him, he wasn't nervous."
"He's really emerged quickly. During the lockdown, he came to first-team training, and you could see he's a special player even though he's young," added an impressed Julian Baumgartlinger.
"The lad has a lot of potential, and if he keeps his feet on the ground, he could become a second Kai Havertz," noted Aleksandar Dragovic.
Potential is one thing — there have been plenty of players who have shown it as youngsters — but delivering on it is another. Wirtz, though, is already doing that.
He got his maiden Bundesliga goal in the 4-2 loss to Bayern Munich last season — but what a strike it was to beat Manuel Neuer — to become the league's youngest-ever goalscorer ahead of ex-Liverpool and Real Madrid man Sahin. A record that has just been broken by Borussia Dortmund's Youssoufa Moukoko.
Wirtz has followed that up with four assists and two more goals this season, the last of which came in the thumping 4-0 Rhine derby win at Cologne to become the youngest Bundesliga player to reach three goals, knocking Havertz's new Chelsea teammate Werner off that perch. Cologne must be now really nursing regrets at seeing Wirtz performing so well. Why? Because he used to be on their books.
"I knew a lot of clubs were interested and then we thought that before he went anywhere else, let's try to get him to join us and stay at home. I've known the player since he was 14," said Rolfes, who had an instrumental role in signing Wirtz in January 2020 while he was the club's director of youth development.
"We showed Florian the sporting benefits he could gain with us, and certainly also the benefits from the fact that in the past, we gave many young players such as Kai Havertz, Julian Brandt and Benjamin Henrichs the chance to play in the Champions League from an early age," explained Leverkusen's former sporting director Rudi Völler.
Völler has shown Leverkusen to be as good as their word with Wirtz featuring in the UEFA Europa League last season; this term, he scored twice and registered an assist in five group stage games in the same competition as Leverkusen cruised into the knockout stages.
With his team's place in the next round secure, Bosz decided to rest Wirtz for the final group game against Slavia Prague, a sign of just how important the youngster has become.
Watch: Wirtz leads former club Cologne a merry dance on Matchday 12
"I'm delighted that he's already a key part of the team and is getting time on the pitch," said Leverkusen's iconic former CEO Reiner Calmund. "Although there is a lot of competition in that position, I'm convinced Florian will play for the senior national team and will develop towards being world class."
Havertz has already achieved the former, and is well on the way to becoming the latter, but if you look at how Wirtz's numbers stack up against those of his ex-teammate, the latest Leverkusen prodigy is not so far behind.
Havertz had a slightly better pass completion last season — 87.5 percent to 82.5 — and slightly more touches — 67 to 58 — but while Havertz beat his man 12 times per game on average, Wirtz got the better of his opponent 16 times every 90 minutes.
All this from a player who still has homework to do.
"He goes to school every morning at 7.30 until 9.30, then he's at the club by 9.45 and at 10.00 we begin preparing for training at 10.30," explained Bosz. "Then it's lunchtime, time for a shower, and then he goes to school again for the rest of the afternoon. We have promised his parents that school is the most important thing right now."
While he is still working on getting his high school diploma, Wirtz has already proven he has the smarts to succeed in the big boys' playground. Not that he believes he is anywhere near the finished article just yet.
"I see my strengths as being in the middle," explained Wirtz, who — following Havertz's summer departure for Chelsea — has moved from the wide position he played last season and into a central role. "In the final third, I can make the final pass or dribble. I also know that I still have a lot to improve: even though I have a good shot, I don't shoot that much during games. I have to work on that."
Leverkusen — and their fans — will be delighted he will be developing his potentially world-beating talent in their colours for the foreseeable future.
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