Leon Goretzka underwent quite the transformation during the second half of Bayern Munich’s 2019/20 double-winning campaign - in more ways than one…
Hardgainers the world over are still picking their jaws up off the ground. The skinny kid from Bochum, who bore all the hallmarks a classic ectomorph, made the kind of gains it took a young Cristiano Ronaldo years to achieve in scarcely five months.
"I simply used the time to get to the gym more often and to do weight training," Goretzka said after spending the coronavirus-enforced lockdown glued to an Olympic barbell. "Of course everything was discussed with the fitness coaches at Bayern because you have to be careful not to lose your sprightliness - but I think I've found a good mix. I feel I'm in top form on the pitch right now."
Goretzka has never been better. An injury-hit Hinrunde, comprising one assist in eight league appearances behind him, the 25-year-old had a direct hand in 12 goals in 16 outings between January and June. He started 14 of them, including nine in a row following the season restart as Bayern wrapped up their eighth successive title with two games to spare.
“Bayern had a bit of luck in the wins against Frankfurt and also against Mönchengladbach," recalled German football legend Lothar Matthäus of Bayern’s title-winning campaign, before expanding on Goretzka’s emergence as key midfield cog. "That Gladbach game had the name 'Goretzka' stamped all over it. He’s been outstanding in the second half of the season, and his name’s frequently appeared on the scoreboard."
Watch: The numbers stacking up for Goretzka and Bayern
If Goretzka scored two fewer goals in his second season at Bayern than the eight he managed in 2018/19, it’s only because he played in six less games. He made one half of the midfield double pivot his own - stationed alongside Germany teammate Joshua Kimmich - driving forward from deep to supplement the efforts of 34-goal leading marksman Robert Lewandowski. Even with pass-master Thiago Alcantara fit for the DFB Cup final against Bayer Leverkusen triumph, coach Hansi Flick stuck by his box-to-box buff.
"It’s been a special season," Goretzka said to bundesliga.com after doing his best impression of Popeye, Meisterschale in hand. "The day I was unveiled at Bayern, I said I’d like to assume a role of responsibility within the team. I’m moving more in that direction now. Maybe also imposing myself a bit more as I’ve got physically stronger. And that’s a development I’m pleased with."
Despite having Thiago, Javi Martinez, Corentin Tolisso and Barcelona-owned Philippe Coutinho for competition, Goretzka has put his mark all over the role previously held by midfield paragons Bastian Schweinsteiger and Arturo Vidal. He can play in deeper and more advanced central positions, but his rangy bursts into opposition penalty boxes are at their most pronounced as a No.8. The former Bochum and Schalke talent bettered Thiago for goals and assists in 2019/20, only scored one fewer than Schweinsteiger managed during Bayern's 2012/13 treble-winning campaign, and has produced superior numbers to Vidal - who spent three seasons in Munich - on both counts. In terms of legwork - specifically, average sprints per game (22.7) and speed (21.3mph) - there is no comparison.
"I started as an attacking midfielder in the No.10 and then slipped back one position when Thiago got injured," Goretzka told the Bayern website of his positional range up and down the Bayern spine. "I've now played in both positions, with Bayern and before that at Schalke and Bochum. I know what I have to do in each position, so it's no problem for me to rotate back and forth between the two. I think it's very important for the coach and for a successful team that each position has its own task profile and as many players as possible know that profile and can implement it."
Goretzka's tactical acumen coupled with his tempered level of aggression are what make him such an effective counter-balance to the deep-lying Kimmich, but it's his understanding of the importance of his own body that has elevated his game to another level. Chronic bowel inflammation previously affected his ability to recover from games, so he adopted a gluten-free diet. A lightweight frame not always suited to the midfield grind has been wrapped in lean muscle. In many ways, Flick has the modern midfield prototype at his disposal.
"Leon has real quality," the Bayern strategist told SportBuzzer. "Off the ball, you can see how dynamic he is. He has a healthy level of aggression and wins a lot of tackles. Then he's able to kick-start attacks. We know about his goal threat, and he has an unbelievable presence. It's great that he's been working on his strength, too. But I don't want him to be perceived as just a pile of muscle."
There is little chance of that. Once described by former Bochum coach Peter Neururer as "Germany's biggest talent in 50 years", Goretzka is living up to his potential, if not surpassing it, as the midfield brains and brawn of one of the most exciting teams in living memory.