Niklas Süle cuts the figure of the quintessential centre-back: 6’5” tall, shoulders as wide as the goals he helps protect. With pace, power and timing, the 22-year-old has managed more Bundesliga minutes than Jerome Boateng – a paragon in the position – since his summer transfer from Hoffenheim...
And yet when Jupp Heynckes decided to blood 18-year-old Lukas Mai in Bayern's 3-0 win over Hannover on Saturday it wasn’t the Bayern U19 captain who was asked to anchor the midfield. There, in front of Boateng and Mai, and with Sebastian Rudy and James Rodriguez either side of him, was Süle. And dictating play too.
Rudy, a Germany international midfielder with 24 caps to his name, had 79 touches; James, one of the best players in the world, had 109. Süle’s tally? 111. Those touches weren’t all tackles either – although he won a game-high 16 of those: Süle saw out the 90 minutes with a 95 percent pass completion, finding a teammate with 82 perfectly weighted passes.
Watch: Süle too busy praising Mai's performance to take stock of his own!
This was four days on from running out at left-back in 6-2 destruction of Bayer Leverkusen in the DFB Cup semi-finals. He may have only come on with five minutes to go, but Süle – a right-footer – didn’t give Leon Bailey a sniff for the remainder of the game. He may look like the Incredible Hulk, but Süle runs like Quicksilver, with Kingsley Coman the only player at Bayern who can match his top speed of 21.6 miles per hour.
Little wonder Heynckes is a fan. “When I look I Süle, he's going to be a superb player, world class,” beamed the coach, who knows a thing or two about top defenders having spent his playing career trying to outwit them and his coaching career attempting to hone them. “In a couple of years, he'll be the most sought-after central defender in Europe.”
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But what’s proving so special about Süle is that he looks capable of becoming world class in more than one position. A jack of all trades; a master of some. A shapeshifting Mystique perhaps – although let’s not run that one by the big man himself. In any case, Süle’s move into more advanced roles is perhaps unsurprising on learning that as a youth player he was once a centre-forward, a position where touch and technique are stronger prerequisites.
“At 15 going on 16 I was training under Holger Stanislawski for the first time and wanted to make an impression,” Süle reminisced to bundesliga.com about his start with Hoffenheim in 2011. “I nutmegged Sven Schipplock and went on to score a goal. He got quite a ribbing for that from his teammates. That was my first taste of playing with the seniors, and I’ll never forget it.”
It wasn’t always the smoothest journey going from scoring goals to stopping them. “You put in a clean sliding tackle and block a clear scoring chance, and it feels fantastic!” Süle continued. “But I’ve learned a lot from my coaches and Mr. Gisdol [Markus, TSG’s coach post-Stanislawski, pre-Julian Nagelsmann] used to say ‘don’t slide in so often!’ so you think about it and try and change a few things.”
Watch: Süle, a cornerstone of Germany's coming golden generation
Süle has only collected a single yellow card in 1,715 minutes of Bundesliga football this season – proof positive that he no longer goes to ground in a challenge, just as keen to take the man as the ball. His season pass completion is 94 percent. No, you didn’t read that wrong: Ninety. Four. Per. Cent. Over 24 games. Numbers Thiago Alcantara would be proud of.
Turkey tried to steal Süle – thinking his name sounded Turkish when it in fact hails from Hungary – when he was 16, midway through his journey from attacker to defender. They must have suspected what was to come. Fellow stoppers can heave a collective sigh of relief that Süle didn’t stay up front, but for opposition goalscorers – and, increasingly, now midfielders – it’s a very different story. On recent performances, Heynckes needn’t wait too long for Süle to become world class. And for all at Bayern, that would be Marvel-ous.