Could Bayern Munich and Germany defender Niklas Süle be the man to break up the World Cup-winning partnership of Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng at the heart of the Bavarians' defence? The 22-year-old – who's confident of featuring at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia – certainly crashed Bayern's centre-back party in his debut season.
It was a whirlwind campaign for Süle, who joined Bayern from Hoffenheim in the summer of 2017 and was realistically expected to play third fiddle to the highly experienced duo of Hummels and Boateng. Not a bit of it, as it turned out.
In the end, he made 42 appearances in all competitions for the record champions in 2017/18, compared to 41 for Hummels and 31 for Boateng. Only four players – Robert Lewandowski, Joshua Kimmich, Sven Ulreich and Thomas Müller – played more games than the hulking 6'4" centre-back, who is well on his way to becoming one of the world's best in his position.
"I've had a really good year, it definitely exceeded my own expectations," Süle admitted in an interview with SPORT1. "Even when everyone was fit, I played. That's why I'm feeling so good."
There have been some useful lessons during his breakout season under the spotlight. The Süle who began September's 3-0 defeat to Paris Saint-Germain in the UEFA Champions League group stage had little in common with the Süle who shut down Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo in the competition's semi-final second leg, even if Bayern were ultimately knocked out by the eventual winners. Despite the growing hype, the man himself is determined to keep both of his plus-sized feet on the ground.
"I played well against Real, and had some good moments," said Süle, who produced a monster block in the closing stages to deny the five-time Ballon d'Or winner. "Ronaldo is quick, but perhaps not as quick as he was four or five years ago. Then again, three days later I played against Cologne's Simon Terodde and had a really poor game, because I was exhausted and disappointed. When you're at Bayern, you have to deliver every week."
Whether he has an opportunity to showcase his abilities at the World Cup or not, there is no doubt that the ambitious Süle – who describes himself as the "worst loser" in the Bayern dressing room – is aiming for the very top. When he is not challenging his teammates to a game of Mario Kart or defying Müller on the golf course, the former Hoffenheim man is working hard on maintaining his fitness and improving his diet.
"I changed my diet and realised that I felt much better," he admitted. "But I could still do a lot more in terms of nutrition, which has always been an important topic for my coaches. At the same time, I'm the only player who didn't miss a single training session this season, so I must have been doing something right.
"My dad told me I'd play a lot during my first Bayern season, and I said, 'slow down dad!' But I worked hard for it, I earned it, and I had that little bit of good fortune that you need. I think the pressure is a good thing. Professional football players thrive on it, especially in the big games."