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."
The 2017/18 season was certainly a major step up for the Frankfurt-born defender, who spent time with Eintracht Frankfurt and Darmstadt as a youngster before breaking through at Hoffenheim under Markus Gisdol and Julian Nagelsmann. He made the perfect start at Bayern – grabbing a goal on his Bundesliga debut against Bayer Leverkusen – and continued to feature on a regular basis after Jupp Heynckes replaced Carlo Ancelotti in the hot seat. Even at just 22, he has worked with some of the best coaches in the business.
"I worked with Julian Nagelsmann for a long time, he really helped me out with tactics," Süle explained. "He is an absolute tactics freak! But that was a huge help in Hoffenheim, for both the team and me personally. Meanwhile, Heynckes really impressed me on a human level; everyone got playing time and there was great team spirit. He often told me that I'm still a long way from being one of the top centre-backs, but that it could happen."
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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."
A first season of highs and lows – a maiden Bundesliga title on one hand, defeat to boyhood club Frankfurt in the DFB Cup final on the other – ought to stand Süle in good stead as he looks to continue his development under new coach Niko Kovac. Ironically, it is the players that he could end up replacing who may play the biggest role in transforming him from a rough defensive diamond into a consistent world-class performer.
"I play at Bayern with both Mats and Jerome," Süle pointed out. "They're world champions and among the best players in the world. Alongside them, I can take the next step in my development – for example, I would love to be able to head the ball like Mats! As a young player, it's also great to see how someone like Arjen Robben works on a daily basis, given everything that he has achieved."
Before thinking about how the 2018/19 season may unfold under Kovac, Süle will be hoping to give Germany coach Joachim Löw some selection headaches in Russia this summer. Bayern's man mountain was named in the provisional 27-man squad in mid-May, and he is confident that he will make the cut when Löw announces his final 23-man list by 4 June.
"To avoid giving a diplomatic answer – yes, I assume that I will be in Russia," Süle asserted. "But I'm fully aware that we have a lot of strong players in my position – Matthias Ginter, Antonio Rüdiger, Jonathan Tah. The coach is spoiled for choice, but ultimately it's his decision and every player in the team will respect it."
Watch: Süle, a cornerstone of Germany's next golden generation
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."
The games certainly don't come any bigger than those at the World Cup. He may only have nine Germany caps to his name, but don't be surprised if you see Süle returning to Russia this summer, hoping to build on his success with Die Mannschaft at the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup. Even Hummels and Boateng may have to watch their backs.