Schalke's Leon Goretzka comes of age in Russia
Germany have been stealing the show at the FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia, and nobody has typified their unanticipated brilliance better than Schalke midfielder Leon Goretzka. Having inspired Die Mannschaft to a 4-1 semi-final victory over Mexico, the 22-year-old has the potential to become the beating heart of Joachim Löw's star-studded next generation.
Seven minutes and five seconds. That was all it took for Goretzka and Germany to all but guarantee their place in Confederations Cup final on Thursday, having carved open the Mexico defence twice in the space of two minutes. It wasn't quite on the same scale as the incredible semi-final dismantling of Brazil at the 2014 FIFA World Cup, but nevertheless showed the extent to which ruthless efficiency has become an integral part of German footballing DNA.
The opener was as simple as it was brilliantly executed. Goretzka picked up possession in the centre circle and fed it wide to Bayer Leverkusen right-back Benjamin Henrichs. At 20, Henrichs is the youngest of Löw's formidable collection of young guns, who – in spite of an average age of under 25 – have taken Russia 2017 by storm.
Such was the exquisite weighting of the pass, Henrichs wasn't even required to take a touch before sliding it back to Goretzka on the edge of the area. The 22-year-old knew exactly where it was going and hit it first time, with such composure and conviction that he was already running off in celebration before the ball crept past the outstretched hand of Guillermo Ochoa and into the net.
Barely a minute after the restart, RB Leipzig forward Timo Werner picked up possession inside the Mexico half. When the ball came in to Werner's feet, Goretzka was still behind the half-way line. Six seconds later, he had surged forward and ghosted in behind Mexico captain Hector Moreno to latch onto another perfectly weighted pass. A second ice-cool finish and it was 2-0 Germany, after seven minutes and five seconds. Game over.
The world champions went on to win 4-1, setting up a mouth-watering clash with two-time Copa America champions Chile in Sunday's final. How fitting that Löw's relatively untested charges will now go up against the hugely experienced Bayern Munich midfielder Arturo Vidal, whose World Cup-winning teammates (Manuel Neuer, Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng and Thomas Müller) were all left at home as Löw looked to bed in his next generation of stars.
Goretzka has emerged as the figurehead of the new-look Mannschaft, and those seven minutes and five seconds could prove hugely significant for the development of his career. With his man-of-the-match performance against Mexico, the Schalke midfielder announced himself on the world stage, and staked his claim for a place in Löw's team when Germany return to Russia to defend their World Cup title next summer.
"I was really happy to help the team with two goals tonight," he admitted after his Mexico heroics. "After getting through the group stage our objective was to reach the final, and we've done that convincingly. Now we want to win the title and reward ourselves for our performances so far."
One man who must have allowed himself a quiet chuckle after Goretzka's superb performance in Sochi is his former head coach, Peter Neururer, who famously described the 17-year-old as a "once-in-a-century" talent during his breakout season with boyhood club Bochum in 2012/13.
Neururer's assessment may have been pushing it, but with four goals and five assists, Goretzka was certainly Bochum's standout performer as they narrowly avoided relegation from Bundesliga 2. Touted as the next Michael Ballack, the boy wonder was linked with high-profile moves to Manchester United, Juventus and Arsenal, but ultimately chose to hone his skills in the Bundesliga with Schalke.
"We're absolutely delighted that Leon Goretzka, another colossal talent along with Max Meyer, has chosen to join Schalke," said then general manager Horst Heldt, now sporting director at promoted Hannover. "Leon is one of the most talented players in Germany, with huge potential. A lot of clubs wanted him, but he saw the biggest opportunity to develop as a player here with us."
Watch: Goretzka netted a stunning goal against Hertha Berlin in 2016/17
The stage seemed perfectly set for Goretzka after a promising first season with the Royal Blues. He featured in 25 Bundesliga games, became a regular starter in the second half of the campaign and chipped in with four goals and one assist. Schalke went on to finish third behind champions Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, qualifying directly for the UEFA Champions League group stage.
Goretzka's performances during that 2013/14 Rückrunde even earned him a first call-up to the national squad, and he made his debut in a friendly with Poland on 13 May 2014. He was also included in Löw's provisional 30-man squad for the World Cup in Brazil, but narrowly failed to make the cut as Germany went on to be crowned world champions for the fourth time.
That summer, however, Goretzka's progress was halted as he sustained a thigh injury in a pre-season friendly, which kept him on the sidelines until March 2015. He returned in the Matchday 24 win over Hoffenheim, but only made 10 Bundesliga appearances as Schalke finished sixth in the table.
He was back to full fitness by the start of 2015/16, operating as a defensive midfielder alongside Johannes Geis in Andre Breitenreiter's 4-2-3-1. It was another season of mixed fortunes: the Royal Blues got off to a fine start with six wins in nine, but a frustrated Goretzka once again found himself hampered by injury problems during the latter part of the campaign. In a potentially career-defining move, he sought help from a dietary specialist to get to the root of his fitness issues.
"I was diagnosed with a chronic bowel inflammation, which had been having a negative impact on my ability to recover," he explained to German sports magazine 11 Freunde. "So I completely changed what I eat, cutting out gluten, cow's milk, pork and nuts. As a result, I have fewer issues with my health and I can recover from a game much quicker."
The result, in 2016/17, was the best season of Goretzka's career to date – although ironically it would prove to be the worst in recent memory for Schalke, who finished a disappointing 10th under Markus Weinzierl. Goretzka flourished in a more attacking role, notching up eight goals and four assists in all competitions and earning further comparisons to some of the game's former greats, including Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard and West Germany's 1990 World Cup-winning captain Lothar Matthäus.
"Goretzka is a box-to-box player with a good shot on him, and he's always there when you need him," Matthäus himself said earlier this year, when discussing potential targets for his former club Bayern Munich in Sport Bild. "He's young, German, and has potential to develop. I was the same kind of player. I liked to help out in my own penalty area, win the ball back and take it forward."
The Confederations Cup has certainly given Goretzka licence to showcase his versatility. In Germany's Group B opener, he won the penalty that allowed Julian Draxler to put the world champions 2-1 up against Australia, before getting on the scoresheet himself early in the second half. Relatively tall for a central midfielder (1.89m), the 22-year-old almost seems to glide through the middle of the park, and as he showed against Mexico, his finishing is second to none.
"I think he can be a number 8 or a number 6, he can do both roles," admitted Löw, who described Goretzka as "Germany's future" when dropping him from the World Cup squad in 2014. "His quality is that he can run longer distances. His ability to run so far and so powerfully sets him apart from the rest. It is his great strength."
While Goretzka is undoubtedly blessed with talent, he will need to step things up a gear during the 2017/18 season if he hopes to feature in Germany's midfield at the 2018 World Cup. To say Löw has an embarrassment of riches at his disposal is almost understating it, with a veritable galaxy of stars vying for a starting berth: Toni Kroos, Sami Khedira, Ilkay Gündogan, Julian Weigl, Mesut Özil, Mario Götze, Marco Reus, Andre Schürrle, Emre Can... the list goes on and on.
One important question to be addressed when Goretzka returns from Russia is whether he will stay on with Schalke – where his contract expires in the summer of 2018 – or seek pastures new. The freshly appointed Royal Blues boss Domenico Tedesco is certainly counting on his star man for the coming campaign.
"It's important that Leon Goretzka goes through the fire at Schalke," the 31-year-old said this week. "He has the potential to become an icon for this club. I'm certainly planning for him to play a major role, because it's my job to get the squad organised and ready for next season."
Goretzka has – perhaps inevitably – also been linked with record champions Bayern, but may feel his interests will be better served if he stays at the VELTINS Arena, where he is guaranteed a starting place. On the other hand, argues Germany team manager Oliver Bierhoff, on current form it would be hard to imagine any team leaving him on the bench.
Watch: A Rolls Royce in top gear!
"His play is mind-boggling at times, and his understanding of the game is frighteningly good," admitted the UEFA EURO 1996 winner. "Schalke or Bayern? It's a tough decision. But then again, Leon has so much quality that perhaps it isn't so tough after all."
Whether Goretzka decides to stick or twist, there is no doubt that his performances will come in for greater scrutiny in the wake his Confederations Cup exploits, especially if Germany go on to lift the trophy against Chile on Sunday. From the teenage wonderkid who didn't quite live up to his potential, the Schalke midfielder has emerged as one of his country's brightest prospects for the future. How quickly things can change – even in just seven minutes and five seconds.