Schalke sensation Leon Goretzka: so much more than "the next Michael Ballack"
In the form of his young life this season, Leon Goretzka has shaken off early-career comparisons with Michael Ballack to become a world-beating midfielder in his own right after making is 100th Bundesliga appearance in this season's Revierderby classic.
The 22-year-old has scored four times for resurgent Schalke so far this season and has six goals for Germany in 2017 alone. Only injuries, such as the lower leg problem that sidelined him from Matchday's 10 to 12, have prevented him from making the leap from prodigy to perfection sooner.
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"I have never seen an 18-year-old who has so much class and desire. The boy will be one of the world's best!" professed Bochum sporting director Jens Todt of Goretzka some four years ago. "He is a once-in-a-century talent!," added a similarly effusive VfL head coach, Peter Neururer - and who better to judge?
Goretzka had waltzed his way through the Bochum ranks, joining the club at just six and making his first-team debut in Bundesliga 2, aged 17. His four goals and five assists had a big say in their bid to beat relegation in 2012/13, prompting interest stretching from Germany's Ruhr district, as far south as northern Italy and all the way across the European mainland to England.
The financial clout of the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal and Juventus, however, could never compare to the career-propelling riches of a club like Schalke - springboard for the likes of Julian Draxler, Max Meyer and Mesut Özil to name but a few.
"A lot of clubs wanted him, but he saw the biggest opportunity to develop his career with us," revealed then Schalke sporting director Horst Heldt, after Goretzka elected to join German football's self-styled football 'talent mine' in summer 2013. "We're absolutely thrilled."
A wise head on young shoulders, the 2012 Under-17 Gold Fritz Walter Medal winner was duly rewarded with a regular starting berth (25 Bundesliga appearances, four goals and one assist in 2013/14). The Schalke newcomer made his full international debut in a goalless draw with Poland in May 2014 - and was even included in Germany's provisional 30-man squad for the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
Seemingly on a one-way ticket to the top, Goretzka's progress was stalled by a muscle bundle injury, which kept him sidelined for 220 days between July 2014 and March 2015. A number of minor setbacks plagued his eventual return, before a change in diet set the midfield ace back on the path to fitness, form and regular first-team football.
"I completely changed what I eat," Goretzka told German sports magazine 11 Freunde earlier this year. "I was diagnosed with a chronic bowel inflammation, which had been having a negative impact on my ability to recover from games. It was caused by different foods. I've stopped eating gluten, cow’s milk, pork and nuts. As a result, I have fewer issues with my health and can recover from a game much quicker."
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It might just prove to be the best advice Goretzka ever received. Flourishing in a more advanced midfield role, Goretzka played in 30 of Schalke's 34 league games in 2016/17, earning favourable comparisons with Ballack, Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard and Bayern Munich legend Lothar Matthäus along the way.
A call-up to Joachim Löw's experimental 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup squad offered him the chance to showcase his talents at international level, and he seized the opportunity with both hands, scoring a joint-tournament-high three goals as Die Mannschaft won the competition for the first time. It has been a case of onwards and upwards ever since.
With a further three goals in FIFA 2018 World Cup qualifying and four in 11 Bundesliga matches so far in 2017/18, Goretzka has never had it so good. Yes, his style - a marriage of gazelle-like attacking bursts and no-nonsense defensive efforts - has the hallmarks of Ballack, but Goretzka is in a league of his own.