If somebody had said at the start of the season that Schalke's Max Meyer would be the player to inherit recently retired Bayern Munich star Xabi Alonso’s title as the best deep-lying playmaker in the Bundesliga, they might have been laughed out of the room.
Borussia Dortmund’s Julian Weigl was an obvious heir; the Schwarzgelbe midfield anchor who completed 90 percent of his passes as his side finished third behind Alonso’s Bayern and RB Leipzig. Back in Bavaria, Arturo Vidal and Thiago Alcantara were also accustomed to operating in a deeper role, and with some aplomb.
Across the Revierderby divide, meanwhile, Meyer had struggled to live up to his previous Wunderkind billing. First capped by Germany in 2014 at the age of 18 – as an attacking midfielder – recent seasons had been less kind to the Schalke academy graduate.
Meyer only completed 90 minutes nine times under Domenico Tedesco’s predecessor at the Veltins Arena, Markus Weinzierl, and he found himself frozen out of the new coach’s first two starting line-ups this term. When Meyer’s first start did roll around – a 3-1 win over VfB Stuttgart on Matchday 3 - it was as a false 9. The team thrived, but Meyer couldn’t claim a direct hand in any of Nabil Bentaleb’s, Naldo’s or Guido Burgstaller’s goals.
Meyer soon found himself missing out on matchday squads altogether, but Tedesco had a change of heart at the end of September. “When the reaction is like Max's, you think as a coach and say to yourself, 'Man, I have to reward him,’” he said at the time. “‘It can’t be that he runs four or five miles in training and then misses the games.’ Then, as a coach, you’re forced to be creative.”
Watch: How Tedesco has rejuvinated Meyer (from 01:07)
It’s not for nothing that Tedesco is regarded as one of the brightest young touchline prodigies in the game; and what seems so obvious now was evidently apparent only to the 32-year-old at the time: Meyer didn’t have the turn of pace to beat his marker one-on-one frequently enough in the final third; his diminutive 5’8” stature belied a grit worthy of the Ruhr Valley region in which it was honed; and Meyer might in fact be the man to play the “pass before the pass”.
That prescience has been richly rewarded. Meyer’s first assignment at No.6 – German footballing parlance for the deeper of three central midfielders – was a 2-0 loss at Hoffenheim, but he has gone on to start more games than any other Schalke midfielder bar Amine Harit.
Operating behind the Moroccan – or Leon Goretzka when he’s been fit – Meyer has completed 93 percent of his passes, a league high. Where Alonso might have had Vidal winning the ball back for him, Meyer wins it back all on his own. Now 22, he has covered almost eight miles per game, winning nearly half of his challenges despite his supposed physical disadvantages.
From forgotten prodigy to indispensable team member, Meyer now has in Tedesco one of his biggest fans. “It would be tough to swallow,” he said on the prospect of his rejuvenated player, out of contract in the summer, leaving. “I don’t believe he’s ever played as well as he currently is. He now has a position where he can play to his strengths.”
Meyer hasn’t pulled on the white of Germany since November 2016, but having been reinvented as the best deep-lying playmaker in the league, against all odds, there is set to be a clamour for Meyer’s services from all corners given his ability to start play when seemingly boxed into one.