Hamburg's Japanese winger Tatsuya Ito saw off stiff competition from Wolfsburg full-back William, Bayer Leverkusen's defensive all-rounder Panagiotis Retsos to be voted winner of the Bundesliga Rookie Award by TAG Heuer for April. Get the lowdown on the candidates below...
Tatsuya Ito (Hamburg)
Standing at just 5ft 3in tall, Tatsuya Ito is indeed the smallest player in the Bundesliga. But when it comes to dribbling skill, he is without doubt one of the best. "If you play against him and he gets into his dribbling flow, then it’s not easy for the opponent to defend," enthuses his coach Christian Titz. In most cases, Ito, when attacking from his preferred left-wing position, he can only be fouled. Every 37 minutes he has been brought down – the most often of any Hamburg play. In September, the 20-year-old made his debut for HSV, having caused a stir in the reserve-team in the Regionalliga (fourth division) at the beginning of the season. But the first time in the Bundesliga was unsteady. In the middle of the relegation battle former coach Bernd Hollerbach was no longer on the look-out for the next big talent and put him back in the second team. Only under Christian Titz has Ito moved back into the starting line-up and has now become one of the first names on the Dinosaurs’ team-sheet.
In April, Ito started every game for Hamburg and produced one of his best performances of the season against Wolfsburg. Providing the assist for Lewis Holtby’s goal before winning a late penalty to secure the win. While he was sometimes criticised in the first half of the season for his lack of strength, he has now clearly been working on his stature: He now wins over 50 percent of his duels, was on the pitch for at least 85 minutes in each game last month. But now the little whirlwind has arrived in the Bundesliga and with his entertaining style of play that you just can’t take your eyes off, he’s making himself a late consideration for the Japanese squad at the upcoming World Cup in Russia.
It took a while for William to arrive in the Bundesliga. The Brazilian first became known to a wider audience at the 2016 Olympics, when he won the gold medal in his home country alongside Neymar, beating Germany in the final. In the first half of this season, the versatile full-back was often in and out of the squad. Only when Martin Schmidt put him on the left side of defence, due to lack of personnel, did the 23-year-old find himself - and has since played only in this position: "I don’t care which side I play in. I want to help the team to reach our goals," said William.
And the goal this season at Wolfsburg is clearly to remain in the league. Bruno Labbadia trusts in the qualities of his full-back, who thinks much more offensively than Paul Verhaegh, his counterpart on the other side. William brings a rapid top speed with just under 21 miles per hour and, for a defender, wins an unusually high amount of dribbling duels in attack. In April, he also averaged more than three crosses per game, and showed his abilities going backwards with a tackle ratio of 56 per cent.
Panagiotis Retsos (Bayer Leverkusen)
When you watch Panagiotis Retsos playing, it’s hard to believe that the Greek defender is only 19-years-old. The versatile defensive specialist for Bayer Leverkusen cuts a figure on the pitch that is mature. What’s especially exceptional for a player at his age is his level of flexibility. Retsos can play as right, left or centre-back and of course be part of Leverkusen’s ever-more-frequent three-man defence. The fact that he defied expectations to become a regular first-team player that even those at Leverkusen would not necessarily have thought possible before the start of the season: "Panagiotis is a young professional with special attributes that fit perfectly to our requirements," Rudi Völler said about his commitment.
This future has come slightly earlier than many expected. At the same time, Retsos brings with him a lot of experience despite being only 19. In Greece, he was a regular with Olympiakos, and even wore the captain’s armband at just 18. And his experience in the Champions League and the Europa League should also benefit the Leverkusen team in the coming season. In April, Retsos shined as a regular player of the Werkself, with 55 percent won duels, a strong playing structure (on average 73 touches per game) and an extremely low rate of missed pace, with only eleven percent.