Established in 2005, the Fritz Walter medal is an award given out to youth footballers in Germany in the U19, U18 and U17 age groups and also to the best youth female player. The annual award has proven to be one of the best measures of footballing talent in the decade or so that it has been in existence. Former winners include Mario Götze (2010), Julian Draxler (2011), Toni Kroos (2008) and Benedikt Höwedes (2007).
In 2016 the gold medal for the U17 age group was awarded to VfL Wolfsburg’s Gian-Luca Itter, a left back who broke through into the first team this season. Itter made his first appearance in the Wolfsburg senior squad the season prior to his Bundesliga debut, in a 1-0 home win against SV Darmstadt 98. Although he didn’t get onto the pitch, it was a sign that Wolfsburg had high hopes that Itter was the long-term successor to Ricardo Rodriguez.
Born in January of 1999, Itter made the move to VfL Wolfsburg from Eintracht Frankfurt at the start of 2015. He won two league titles at youth level, including being part of an unbeaten Wolfsburg U19 team that conceded just 12 goals in 26 matches in the 2016/17 season. As well as being part of a stellar defence, Itter also contributed 10 assists and 3 goals in the 22 matches he was apart of. A sign that he was not only a talented defender, but also a player that could be a danger going forwards.
He received interest from Arsenal and RB Leipzig, a sign that his strong youth level performances weren’t going unnoticed. Itter, along with his twin brother Davide-Jerome, extended his contract with Wolfsburg until 2021 to end fears that he may be persuaded to play elsewhere.
It was no surprise to anyone who follows Wolfsburg closely that he broke through into the first team this season. The timing of his debut, however, against one of the best wingers of this generation, was surely not what the coaching staff had planned.
Despite the daunting task, Itter played all 90 minutes against Bayern Munich, largely keeping Arjen Robben quiet, the Dutchman’s goal coming courtesy of a deflected shot from the opposite side of the pitch to Itter. He helped Wolfsburg win their first point at Bayern since 2001 and Itter received a one rating from BILD post-match, the highest a player can receive. He went on to start in the next two Bundesliga matches, before suffering an untimely injury.
Wolfsburg haven’t had a youth team player break through into the first team since Robin Knoche and Max Arnold, who made their debuts in 2011. Promising young players such as Leandro Putaro, Paul Seguin, Anton Donkor and Jannes Horn all struggled to fulfil their potential thus far. Perhaps the biggest indication that Wolfsburg believe in Itter is that they kept him in the squad this season, when many other players in a similar stage of their career have been loaned out or sold.
Itter still has a long way to go before he can emulate the success of previous Fritz Walter medal winners. He will get the game time he needs at VfL Wolfsburg and will have the freedom of largely being out of the national media spotlight, a luxury that wouldn’t be afforded to him at other Bundesliga clubs.
He will make mistakes, as all young defenders do as the full-back position is a very unforgiving position to play, especially with the quality of wingers in the Bundesliga. However, he has shown that he has massive potential in his short career so far and his performance in the Allianz Arena has proven he can perform on the biggest stage.
In Gian-Luca Itter, Wolfsburg have found their left-back for the next 15 years.
By Thomas Pain.