While a worldwide audience painstakingly analysed Kai Havertz’ performance for Chelsea vs Liverpool on Sunday afternoon, before his hat-trick in the Carabao Cup, another young starlet was lining up in his place at Wolfsburg’s Volkswagen Arena, 750km away from the English capital.
Having experienced his full pre-season with Bayer Leverkusen’s first team, it was no surprise to see head coach Peter Bosz name Florian Wirtz in his starting XI for their league opener at Wolfsburg. A versatile attacking midfielder, he’s able to play both centrally, as well as at either wing position.
The teenager made his first appearance by starting in Die Werkself’s first game back from the enforced break at Werder Bremen during last season’s Bundesliga campaign, becoming the club’s youngest player to debut, as well as the German top-flight’s third-youngest player ever, at the tender age of 17 years and 16 days old.
He would go on to appear in six of the team’s last eight league games of the year and scored his first goal in their 4-2 defeat to Bayern Munich, which made him the youngest goalscorer in the competition’s history. It appears that he’ll continue to play a key role at the BayArena this season, having already started and scored in their recent 7-0 cup victory against Eintracht Norderstedt, as well as playing 85 minutes on Sunday.
Given his exciting potential, Leverkusen have yet to push for a like-for-like replacement for Havertz during this transfer window, with their sporting director Rudi Völler recently quoted as saying: “He has special abilities despite his young age. The way he takes the ball with him by pulling it straight forward is impressive.”
There’s certainly some evidence from last season to suggest that the 17-year-old will eventually be able to take on the same level of responsibilities as his predecessor did for Die Werkself. In terms of won duels, or Zweikämpfe, the youngster beat his marker 16 times per 90 minutes, four more times than the Chelsea starlet. Their pass completion rates are also similar on comparison, with Havertz’s rate of 87.5 percent just ahead of Wirtz’s 82.5 percent.
Yet one shouldn’t expect the same level of production from the teenager this early on. Against Wolfsburg, the midfielder had a big chance to open the scoring but delayed taking a shot on goal, until it was too late, as it was swiftly blocked. While he continued to work tirelessly throughout the game, looking to create for his teammates, he often failed to execute the right final ball, showing he has plenty to learn over the upcoming year.
Nevertheless, Bosz seems to have a lot of trust in the young German, who’s a strong dribbler of the ball that also makes intelligent runs in the final third. He already boasts a superb range of passing and is certainly capable of scoring from any distance. Another aspect of his performance on Sunday that will be particularly be of great encouragement, was his three tackles during the game, which was more than any of his teammates.
The player has also attracted plenty of attention nationally too, having recently been awarded the gold Fritz-Walter Medal in the Under-17 Men’s category, emphasising how he’s viewed as one of Germany’s top young talents. Stefan Kuntz has already awarded him a call-up to the German under-21 side, and you can expect him to rapidly progress to the senior team if he continues to quickly develop as the Bundesliga season goes on.
Born and raised in the town of Brauweiler, Wirtz joined FC Köln at the age of ten. Having quickly navigated his way through his local club’s ranks, he would soon gain local attention, with the Kölner Express newspaper calling him “the best midfielder to come through the club in 30 years”.
Having helped Effzeh’s under-17 outfit win the U17-Bundesliga Endrunde Championship in 2019, the midfielder drew plenty of interest from some of the country’s best teams, including Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, as well as the Premier League’s Liverpool.
After starting the following season by scoring eight goals in ten Under-17 appearances, Leverkusen quickly moved to sign him in January, reuniting him with his oldest sister Juliane, who is currently a regular part of the women’s side. Explaining the move, the club’s head of youth Simon Rolfes said: “I knew a lot of clubs were interested and then we thought that before he went anywhere else, let’s try to get him to join us and stay at home. I’ve known the player since he was 14.”
Months later, he found himself at the Weserstadion lining up for his first-team debut and he’s since quickly established himself as an exciting part of Die Werkself’s future. When asked about his potential, Jörg Jakobs, Köln’s academy director, recently stated: “Flo can do everything. If he stays fit, he’s at least in the same category as Havertz.”
While it’ll take time for him to grow and develop into his predecessor’s giant footsteps, Leverkusen may have found the right man in Wirtz to continue leading them to great heights.