The struggles of Borussia Dortmund, Borussia Mönchengladbach and Bayer Leverkusen this season have been well-documented. All three had eyes on the Champions League at the start of the campaign, yet none of them are particularly close to getting there.
However, their issues have allowed others to take advantage. Wolfsburg currently sit in third place in the Bundesliga, but they should be regular competitors in Europe’s premier club tournament given their backing from Volkswagen. Eintracht Frankfurt, though, have muscled their way into the top four despite their more modest means and, with a four-point buffer over fifth-placed Dortmund, they have a real opportunity to qualify for the Champions League for the first time.
The success of Adi Hütter’s side has been driven mainly by Andre Silva, who has 21 goals in 24 league matches this season, and the ever-menacing Filip Kostic. Beyond that duo, though, several players have helped make the Eagles a force to be reckoned with, such as Morocco international Aymen Barkok.
The attacking midfielder has had a stop-start career at Frankfurt. His debut – and maiden goal – came during the 2016/17 campaign against Werder Bremen, and he would go on to make a further 18 Bundesliga appearances that season. However, just nine outings would come the following term, and one of Hütter’s first decisions as manager after replacing Niko Kovac in 2018 was to send Barkok out on loan to Fortuna Düsseldorf.
Rather than aid his development, that move appeared to stunt the 22-year-old’s progress. In 24 months, he played just 15 times in the Bundesliga for Die Rheinländer even as they fought against relegation – a battle they eventually lost. Injuries proved to be his biggest obstacles – he struggled with an acromioclavicular separation early on last season and would later even require surgery. His biggest impact at Düsseldorf came for their second team as he scored four times in six outings in the fourth tier.
With Daichi Kamada and loanee Amin Younes to contend with in his position, there appeared to be little hope of Barkok forcing his way into Frankfurt’s plans upon his return last summer. However, while he has not always found a place in the starting XI, he has been an important member of Hütter’s squad, popping up with some valuable contributions. He provided two assists as Frankfurt picked up a 2-2 draw at Stuttgart, while his goal earned a point against title-chasers RB Leipzig. Another strike and an assist in a 3-3 draw with Gladbach underlined Barkok’s ability to perform on the big occasions.
This term has not been without its problems – he tested positive for coronavirus in November and has suffered acutely from a back issue – but this has been Barkok’s true breakout season. Importantly, he has linked up well with the likes of Kamada, Younes, Silva and Luka Jovic, while his ability to also play in central midfield or on the right flank allows Hütter to keep his side flexible, which has been one of their greatest strengths.
Barkok is unusually tall for a number 10, standing at 188cm. However, his height does not obstruct his close control and ability on the ball. Not only is he impressive in possession, he also does not neglect his defensive responsibilities. Against Union Berlin prior to the international break, for example, no Frankfurt player won more than his 11 duels.
Interest from Sevilla has emerged recently, and Barkok has admitted to being flattered by their pursuit. As it stands, though, there is no need for him to seek pastures new. After the international break, Frankfurt will embark on a crucial run of fixtures with Dortmund, Wolfsburg, Gladbach and Leverkusen all to come in the next five matches. Get through those games unscathed, and they will be within touching distance of the Champions League. On that stage, Barkok’s emerging abilities will reach a wider audience.