Köln’s clash against Schalke at the end of January was huge for both sides. Lying bottom of the table with just seven points, the latter desperately needed a victory to ignite any hopes of survival. A win would have brought them within two points of then 16th-placed Köln, who themselves were in a precarious position in the relegation play-off spot.
For the majority of the 90 minutes, Schalke were the better side. Enjoying 63% possession and managing seven shots on target to their opponents’ three, Die Königsblauen looked galvanised after ending their 30-match winless streak against Hoffenheim two games prior. They looked far more likely to snatch a winner as the score remained 1-1 in the final few minutes.
Köln needed a hero – step forward Jan Thielmann. The 18-year-old had only been on the pitch for a matter of minutes when he smashed the ball past Ralf Fährmann to earn his side a vital triumph.
Now on 21 points and currently sitting 14th, Köln can breathe a little easier, further illustrating just how important Thielmann’s strike was. It was the latest impressive moment in the fledgling career of the youngster.
Thielmann’s rise to the first-team will come as no surprise to those who followed the teenager’s performances for Köln’s youth sides. 24 goals in 43 matches for Die Geißböcke’s U17s helped his side win the nation title at that age group, and that was followed by six strikes in 15 games for the U19s.
Youth-team football, though, is a world away from the professional game, and it was a shock to see him named in the starting XI for the first time against local rivals Bayer Leverkusen in December 2019. Up until that point, Köln had won just two of their opening 14 matches during the 2019/20 Bundesliga campaign and had lost five of their last six.
When Köln beat Die Werkself 2-0, though, Markus Gisdol’s faith in Thielmann proved to be well-founded. His pace caused Leverkusen all sorts of problems for the 56 minutes in which he played. As Köln went on to win their next three games, the then 17-year-old was included in the starting line-up on each occasion. He was also offered his first professional contract in January 2020 as the club attempted to avoid losing him as they did Florian Wirtz to Leverkusen. Sporting director Horst Heldt explained upon the signature: “We believe that he’ll establish himself at the top level in the long term.”
Gisdol, clearly not willing to over-use his wunderkind, deployed him intermittently throughout the rest of the term. That winning run, though, went a long way to keeping Köln amongst the elite – Thielmann had more than played his part.
This term, he has grown into a more prominent figure in the first-team squad. He started the first two Bundesliga matches against Hoffenheim and Bielefeld, and has been included in the first XI on a further seven occasions. The strike against Schalke was his second of the season – his first helped Köln earn a 2-2 draw with Wolfsburg, who are currently third in the table behind only Bayern and RB Leipzig.
Former Köln manager Achim Beierlorzer described him as a player who “covers a lot of ground, has desire, has everything.” These are attributes Thielmann has continued to demonstrate under Gisdol. As the Bundesliga returned following the outbreak of the coronavirus and the subsequent suspension of the league, the winger was clocked at an impressive 33.5 km/h, putting him amongst the quickest players in the division.
Thielmann clearly has a big future ahead of him. While Köln remain towards the wrong end of the table, there will still be plenty of chances for him to show why there is so much belief in his ability. A couple more goals like the one against Schalke will only enhance his reputation.