The last couple of years have been Joachim Löw’s most testing during his 15-year-reign as Germany manager. In the build-up to the 2018 World Cup, there were clues Die Mannschaft were nowhere near as strong as the side that lifted the trophy four years earlier in Brazil. However, few expected the embarrassment that unfolded as the holders crashed out in the group stages – their earliest elimination from the tournament in 80 years.
Since then, the focus has been on rejuvenating the national side. The decision to blacklist Jerome Boateng, Mats Hummels and Thomas Müller sent a clear message, and several talented youngsters have been given their maiden call-ups over the past 36 months. The most recent of those to pick up their first cap is Ridle Baku, who continues to go from strength to strength at Wolfsburg.
The 22-year-old’s introduction to Bundesliga football would not have looked out of place in a Hollywood blockbuster. He was on his way to play for Mainz’s reserve team when he was pulled off the team bus at the 11th hour prior to the senior side’s clash with RB Leipzig in 2018. It ended up being a dream debut as Baku scored in Die Karnevalsverein’s 3-0 victory.
That was one of two goals he netted during the 2017/18 campaign. He appeared another 15 times in the German top flight the following term as a central midfielder, but it soon became clear he was more comfortable on the right flank, either at full-back or further up on the wing.
Last season, he established himself as a first-choice starter for Die Nullfünfer, making 31 appearances in all competitions. Baku ranked highly in a number of areas amongst his teammates as Mainz finished in 13th place – good going for an outfit with one of the smallest budgets in the top tier.
Despite his solid displays, some were shocked when Wolfsburg parted with €10 million to capture his services towards the end of the transfer window last summer. That sum put him in the top 20 most-expensive arrivals in Die Wölfe’s history.
Any fears they had overpaid were soon put to bed. He provided an assist on his first start during a 1-1 draw with Borussia Mönchengladbach, and he already had two strikes to his name after just seven appearances despite featuring on the right side of the back four.
A recent tactical change from Oliver Glasner is now getting even more out of Baku and has coincided with Wolfsburg’s best run of the season. Playing in a more advanced role with Kevin Mbabu slotting in behind him, the two have struck up a fantastic partnership which has been a big factor in Wolfsburg’s rise to third in the table. They are now just ten points adrift of league-leaders Bayern.
Just like at Mainz, Baku ranks highly in a number of different statistical aspects for his new club. With five goals and four assists so far, there is still room for improvement, but the speed of which he has settled in at the Volkswagen Arena is impressive. His energy and direct running have been put to good use by Glasner – it would be no surprise to see Löw select him again as he prepares for the European Championships in just a few months.