"After the Game Is Before the Game": The Bundesliga's Rising Stars
After saving VfL Wolfsburg from relegation, can Mario Mandzukic become the next Edin Dzeko
The results are all in regarding the 2010/2011 German playing season, with legendary Borussia Mönchengladbach and their miracle working head coach, Lucien Favre, fending off the spirited attack by VfL Bochum in the relegation playoffs to retain their place in the next Bundesliga. Only Hertha BSC Berlin and newcomer FC Augsburg will join the first division next season, taking the places of FC St. Pauli and Eintracht Frankfurt—with the latter coming as a bit of a shock after Eintracht's inexplicable meltdown in the second half of the season.
This, despite the appointment of saviour Christoph Daum—who is usually associated with success thanks to his exceptional motivational skills. Alas, not even his trademark positivist reprogramming could save the helplessly falling "Eagles" from relegation.
With the trainer carousel turning at full speed, there was no lack of drama and sometimes even outright hype surrounding last season's action on the field.
Yet tremendous performances by the players were certainly not missing either—much to the delight of the almost 13 million spectators who flocked to the games at the 18 Bundesliga stadiums.
Happily, in a season of surprises, not only established stars stood out.
Of course, Arjen Robben, Franck Ribéry, Arturo Vidal, Lucas Barrios, Jefferson Farfán, Thomas Müller and Mario Gomez all dazzled and proved their exceptional value, letting fans in Germany forget the departure of Mesut Özil, Edin Dzeko and Sami Khedira for other leagues.
Unheralded players like Shinji Kagawa and José Manuel Jurado stepped into the limelight, joining newly signed but already established stars like Raúl Gonzalez Blanco or Simon Kjaer, again showcasing the growing quality of play this breathtakingly competitive European football league has attained.
So, while we're still warm with excitement from the past season, let's have a look at a few other breakout athletes—still little known internationally, but especially promising—who intend to make an impact for their teams when play resumes after the summer break.
Rookie of the Year: Mario Götze, Borussia Dortmund
Amassing 15 assists, third most in the Bundesliga, and adding six goals in a rookie season as an 18-year-old is quite a feat. And, if the experts prove right, this was just a beginning for Mario Götze, the Dortmund native, whom many are nicknaming the "German Messi" after his spectacular performance for the German champions.
Playing in right midfield, his explosive charges toward goal paired with his excellent ball control and passing accuracy became a trademark for Jürgen Klopps' enthusiastic attacking game.
Of course, it helps when you are flanking to Lucas Barrios, laying in the ball for Shinji Kagawa and running with Kevin Grosskreutz or Marcel Schmelzer, but young Mario Götze proved his considerable individual value for his team after the Japanese wonder was injured, missing the latter part of the season.
This has already earned young Götze several calls to National A-Team duty, putting him in famous company with the legends of German football, Franz Beckenbauer and Lothar Matthäus, as one of the youngest players to reach the men's team.
Ready for the Big Stage: Mats Hummels, Borussia Dortmund
Yet another Bayern München cadet, fullback Mats Hummels (22) was sold to Borussia Dortmund for a lofty 4,2 million Euros at the beginning of the 2009-2010 season, where he has formed the Bundesliga's most solid inner defense together with Neven Subotic, who is also just 22 years old.
I have added the newly nominated German International to this slideshow, not because he is a complete unknown, but because he still has room to mature into a truly world-class player in his third season under Jürgen Klopp.
Playing a prominent role already on Germany's successful U-21 national team of 2009 with Sami Khedira and Mesut Özil, it cannot be claimed that Hummels is an inexperienced nobody. But last season saw him break into the limelight through consistently good defensive play, which has earned him a spot on Jogi Löw's men's team recently.
Hummels, standing 1,92 m tall and weighing in at a compact 89 kg, is not only an impressive defender especially against corners and flanks intended for the heads of his opponents—he has also shown elegant ball control and great pass accuracy, which has made him an essential element in Dortmund's swift game-opening tactic, posing serious problems for the league's more established clubs all along the season..
Possibly, Mats Hummels is the next closest thing to legendary Franz Beckenbauer that Germany has nurtured since Matthias Sammer—which has many people now wondering what exactly Bayern was thinking when they agreed to let him move to the Ruhrgebiet.
I wouldn't be at all surprised if he were already on José Mourinho's short-list.
Coming of Age: Christian Tiffert, 1.FC Kaiserslautern
It might seem surprising to put Christian Tiffert (29) into a slideshow on upcoming talents, yet the deep playing midfielder of 1. FC Kaiserslautern had a breakthrough season in the Bundesliga—tying Franck Ribéry for the Bundesliga assists record with 17 preparations for goals.
His unbending nature and dogged defensive play turned the recruit from second division MSV Duisburg into the backbone and team leader of newly promoted Kaiserslautern, landing the traditional Bundesliga side in seventh position—a result nobody expected when the season kicked off.
Blooming relatively late in his career which started promisingly with VfB Stuttgart, he can be expected to maintain his high level of play in 2011-2012.
André Schürrle, Taking His Art from Mainz 05 to Bayer Leverkusen
Thomas Tuchel's FSV Mainz 05 accompany Hannover 96 to next year's Euro-League play, in large part thanks to the tireless running and sniper-like shooting precision of André Schürrle (20), who contributed 15 goals to their sensational run, shocking the competition, especially in the first half of the season.
Unfortunately for Mainz, the leader of Germany's junior champions of 2009 ( coached by Tuchel and taking the title against Borussia Dortmund's youngsters) will no longer be with his home club. Bayer Leverkusen didn't hesitate to sign the speedy, newly nominated German International striker, even when it became clear that his amazing right foot had a price tag of eight million Euros attached.
Able to play either left or right wing, his excellent shooting technique and dynamic forward presence have led to comparisons with the young Jürgen Klinsmann, also a native of this Southwestern region.It is quite possible that Schürrle will be a fixture on Germany's National team when the Euro 2012 begins.
The Boy Who Saved Bonhof: Marco Reus, Borussia Mönchengladbach
It was just over an hour into the decisive return leg of the relegation playoff series between Borussia Mönchengladbach and VfL Bochum, with Germany's legendary 1970's serial champions from the Lower Rhine trailing 0:1, when the sell out crowd at the Ruhr Stadion started believing that unlikely Bochum— the Bundesliga's eternal "grey mouse"—could destroy the remarkable comeback Lucien Favre had orchestrated for Gladbach since he took over the virtually "dead" Colts, hopelessly locked in last place for most of the season.
The next goal would decide if winning 25 points in 11 games could still save the traditional team sporting two achievement stars on it's chest from relegation.
Then, Marco Reus (21) accelerated up the middle, sprinting past Bochum's defenders as if they were fence-posts—controlled a well timed cross from his teammate De Camargo—and casually netted the equalizer past Bochum's impeccable keeper Andreas Luthe. The crowd fell silent.
In the process, the promising right-winger had crushed a 'palace revolt' against Rainer Bonhof and Max Eberl—responsible for Gladbachs fortunes—which had found the backing of former Gladbach greats, Stefan Effenberg, Berti Vogts and Horst Köppel—all eager to reform their club and reinvigorate the one time giants of the early Bundesliga years.
Yet to Marco Reus, the goal was just business as usual. Exploiting his phenomenal speed paired with superb ball-control, his willingness to go one-on-one and his vicious goals often made the difference and have set him up firmly to be Mönchengladbach's next expensive export, after Markus Marin, Marcel Jansen, Stefan Effenberg and, oh yes, the ever-present Lothar Matthäus.
Back to the Future: Lewis Holtby, Schalke 04
Jamie McDonald/Getty Images
Coming off a remarkable season on loan to Mainz 05 after being exiled from Schalke 04 by former coach Felix Magath for his lack of defensive discipline, dual British and German national Lewis Holtby (20) will return to Gelsenkirchen, the team that purchased the promising central and/or left midfielder for three million Euros from Alemannia Aachen in 2009.
Ralf Rangnick can be happy that Mainz's youthful coach, Thomas Tuchel, rebuilt the confidence of the technically well-trained, creative and dangerous offensive talent, whom many observers consider a worthy successor to legendary Thomas Hässler—eventually as a playmaker for Germany's 2014 World Cup campaign.
Filling the Gap: Zoltán Stieber Will Mature at Mainz 05
Hungarian Zoltán Stieber will take his art to Mainz 05.
Paul Gilham/Getty Images
With Lewis Holtby leaving merry Mainz, management probably thought it a safe bet to look for his replacement where the British-German had initially started his career, so they directly scouted TSV Alemannia Aachen, instead of passing through Schalke 04.
Hungarian born Zoltán Stieber, the 23-year-old left wing sensation who had taken Holtby's position on the left in Aachen, surprised most pundits by becoming a highly efficient scorer and passer in Germany's second division last season after two years with TUS Koblenz, where he passed almost unnoticed.
His high-speed dribble and precision passing skills, paired with his outstanding free kicks and long range shots, raised brows not only at the famous Tivoli, but also impressed scouts from a number of Bundesliga teams in need of offensive reinforcement for the new season.
Facing the loss of their two key playmakers, head-coach Thomas Tuchel and manager Christian Heidel were quick to sign Stieber for 1. FSV Mainz 05, which qualified for Euro-League competition for the second time by finishing fifth overall.
Felled by Injury: Julian Koch Returns to Dortmund
Julian Koch - Back to Borussia Dortmund
Possibly the best defensive all-rounder in Germany's Second Division, right footed Julian Koch (20) led MSV Duisburg to a remarkable run in the first half of the season before a complicated knee injury ruled him out, robbing his team of any chance to qualify for promotion and killing any remaining hopes for an upset in the German Cup Final.
The dynamic ball-winner started the season as a wing back and was later moved into defensive central midfield, where he contributed four offensive assists and scored two precious goals for the Zebras.
The youngster returns to his home team Borussia Dortmund for next season but will probably not see action until after the Christmas break, due to his serious injury.
If—and it is quite a weighty if—he can regain his pace and his form, watch him become a dominant player under head-coach Jürgen Klopp's careful guidance.
Nils Petersen: But Can He Score for Bayern München?
Nils Petersen - Leading Scorer in the Second Division
The 22-year-old Energie Cottbus striker knocked in 25 goals and set up an additional seven to earn the second division's top-scorer crown in last season's competition. Reason enough for Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Uli Hoeness to invest 2,5 million Euros to lure the German U-23 international to FC Bayern München, where he will join Mario Gomez, who pulled off the same feat in the Bundesliga.
The move by Bayern surprised many pundits, who expected the disappointed record champions to spend money to sign on defenders, but apparently, explosive goal-mouth striker Nils Petersen is "just too hot, to not".
It will, however, remain to be seen how much playing time the German hopeful can expect under head-coach Jupp Heynkes, with players of the caliber of Gomez, Arjen Robben, Franck Ribéry, Ivica Olic and Miroslav Klose "crowding" the Bayern attack.
But should Klose leave Bavaria during the summer, as most German sports tabloids publish daily, Petersen's chances will significantly improve.
It would definitely be a shame to see this exciting young offensive talent "glued to the bench" instead of smashing in goals next season.
Adrián Ramos: A Touch of Class=
Adrain Ramos - Hertha BSC Berlin
Jasper Juinen/Getty Images
With his 15 goals and 11 assists, the 25-year-old lanky striker from Colombia was a reliable contributor to Hertha's successful bid for immediate promotion last season, which brings Germany's "Old Lady" back to Bundesliga action after just a one-year absence. It also returns first division action back to the Capital with it's wonderful Olympia-Stadium thanks to head coach Markus Babbel, who assembled a dominant physical side which impressively overwhelmed its opponents all season long.
Adrián Ramos is a technically talented, speedy and sure footed attacking forward with elegant ball control and a powerful shot from range. His high number of assists point to great game overview and make him difficult to defend.
Although established Bundesliga teams (i.e., TSV Hoffenheim and VfB Stuttgart) coveted his goal scoring acumen, it looks as if he will remain in Berlin next season.
Pierre-Michel Lasogga: Germany's Next "Bomber" from Berlin?
The discovery of the season in Division Two, the 18-year-old German center forward with the French ringing name scored 13 goals in 22 appearances for Hertha BSC and added another five assists, impressively co-shouldering the burden of bringing Berlin back to the Bundesliga alongside Adrián Ramos.
The hard-working, bulky striker has a ferocious right-footed shot and his movement and goal-scoring instinct sometimes bring back memories of all-time Bayern great Gerd Müller, the Nation's legendary "Bomber."
Of course, it is far from certain that Lasogga will have the same immediate impact when playing against hardened Bundesliga defenses, but I will give him the benefit of doubt, as, apparently, already his head-coach, Markus Babbel, has.
Mehmet Ekici: Filling Özil's Shoes for Werder Bremen
Mehmet Eckici - Will he fill the hole that Özil left at Werder Bremen?
Trained in the youth system of FC Bayern München, creative midfielder Mehmet Ekici was loaned out to 1.FC Nürnberg last year. The seven time German champions of yesteryear finished a surprising sixth in the Bundesliga, thanks in no slight part to Ekici's play-making talents and his accuracy when taking corners and free-kicks.
And as a technically gifted team leader, he was quickly poached off by another traditional Bundesliga powerhouse: Werder Bremen, still desperately trying to fill the creative gap left by Mesut Özil when he left for the fame of Real Madrid.
Klaus Alloffs and Thomas Schaaf have a way of developing promising talent to international stardom. Turkish born Mehmet Ekici could just be the best addition Werder has made in a long time, so don't be surprised to see him have an immediate impact on the Hanseatic team when play resumes.
Ilkay Gündogan: Great Expectations in Dortmund
Ilkay Gündoghan - the next Nuri Sahin?
To avoid Werder's predicament of losing its leading player and paying a heavy price by not being able to replace him, new champions Borussia Dortmund went right to work after it became clear that Nuri Sahin would follow Mesut Özil to Real Madrid.
Jürgen Klopp landed youngster Ilkay Gündogan from 1.FC Nürnberg in a move thought to have cost over 4,5 million Euros, which shows the immense potential he believes the young Turkish born midfielder will have.
Gündogan interprets his midfield role in a more offensive style than Nuri Sahin has, constantly in motion and often playing on the wings. Under the guidance of head-coach Dieter Hecking, the fast paced 19-year-old became a reliable fixture on Nürnberg's young and exciting squad, and many observers expect Gündogan to mature into a dazzling German International in the near future.
Joining fresh champions Borussia Dortmund certainly gives him an unprecedented opportunity to prove his worth on the highest level.
Roberto Firmino: TSV Hoffenheim's New Whizz Kid from Brazil
Brought into snowy Sinsheim from sunny Brazil during last year's winter break for four million Euros, Roberto Firmino (19) wasn't expected to get a lot of playing time for TSV Hoffenheim last season. But after only a few months, the Brazilian offensive talent got used to the muscular Bundesliga, made the first team and has since impressed many observers with his excellent ball control, fine passing and tremendous timing when going for headers.
It is yet a bit too early to know if Firmino will have the stamina to follow in the steps of Hoffenheim's other highly successful Brazilian "imports" Carlos Edouardo and Luiz Gustavo, who have moved on to greater teams in the meantime.
Dietmar Hopp has decided that Hoffenheim's future will not be the quest of national titles, but the development of talented players. And from what little we have seen so far, Roberto Firmino already boasts more of that at an early age than many a finished footballer at the end of their careers.
Didier Ya Konan: Into Europe with Hannover 96
Didier Ya Konan
Didier Ya Konan (27) sparked the offense of the Bundesliga's biggest surprise team, Hannover 96.
The acrobatic forward from Côte d'Ivoire was brought in from Rosenborg Trondheim and immediately made an impact by scoring 14 goals and seven assists in 28 appearances for Germany's Europe League competitor.
His amazing speed and excellent timing compensate for his lack of height for a striker. But at 1,74 meter and 76 kilos, the Ivory Coast four-time International explodes into the goal-mouth like a cannon ball, making the technically gifted sprinter a terror for any defense.
Considering that Ya Konan is relatively new to the Bundesliga, he will probably even improve as he continues to assimilate to the German game.
Pedro Geromel, 1. FC Köln: 'Anchor in Stormy Seas'
Pedro Geromel (26), dual Italian and Brazilian citizen, has quietly developed into one of the consistently best central defenders in the Bundesliga during his last three seasons with lowly 1. FC Köln.
The 1,90 m, 84 kilo athlete—purchased from Vitoria Guimaraes in 2008— is the solid anchor of an otherwise struggling side. His anticipative understanding of tactical field position and his impressive speed make him one of the leading tacklers Germany currently has.
But after three seasons battling relegation in the lower half of the table, it might be time for him to move on.
His style of play makes him an interesting fit for Italian teams in need of defensive organisation, but there is still hope that the elegant defensive back might stay on with another Bundesliga team.
A steady rumour has it that Köln and VfL Wolfsburg are ready to trade Geromel and Cologne's lost son, Patrick Helmes, a move certainly enticing to Felix Magath, who is in search of reinforcements for his leaky back-line. In Pedro Geromel, Magath would get all the physical stamina he so often covets, paired with an excellent footballer with Latin finesse.
Srjdan Lakic: Wolves Hunt in Packs
Croatian born Srdjan Lakic (28) made his presence felt at 1. FC Kaiserslautern with 16 goals, enough to draw the attention of struggling VfL Wolfsburg, which signed the cunning striker during the winter after his great showing at the start of the season.
After it became public that Lakic would leave the 1. FCK, the emotionally disappointed fans turned their backs on the team's leading scorer.
His productivity slumped, and flashes of Balkan temper hampered his usual scoring efficiency.
By re-finding his scoring touch in the last few games, Lakic tempered the Betzenberg crowd, who celebrated him wildly in his last home appearance for the "Red Devils" of Germany.
He will join a side which already boasts Grafite, Mario Mandzukic and Patrick Helmes in attack, but by temperament, working ethos and stamina, Srdjan Lakic might just become a favorite of Felix Magath, who certainly will be glad to add him to his "Wolf-Pack".
Mario Mandzukic: Magath's Hitman
It all seemed like a terrible mistake. At the start of the season, VfL Wolfsburg had signed Mario Mandzukic (25)—the loudly heralded, powerful center forward from Dynamo Zagreb for his considerable goal-getter talents—hoping that he could eventually play the part of departing Edin Dzeko.
But then, coaches Steve McClaren and his assistant Pierre Littbarski thought the strong goal-mouth finisher might be better suited to race up and down the left wing.
The dismal result should have inspired a swift change of tactics as Wolfsburg slowly slid to the relegation zone. Instead, Mario Mandzukic was benched and expensive new strikers were brought in during the winter break. Patrick Helmes, Mbokani and Tuncay were to deliver the goals that Mandzukic wasn't providing. But neither could they.
So it was left to a desperate Felix Magath to do the obvious and restore Mandzukic to his accustomed position in central attack. Returning the favor, Mandzukic contributed important eight goals to the last minute effort to retain Bundesliga-status for the 'VW-Club'.
Expect Mandzukic—his confidence restored—to lead Germany's goal-scorer list by the end of next season. Teamed with veteran Grafite and new arrival Srdjan Lakic, this "terrible threesome" could quickly pick up where the former champions of 2008-2009 let off.
That year, Edin Dzeko and Grafite, the most successful striker tandem in recent Bundesliga history, combined to score 54 goals.
Papisse Cissé: Catch Me If You Can
Pappiss Demba Cissé (25), the tall power-forward from Senegal—Robin Dutt's discovery from FC Metz— was basically the lone offensive weapon that SC Freiburg threw at its opponents over most of the season.
The 22 goals scored in his rookie season in Germany speak for themselves, with only Bayern's superstar Mario Gomez scoring more often in the Bundesliga , who of course is assisted by the likes of Franck Ribéry, Thomas Müller and Arjen Robben.
What could have passed as the mere luck of a hitherto unknown taking defenses by surprise proved more and more impressive over the course of the year, as Pappiss Cissé regularly netted his goals against the best back-lines in the league.
His muscular playing style and his athletic build make it very hard to defend against his headers and block his bruising shots. These qualities have certainly not gone unnoticed by richer and more famous clubs than the small but honorable SC Freiburg could ever become— the city set in the scenic yet provincial Breisgau in Germany's Black Forest region—romantically beautiful as that undeniably is.
It would be a shame to lose this spectacular player to another European league, but chances are that Pappiss Demba Cissé will soon be signed to a European top club in a more affluent and ultimately more rewarding environment.