Bayern Munich’s under-19 squad have begun the season in much the same way their senior counterparts have: in imperious, stormtrooper-like fashion, winning games by comfortable scorelines. They’ve picked up six points from six in the UEFA Youth League and recently rolled over Atletico Madrid in Spain.
This should come as no surprise; Bayern’s youth teams excelling is a regular story. The club prides itself on producing and developing talent and will frequently promote from within.
It would be dishonest to suggest they rear every young talent given a chance from the very start—some, such as David Alaba and Joshua Kimmich, are purchased in their mid-to-late teens—but the academy is a consistent conveyor belt of young stars.
These first two UEFA Youth League games have paved the path for another to emerge: 17-year-old Timothy Tillman. The young attacking midfielder was purchased from Greuther Furth in 2015 for €500,000, and he’s shone so far in the under-19 bracket despite possessing two years less experience than most.
Jose Felix Diaz of Spanish daily Marca linked him to Real Madrid. To have Bayern poach you one summer, then arguably the biggest club in the world linked to you a year later, is indicative of serious skill and talent.
He got a mini run-out during the International Champions Cup this summer, playing 45 minutes against Inter Milan, as Carlo Ancelotti ran the rule over his ability firsthand. It’s all looking very good for the latest German-American prodigy.
Quick feet, mazy dribbles
Tillman is an inherently positive player with the ball at his feet. In the UEFA Youth League this season, he’s played on both flanks, but it doesn’t really matter where he receives the ball—he’ll push forward and look to commit defenders regardless.
Despite playing against opponents up to two years older than him, he backs himself to get the better of them. His quick feet can mesmerise defenders, and his feints and shimmies often create avenues to dribble through.
It’s in tight spaces that he does his best work; he seems to love them. Where other young players panic when backed up against the sideline, bereft of room to work in, Tillman thrives. Watching him outmanoeuvre markers is a treat. He can either instigate quick one-twos and spring into space or take players on himself and bring the ball out.
There are times when he overcomplicates things and loses the ball. In fact, that probably happens too often at the moment, as a measure of maturation is yet to soak into his game and curb his overly excitable tendencies. His passing post-dribble can be a little slapdash too, rendering much of his good individual work useless.
But when looking at the way he shifts the ball from foot to foot, and the comfort he finds in taking markers on, it's immediately obvious to anyone watching the talent he possesses. He is of atypical size for a wide player—he’s often a head taller than the full-back he faces and will continue to grow—and that allows him to perform a slightly peculiar move.
He invites his marker to engage him and jockey for the ball, then Tillman holds the player off and rolls him, wriggling into space. It very often leaves the defender flummoxed and trailing behind while Tillman surges forward and gets his head up.
For a 17-year-old to stand out in pre-season and be worth a closer look from a man like Ancelotti, you’ve got to have something in your locker few others do. And while Tillman’s quick feet are the obvious X-factor he possesses, it might just have been a more basic trait of his that earned him the opportunity.
This is not to generalise and suggest a certain ilk of player is “lazy,” but there are plenty of players of Tillman’s type who do not work hard enough off the ball. Their forte is in attack, and they’ll stick to that; we have seen numerous examples of flair players being lambasted for not committing to hard work—notably Jack Grealish of Aston Villa, per the Telegraph's John Percy, and Hatem Ben Arfa, too—but you won’t be able to tar Tillman with that brush.
He tracks and works tirelessly, completing more interceptions and tackles than most wingers do. When out of possession, Bayern drop deep and field a flat line of midfielders ahead of the defence, and everyone pitches in—including the flair players.
Tillman is particularly alert to opponents attempting to switch the ball over to his marker (the full-back) in space. He closes ground between himself and the marker swiftly and often blocks the passing lane to prevent the ball being played. Where possible, he’ll fish the ball out with a long leg, then try to spur his side back up the pitch quickly.
You often hear remarks about young footballers having a cool head on their shoulders, but it usually refers to their decision-making in the final third. Tillman has this trait, plus the same set of skills off the ball. That’s really, really rare.
It’s understandably tough to break into this Bayern side, and in the position he plays, the club already have world-class talents in Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery and Douglas Costa, in addition to a budding star in Kingsley Coman. Thomas Muller can also play wide, as can Rafinha and Juan Bernat...the list just goes on.
Therefore, you shouldn’t expect to see 17-year-old Tillman, who can still appear extremely raw on the ball at times, to be cracking that seal any time soon. He’ll spend the season with the unders, with the UEFA Youth League the obvious way for him to seriously turn heads.
It’s no coincidence that reports linking Tillman to Real Madrid came in the week he starred against rivals Atletico. The debate remains: with questions over his international future already being put forward, would a club-level tussle of similar magnitude throw him off his game?