Every Bundesliga Club’s Biggest U23 Talent by Adam Khan
In less than 24 hours the German topflight returns.
Cheap beer, electric atmospheres, and some brand-new stars are just a couple of reasons to be excited for the new season, but right at the top of the list has to once again be the level of U23 talent on show.
From an English superstar, to a Croatian gladiator, and Portuguese magician, the Bundesliga has it all to offer in the 2022/23 campaign.
In the very first issue of the new season, we take a look at every Bundesliga club’s biggest U23 talent!
This piece is an adaptation from Adam Khan’s German Football Newsletter. Subscribe today and for just €5 you can read over 18,000 words previewing all 18 Bundesliga clubs!
Alphonso Davies (21) is arguably the best left back in world football right now, but there’s something about teammate Jamal Musiala that makes you feel like you’re watching a generational talent every time he steps onto the pitch.
In the Supercup season opener vs RB Leipzig the 19-year old again proved his otherworldly quality, scoring and assisting to help Bayern to their first title of the new season.
Despite immense competition from the likes of Thomas Müller, Kingsley Coman, and Leroy Sané, you wouldn’t find many complaining if Musiala featured in every key fixture of Bayern’s season next year.
And, despite starting just a handful of matches in all competitions last season, every time he was afforded a chance from the start the German international stepped up to the mark. In 16 starts in all competitions, Musiala won 11, drew 4, and lost just once.
Whether as a box-to-box midfielder, creative playmaker, or technical left winger, Musiala has all of the tools to become a Ballon d’Or contender in the future.
Jude Bellingham may be 19-years old, but the English midfielder plays with the confidence and impact of an established veteran with a decade of experience at the top.
Even when performances dropped within the BVB squad last season, Bellingham remained a remarkable symbol of consistency and resilience. He held himself and others accountable, and regularly changed matches with his individual brilliance.
Not only did he lead the Dortmund squad in minutes and matches played last season, but across the board the former Birmingham City midfielder played a pivotal role.
No central midfielder completed more dribbles or drew more fouls in last season’s championship, whilst Bellingham also provided the necessary hard-edge against the ball when needed.
His 9 yellow cards were the most in the Dortmund squad since Marc-André Kruska in 2007, and Bellingham’s 646 pressures were the 5th most in the entire Bundesliga. Maintaining these high standards and vicious bite against the ball, will only continue to grow the demand for an English international who already is valued as the 10th most expensive player in world football.
Despite a cruciate injury which will see Florian Wirtz sidelined for the start of the season, it’s hard to look past the German wonderkid as the biggest star in this roster. The 19-year old was key for Seoane up until his injury in early March, and the full-German international even became the youngest player in Bundesliga history to reach 50 Bundesliga appearances last year.
In 31 matches across all competitions last season Wirtz registered a healthy balance of 10 goals and 14 assists, delighting crowds with his genius technique and fantastic timing. Despite missing 12 matches through injury, Wirtz still finished with the second most goal-creating actions per 90 (1.07) in all of Europe, falling only behind a certain Kylian Mbappé in the leaderboards.
Having turned 24 last November, Christopher Nkunku is no longer in contention for selection, but there’s still more than enough bright sparks capable of filling his boots as the U23 one to watch next season.
Particularly in defence there are two stand-outs, with both Joško Gvardiol (20) and Mohamed Simakan (22) hitting the ground running after signing last summer. Simakan started every match in the Pokal triumph and went 90 minutes on 15 occasions in the league, but his Croatian teammate is perhaps slightly more talented given his age.
Despite never playing in a major European league before signing for Leipzig, Gvardiol took to the Bundesliga like a fish to water, playing more topflight minutes than any other teenager bar Jude Bellingham last season.
His tenacious defending immediately stands out – no player who played for a side which finished in the top half of the 2021/22 Bundesliga made more interceptions than Gvardiol – but his composure in possession is also something which has flown slightly under the radar.
Only Dayot Upamecano and Joshua Kimmich completed more touches in last year’s topflight, whilst Gvardiol’s 165 passes into the final third were the most of any player who didn’t feature for F.C. Bayern.
Heavily linked to Tottenham Hotspurs and F.C. Chelsea this off-season, it’s safe to assume that Gvardiol will be a Champions League regular over the next decade.
Union Berlin weren’t the most receptive to young talent last season, however a young talent who could buck this trend was András Schäfer.
23, and with a half a season of Union football under his belt, the Hungarian international signed from FC Dunajská Streda last January should be a key clog in central midfield now that vice-captain Grischa Prömel has departed.
The two midfielders profile very similarly in their ability to work both sides of the game, and Union’s 100% winning record in the last 5 Bundesliga matches Schäfer featured in bodes well for the coming campaign.
SC Freiburg is a destination of choice for young talent looking to make their Bundesliga breakthrough, and 20-year old Kevin Schade could be the next bright spark to master the Christian Streich ‘Fußball-Schule’.
A Potsdam native who signed with Freiburg in 2018, Schade was a constant threat on the wings of Freiburg’s 3-4-3 formation. He ended last season with an impressive 24 appearances and 7 goals in all competitions.
Clocked at 36.37 km/h Schade was the third fastest player in the topflight last year, but his game is far more nuanced than just elite speed. Schade uses sharp turns and fakes to pose a threat from either flank, and the German-Nigerian isn’t reliant on his stronger right foot like other wingers his age.
Injuries are perhaps the biggest threat to his career then.
A tricky abdominal strain currently sees him sidelined for 140 days and counting, but the fact that Freiburg rejected an enormous bid of €15m from FC Brentford this summer goes to show just how highly Christian Streich rates the talented winger.
The Bundesliga is known for its excellent youth development, but FC Köln is not among the best sides in this regard. The average age in their starting lineup was 27 last season – the third oldest in the league behind Union Berlin and VFL Bochum.
One of their key Under-23 players, though, was Mainz 05 loanee Luca Kilian. He made the right centre-back position his own over the course of the season, and has now joined the club on a permanent deal for a transfer fee of €2m.
The Borussia Dortmund academy graduate was very lively when he was on the pitch, and his proactivity in and out of possession was key to the successful execution of Baumgart’s intense style of play.
After joining Svensson’s side as a talented, albeit unremarkable, second-tier midfielder, in a matter of months Stach developed into a stand-out in the Mainz 05 side. With his tall frame, aerial dominance, and impressive final third output (1 goal & 6 assists), Stach even earned a senior call up to Hansi Flick’s German national team where he made his debut in late March.
A spot in the World Cup roster may still be beyond reach, but it’s a testament to the stellar work being done under Svensson that Die 05er have another German international within their ranks just a year after Ridle Baku departed.
With a former FC Bayern II coach at the helm for the last two seasons, it’s no surprise that TSG Hoffenheim have taken a keen eye towards developing young talent. Since Dennis Geiger no one has really been able to make the jump from the youth setup to the first team, but the external transfers have regularly hit the mark.
One such example is Georginio Rutter.
The French U21 international arrived from Stade Rennais on February 1, 2021, and since then he’s slowly established himself as a key load-bearer in the Hoffenheim attack.
Despite starting just 14 matches, Rutter ended the campaign with a club-high 8 goals to go along with a respectable 4 assists. Rogue and inexperienced he may be, the 20-year old is a bright spark every time he gets on to the pitch, and he should be expected to play a crucial role when the Bundesliga season kicks off this week.
Long time fans of The German Football Weekly will know my deep adoration for Kouadio Manu Koné. The French u21 international impressed last season on the side of Denis Zakaria and/or Florian Neuhaus, and his diminutive frame and explosive dribbling would regularly carry Gladbach’s possession up-field.
Amongst all central midfielders only Suat Serdar and Jude Bellingham completed more successful dribbles in the 2021/22 Bundesliga campaign (47 completed), whilst Koné’s success percentage of 68.1% was the most of any player with more than 30 completed.
If he can remain injury free, you truly get the sense that the sky’s the limit for the talent from Toulouse.
Quite a few talents deserve a mention within this Frankfurt squad.
Ansgar Knauff (20), signed on a two-year loan from Borussia Dortmund, was a key figure at RWB in the rückrunde. The youngster played every minute of the Europa League run, and even scored goals in the Nou Camp and London Stadium.
Evan Ndicka (22) and Tuta (23) are also two tremendous talents at centerback. The former is regularly linked with a move to Chelsea, whilst the latter is in contention for a World Cup roster spot with Brazil.If I have to choose just one though, it’s Jesper Lindström (22). The Danish international is far from the finished product – regularly fluffing his lines and struggling with his decision-making – but his ability in attacking 1 on 1s and his defensive workrate make him one of the most valuable assets in the German topflight.
A cornerstone of the second best defence in the division who was being heavily linked with moves to RB Leipzig and F.C. Chelsea, it’s safe to say that Maxence Lacroix has slightly regressed since his domineering rookie campaign in 20/21.
The French youth international still started all 29 matches he was deemed fit for last year, but more than a few errors crept into his game over the course of the campaign – highlighted by the league-high 3 red cards he received.
Getting Lacroix back to his best next season will not only be crucial for the potential resale value he can pump into the club, but more so given that John-Anthony Brooks (29) has departed leaving no centerback over the age of 24 in the first-team roster.
Bochum may have sold two of the biggest centerback talents in German football this summer, but with Erhan Mašović they have a player more than ready to shift into a starring role.
The Serbian international was signed from Club Brügge in 2020, and in his subsequent two seasons in Germany the 1,89m centre-half has taken a massive step in his developmental cycle, going from a bit-part player in the second division, to starting 17 matches in last season’s Bundesliga.
Whilst his composure in possession is quite forgettable, his defensive discipline, and willingness to get his hands dirty, should make him an important figure in next season’s uphill battle against the drop.
Reece Oxford may never fulfil his potential after bursting onto the scene as a 16-year old for West Ham United, but at least the once British top talent is now a crucial link in FCA’s backline.
Injuries, strong competition, and plain bad luck have stunted his progress in the past, but the 23-year old took a massive step in his development last year, playing, and starting, in all 30 Bundesliga matches he was deemed fit for.
No outfield player in the FCA squad was on the pitch more often last season, and crucially for Oxford, it was almost twice as much playing time than at any other point in his career so far.
With his strong aerial presence and improving ability on the ball, Augsburg will be hoping for another strong season out of their Englishman if they want to remain a Bundesliga side this time next year.
With Stuttgart’s transfer policy principally focusing on recruitment in the under 23 bracket, it’s no surprise that we are spoiled for choice in this selection. Hiroki Ito (23) was a starting axis which nobody had predicted ahead of last season, Darko Churlinov (22) returns after an impressive loan spell with Schalke 04, and Tanguy Coulibaly (21) and Mateo Klimowicz (22) are fascinating technicians – albeit extremely inconsistent ones.
Despite all this talent across the board though, I still see Tiago Tomás (20) fronting the pack. The Portuguese youth international came on a season and a half loan (with a €15m option to buy) in January, and was a real difference-maker in deciding moments of the season.
His 4 goals were slightly underwhelming given the general level of his performances, but his first stint in Stuttgart leaves us excited to watch him partner Kalajdžić up top more often next season.
New manager Sandro Schwarz is no stranger to working with young talent, giving the likes of Abdou Diallo, Ridle Baku, Suat Serdar, and Jean-Philippe Gbamin their big breaks in German football.
Thus, young talent should profit off this move, one of them being 22-year old Jurgen Ekkelenkamp.
Ekkelenkamp, a former Dutch youth international signed from AFC Ajax last summer was a bit-part player at best last season. The youngster started just 6 Bundesliga matches, never once went the full 90 minutes, and didn’t even feature in the squad for either of the relegation playoff ties against HSV.
The talent is undeniably there though, and with a manager focused on instilling an identity in possession, Ekkelenkamp’s creative excellence could finally come to the fore. With no other attacking midfielder in the squad bar retirement ready K.P. Boateng (35), this could be the year for Ekkelenkamp to make his big Bundesliga breakthrough.
Schalke have an abundance of young talent in their large roster.
Malick Thiaw is a phenomenal German youth international, and Tom Krauß is arguably the biggest talent to come out of RB Leipzig’s academy, but I’ve opted for the newly re-signed Rodrigo Zalazar as my U23 one to watch.
The 22-year old Uruguayan was a phenomenal loan signing in Die Königsblauen’s promotion campaign, and with a return of 6 goals and 7 assists, only Marius Bülter and Simon Terodde contributed to more goals in the S04 squad.
Zalazar will come up against world-class defenders next season, however his creativity and confidence in possession will be key in capitalising on Schalke’s limited moments in possession.
Lee Buchanan is the next English talent to make the trip across the pond and build a career in the German Bundesliga.
Taking advantage of Derby County’s limited insolvency, SVW were able to get the 21-year old youth international at a cut-throat price of €3.5m.
It’s a massive step into the unknown for the youngster who has been with The Rams since he was 14, but for Bremen it was a simple decision, signing a talented and rapid left back who has already featured 65 times in the English second division.
Ole Werner mentioned that Bremen will give him time to develop, noting his decision-making and attacking power as areas for improvement, but Buchanan could play a big role from day one.
Given that starting left back Anthony Jung injured himself 18 minutes into a pre-season test against Besiktas Istanbul, and hasn’t featured since, Buchanan has good cards heading into the season opener in the Pokal this Monday.