4 Breakout Talents in the 2022/23 Bundesliga by Adam Khan
It’s been a wild, unconventionally exciting Bundesliga season. The fact that, with 3 matchdays remaining, there is still absolutely everything to play for at both ends of the table only adds to the drama in these final weeks.
To glance back at a one-of-a-kind campaign, German football consultant Adam Khan took the time to look back at 4 breakout young stars from the 2022/23 topflight campaign.
Micky van de Ven
It’s not uncommon for even the most elite talents from Dutch football to take time, or even completely fail, to adjust to a higher standard in one of Europe’s top 5 leagues.
Only in the past 2-3 months has Donyell Malen finally come true on the promise he showed at PSV, while other former future stars like Donny van de Beck, Riechedly Bazoer, and Jetro Willems have all experienced significant struggles after taking the first step outside of Dutch football.
Exactly a year ago, the 22-year-old centerback was still playing in the Dutch second tier. The Eerste Divisie, as it is called, is a division on the cusp of semi-professional football; more akin to the 3rd tier in Germany than the Bundesliga.
Nevertheless, the almost 4000 minutes of experience that van de Ven collected at this senior level has undoubtedly shaped the Dutch defender into becoming the colossal centerback which has dominated the Bundesliga this season.
Van de Ven hasn’t just adjusted to the pace of the German topflight but set the standard in an impressive Wolfsburg defense. Bar a minor muscle injury which has kept him sidelined over the past two weeks, Van de Ven has been a constant element of Niko Kovač’s starting XI. The Dutch defender didn’t just start the first 29 fixtures of Wolfsburg’s Bundesliga campaign, but he even played the full 90 minutes on each and every occasion.
Perhaps the first thing that meets the eye when watching Van de Ven is the young centreback’s elite physical profile. The defender is just two centimeters shorter than his countryman Van Dijk, yet is still as agile and powerful as a player half his size.
The numbers reflect this, as Micky van de Ven’s top speed of 35.97 km/h makes him the fastest centerback in this season’s Bundesliga, and quicker than the likes of Leroy Sané, Timo Werner, and Kingsley Coman.
This powerful combination allows van de Ven to slot in at fullback when needed, but it is clear that his long-term future is on the left side of a centerback partnership. There, Van de Ven is able to carry possession into midfield, circulate the ball around the backline, and dominate on the ground and in the air with his extraordinary physical profile.
Though Van de Ven has a contract until 2027, it is no secret that clubs across Europe are taking note of his strong performances. Just a few weeks ago Sport Bild reported that Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham, Arsenal, Barcelona, Inter, AC Milan, and Juventus had all made contact with the representatives of the Dutch center-back.
Another season with Wolfsburg – who could potentially be playing in the Europa League next year – is likely the best route for Van de Ven’s long-term development. However, given how easily he has adapted to the Bundesliga’s standard, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that the Dutch defender could make the move to one of Europe’s elites already in the summer.
Alongside Union Berlin, SC Freiburg have been one of the sensations of this Bundesliga season. Die Braisgauer’s success may look like it’s come out of nowhere, but it is the process of smart recruitment, continuity on and off the pitch, and a youth setup that continues to produce at the very highest level.
Particularly this last element is often overlooked when speaking about SC Freiburg. The club from the Black Forest is, alongside Borussia Dortmund, the only Bundesliga club to boast a U23 outfit in the 3rd-tier of German football. And, while Die Schwarz-Gelben are battling against the drop with 3 matchdays to play, SC Freiburg’s young outfit enter crunch time just 6 points off table-toppers SV Elversberg.
The fabulous academy has produced club-captain Christian Günter, World Cup winner Matthias Ginter, and Premier League starlet Kevin Schade, but it was only in the U23 setup that one of Christian Streich’s key newcomers from this season made his name.
20-year-old Kiliann Sildillia, signed from FC Metz B in 2020, is not only a physical reproduction of Manchester City’s Nathaniel Ake, but also from a footballing standpoint, the two defenders share much in common. Both Sildillia and Ake function well at fullback and centerback, and Sildillia is a mirror of the Dutchman’s elite composure and efficiency in possession.
Particularly the maturity with which Sildillia interprets his right-back role is remarkable for a player of his age starring at a club challenging for European football. He is not your modern attacking wingback (Sildillia has 2 assists and 0 goals across 37 appearances in all competitions this season) but rather a highly disciplined defensive stalwart with great anticipation, positioning, and athleticism.
This skillset means that Sildillia rarely shows up in the matchday highlights, but in Christian Streich’s uniquely structured system, the Frenchman provides the perfect balance to the more attacking Christian Günter on the opposite fullback position.
While Sildilla’s performances this season have undoubtedly caught the eye of clubs across the continent, there is no debate that the best place for his continued development is in Freiburg. There, Sildilla is afforded extensive first-team minutes, and could potentially even be playing at the Champions League level next season depending on how the final 3 matchdays pan out.
Having lost both Erling Haaland and Robert Lewandowski in the same summer window, the Bundesliga entered the new campaign in dire need of a goalscoring focal point.
In the end, not a single player has even remotely come close to hitting the elite goal-scoring standard set by this duo, but that alone doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been a rookie center-forward attracting massive attention in the German topflight.
Randal Kolo-Muani (24 yrs) could arguably have had the biggest rise of any player in world football this season. The 24-year-old forward arrived in Frankfurt after shining for FC Nantes in the French topflight, and within a matter of weeks already managed to establish himself as one of the most dynamic threats in the German Bundesliga.
Though he’s registered 21 goals in all competitions, just looking at the Frenchman’s scoring output does a disservice to what he’s arguably best at – creating for others.
Kolo-Muani is a constant runner; either pulling defenses out of place with his off-ball movement, or leaving opponents in the dust with his tantalizing combination of tight control, athletic speed, and raw power. His supreme ability in 1v1 duels is what sets him apart from almost any other high-level center-forward on the planet.
In fact, only Bayer Leverkusen’s Jeremie Frimpong has completed more 1v1s and dribbles in the current Bundesliga campaign, while the 24-year-old French international stands head and shoulders above the competition for his ability to carry possession into the penalty area.
This unique ability to both create for teammates and remain a central goalscoring focal point has made Randal Kolo-Muani one of the most difficult threats to keep under control this season. In just his first campaign in Germany, the Frenchman leads the scoring charts (25 direct goal contributions in 28 games) and is one of only 8 players in Europe’s top 5 leagues to have contributed at least 10 goals and 10 assists this season (see below).
Despite holding a contract until 2027, come the summer there will be massive interest in the 24-year-old scoring talent tearing through the Bundesliga. Some clubs could be put off given the fact that Kolo-Muani’s rise has come in a side that has adopted a counter-attacking approach, but if Frankfurt fail to qualify for any European competition, an open market may ensue.
FC Augsburg needed only €100k to prise the midfielder away from Club Brügge, an exceptional piece of business for a side that looks to be building a strong outfit for the future.
It’s an unprecedented bargain for a player who has, not only adjusted to life in the Bundesliga, but immediately become one of Augsburg’s starring forces in the new year. Since signing, Engels has started all 17 topflight matches for Die Fuggerstädter, playing a formative role in all but securing Augsburg’s topflight status for another year.
What makes his rise all the more impressive is the fact that Engels never seemed pre-destined for a breakthrough campaign when Augsburg announced his signature on the 3rd of January. Engels hadn’t featured in a single first-team fixture for Club Brügge, and at just 19 years old, it was hard to imagine him anchoring a midfield that was desperately battling against the drop.
Yet, Engels has adjusted with supreme ease, not requiring even a second to meet the demands of the Bundesliga, or the potentially even more difficult scenario of a relegation battle.
The robust and combative Augsburg system has complimented Engel’s hard-working, box-to-box style, while the Belgian’s superb technical skill set has added another element to an Augsburg midfield that rarely was able to control matches in the Bundesliga Hinrunde.
Whereas the Augsburg Engels joined held the lowest average possession of any club in the league, since the Belgian’s introduction Die Fuggerstädter have developed a more proactive style that doesn’t only look for the most direct approach to goal. Augsburg are now dominating a significantly larger portion of the matchday possession, and the South-German outfit are even completing, on average, over 60 passes more per game since Engels’ introduction.
With Augsburg earning another 3 points over the weekend, the likelihood of a 13th consecutive season in the Bundesliga looks all but guaranteed. Given that Engels has experienced such a monumental rise there is no doubt that some bigger clubs will already be inquiring about the Belgian’s availability. However, while the allure of a big move may be tempting, it seems preposterous for the teenager to forego such impressive first-team minutes for a rotational spot at a bigger club.