A pivotal figure in Xabi Alonso's plans and with the world at his feet, Florian Wirtz is driving Bayer Leverkusen's charge towards a maiden Bundesliga title.
Sprinkling his delightful ingenuity on Germany's top flight, Wirtz has consolidated his status as one of the world's brightest talents with his exceptional form for Leverkusen this term.
There were concerns as to whether Wirtz would ever be able to fulfil his potential after he suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury in March 2022.
Out of action for nine months at a crucial stage in his development, the 20-year-old made a seamless return, showcasing his old playmaking traits and honing his creative powers under Alonso's stewardship.
The beating heart of Bayer’s free-flowing attack, Wirtz is weighing in with goals and assists as Leverkusen continue to defy the odds in pursuit of a remarkable league triumph.
With Bundesliga action returning after the winter break, we assess the wunderkind’s development in our latest edition of ‘Scouting Europe’.
Hailing from the Cologne suburb of Pulheim, the creative midfielder was scouted by his hometown club at the age of seven, where he spent a decade progressing through their ranks.
At the age of 16, Wirtz felt the time was right to depart 1. FC Köln. The likes of Bayern Munich, Juventus and Barcelona attempted to court the teenager but Wirtz’s parents were keen for their son to conclude his studies a little closer to home.
So when Leverkusen came knocking, it ticked all of Wirtz’s boxes.
It certainly didn’t tick Cologne’s box.
There are three big clubs in the Rhineland; Cologne, Leverkusen and Borussia Monchengladbach. For 19 years, the trio of rivals honoured a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ where, for the prosperity of talent in the region, they would not target each other’s’ academy products.
Cologne were outraged by Leverkusen’s approach. Not only did they feel the act was dishonourable, but they were aggrieved at the prospect of losing one of their most coveted youth stars.
Die Werkself, on the other hand, felt that the agreement was irrelevant in this instance; they were signing a player with the intention of integrating him straight into their first team.
Wirtz may have burnt his bridges at the RheinEnergieSTADION but his decision to make the switch to Leverkusen has since been fully justified.
Wirtz was thrust almost immediately into the first team setup under Peter Bosz and made his professional debut during the resumption of the 2019/20 season, making him the youngest player to appear for Leverkusen in the league at 17 years and 15 days, eclipsing the record of Kai Havertz.
Fanfare for the youngster soared three weeks later when he became the Bundesliga’s youngest goalscorer (a record since broken by Youssoufa Mokouko), curling a sumptuous effort into the far corner beyond Manuel Neuer.
Welcome to the Bundesliga, Mr Wirtz.
A beneficiary of Leverkusen’s faith in youth development, records continued to tumble. Wirtz was an established first team member when he netted his 10th career Bundesliga goal, the first player in league history to reach this milestone before the age of 19 since Lukas Podolski in 2004.
Youngest players to score 10 Bundesliga goals
|Youssoufa Moukoko (Dortmund)
|17y 350d (2022)
|Florian Wirtz (Bayer Leverkusen)
|18y 146d (2021)
|Lukas Podolski (Cologne)
|18y 353d (2004)
|Olaf Thon (Schalke)
|19y 10d (1985)
|Jadon Sancho (Dortmund)
|19y 19d (2019)
Even when Peter Bosz departed, Wirtz continued to shine during a period of managerial instability and it was under Gerardo Seoane that the talented playmaker came to the fore.
An abductor injury looked set to inhibit Wirtz’s influence at the start of the 2021/22 season but after missing the opening contest against Union Berlin, he returned in marvellous fashion.
Chalking up four goals and six assists in his first seven appearances, he would add a further seven goal contributions, spurring Leverkusen’s push for Champions League football.
Then tragedy struck.
Of all the venues for Wirtz to suffer an anterior cruciate ligament injury, it was at his old stomping ground in Cologne. Stretchered off 28 minutes into the Rhine Derby, Wirtz’s season was over and hopes of a spot in Hansi Flick’s World Cup squad were jeopardised.
We've witnessed severe injuries cruelly derail the careers of many young professionals. It requires great mental resilience for a player to return from a significant lay-off and rediscover their sparkle.
Medical experts typically predict a player to recapture their pre-injury performance levels in the second season of their return. That’s the norm but Wirtz is a freak of nature.
And Leverkusen had suffered significantly in Wirtz’s absence. Falling to eight defeats from their opening 12 matches of the 2022/23 campaign, the deterioration in results cost Seoane his job.
Die Werkself delved into the unknown with their appointment of Alonso as Seaone’s successor but it’s proven to be a shrewd decision. The former Liverpool and Real Madrid midfielder, lauded for his innovative methods and dynamic tactics, immediately set about remoulding Leverkusen into a more cohesive unit but the return of his generational talent couldn’t have come any sooner.
The league’s resumption marked Wirtz coming back into the team and having dust off the cobwebs in his first outing against Monchengladbach, he started the next encounter. Rousing his teammates in a 2-0 triumph, Bochum were left to marvel at his genius.
He would end the campaign with the best assists per 90 record in the Bundesliga and delivered five goal contributions in Leverkusen’s run to the Europa League semi-finals, earning him the competition’s Young Player of the Season award.
And Wirtz was just getting started.
As though the ball is attached to his feet with a piece of string, Wirtz has been dancing through Bundesliga defences with poise and finesse to help Leverkusen scale unprecedented heights.
Untouchable with his balletic feet and agile movement, Alonso’s lead protagonist has weighed in with a variety of sumptuous goals and inventive assists as Bayer head the Bundesliga table heading into the second half of the season.
You only need to glance at his wondergoal against Freiburg to understand what Wirtz is all about.
Possessing the ability to change direction instantaneously with speed and precision, Wirtz had Nicolas Höfler tripping up over his own feet as the Freiburg midfielder attempted to keep pace with the remarkable footwork on show.
Like a shapeshifter, Wirtz twisted left and then right, culminating in Höfler falling to the floor in a desperate lunge. Wirtz evaded it, cut back onto his left foot and curled a sublime effort into the far corner.
It was a work of art.
It was absolutely world class. You can't defend against Florian Wirtz.
Christian Streich, SC Freiburg manager
20 goal contributions in 23 appearances in all competitions just scrape the surface of Wirtz’s standing in Leverkusen’s ranks.
Blossoming with the responsibility of being Alonso’s chief orchestrator, the 20-year-old has benefited further from the array of talent that accompanies him, forging prosperous partnerships with the prolific Victor Boniface, the experienced Granit Xhaka and the enterprising Jeremy Frimpong.
Predominantly deployed as the No.10 behind the forward, Wirtz has demonstrated he can dictate matches from a variety of roles. There is a fluidity to Alonso's system but whether he's utilised as an inverted winger or deep-lying playmaker, Leverkusen's talisman can keep the team ticking wherever he's being asked to operate.
No player has completed more successful through balls in the Bundesliga and no player has come close to completing more passes into the penalty area, evidence of his productivity in the opposition third.
A multi-faceted threat, Wirtz's terrifying unpredictability makes him a nuisance for defenders. Able to find space in congested areas, he has the technique and confidence to take on defenders at will. Should the opportunity present itself, he boasts the vision and accuracy to unlock opponents with an ambitious pass.
Purposeful in his defensive duties, Wirtz has bought into Alonso’s strategy of defending from the front, averaging 6.78 ball recoveries per match in the Bundesliga this term.
It could be easy for a player of Wirtz’s immense talent to to shirk tackles, especially in the aftermath of an ACL injury, and yet he ranks first in the Leverkusen side for duels won. Once Wirtz found his rhythm, he unearthed an aggressiveness to his defensive play, exemplifying his self-assurance and industrious nature.
Like a predator waiting for the perfect time to catch his prey, he sets his traps and acts instinctively. Only his Bayer colleague Frimpong and Heidenheim’s Tim Kleindienst have clocked up more sprints in Germany’s top flight this term, which is indicative of his defensive work and the ability to get Leverkusen motoring on transition.
Wirtz has been equally irrepressible in Europe, as well. The standard of opposition was inferior but the midfield sensation made easy work of the group stage with six goal contributions, which is the highest return of goals and assists per 90 in the competition so far.
Florian Wirtz - Bundesliga 2023/24
|Expected assists (xA)
|Big chances created
|Passes into penalty area
|Possession won final 3rd per 90
*Statistics sourced via FBref.com and Opta
Wirtz's dynamism is detailed in the above statistics and the depth to his talent is endless. It's clear to see why all of Europe's elite clubs are knocking on Leverkusen's door, attempting to prise him away from the BayArena.
It will cost a handsome sum, with reports suggesting the German outfit have slapped a price tag of over €100m for their talisman. For the club, what happens beyond this summer feels irrelevant as they go in search of a first Bundesliga title in the club's history.
They've fell agonisingly short of top honours, finishing runner-up in the German top flight on five occasions.
16 games into the current campaign, they're yet to taste defeat and all eyes are fixated on Leverkusen's title charge. If Wirtz continues to choreograph victories, Die Werkself have every chance of toppling Bayern Munich and etching their names into the record books.
To Win Outright - 9/4
To Win Outright Without Bayern Munich -
Four-time World Cup winners and three-time European Championship victors, Germany's pedigree in major tournaments is outstanding.
A consequence of their proud footballing history is high expectations and in the last three major tournaments, the Germans have failed to match the heights anticipated.
Toppled by England in the round of 16 at Euro 2020, the 2022 World Cup in Qatar was supposed to mark a new era for the nation's side but once again they fell at the first hurdle, suffering a second successive group stage exit.
Wirtz would have been a shoe-in to feature in Flick's plans were it not for his ACL rehabilitation. Leverkusen's star man will savour his first taste of a major tournament this summer and with Germany hosting the event, Euro 2024 appears to be the perfect competition to showcase his immense talent on the international stage.
In a similar situation to England and their nurturing of Jude Bellingham, Wirtz has the time and ability to be Germany's linchpin for the next decade.
Florian is just a huge asset for this team through his carefree nature. He's simply an outstanding technician, loves to play, is very creative, has a good shot, runs hard and is quick. He's got a good total package.
Hansi Flick, Germany head coach
To Win Euro 2024 Outright -
To Win World Cup 2026 Outright - 10/1