Perhaps the highest praise of Leon Goretzka has come in the form of comparisons to Bastian Schweinsteiger.
With Bayern Munich announcing last week that Goretzka would be joining the club from Schalke 04 in the summer – this on a free transfer after the 22-year-old midfielder ran down his contract in North Rhine-Westphalia – Goretzka has been hailed by many as the natural successor to the Bayern legend and former Germany captain.
This is not the sluggish Schweinsteiger of Manchester United we’re talking about, but the all-action midfield motor who won eight Bundesliga titles with Bayern and the 2014 World Cup with Die Mannschaft. Goretzka certainly has several similarities to Schweinsteiger in his approach to the game, not least his drive, energy, relentless work rate and instinctive balance between attack and defence.
Having only made his professional debut in 2012 and without a domestic honour to his name, Goretzka has much to prove before the comparisons to Schweinsteiger are substantiated.
With four goals in 11 league appearances this season, however, there’s a reason that Bayern have fought so hard for his services.
Goretzka had been heavily linked with a move to Liverpool ahead of the January transfer window, supposedly swayed by the prospect of working with compatriot Jurgen Klopp.
Given that Klopp made his naming managing Schalke’s regional rivals and Revierderby nemeses Borussia Dortmund, Goretzka linking up with Liverpool might have been even more unpopular with Schalke supporters than his move to Bavaria.
Growing up in Bochum, an urban centre in the Ruhr region not far from Schalke’s home city of Gelsenkirchen, Goretzka came through the youth ranks at Werner SV 06 Bochum and then VfL Bochum 1848. With the 2012/13 campaign turning out to be his breakout season with the senior side, he made 32 appearances in the 2.Bundesliga before moving on to Schalke for £4million in 2013.
Before he left for Schalke, then Vfl Bochum manager Peter Neururer called Goretzka the “talent of the century”, adding that he had “never seen an 18-year-old who even approaches his potential”.
As with any young talent, however, Schalke had to nurse Goretzka through the teething pains of being a naive and inexperienced player in one of Europe’s most prestigious leagues.
It is perhaps a sense of ownership over Goretzka’s potential – as so many fans feel when it comes to their club’s young stars – that has led to so much acrimony over his imminent departure for Bayern.
Ahead of Schalke’s 1-1 draw against Hannover last weekend, Goretzka was met with boos and whistles from the stands while one group of fans unfurled a banner which read: “Neither money nor trophies are worth more than our club. The one who does not appreciate that can p*** off immediately.”
Another explanation for the atmosphere of recrimination was that Schalke fans are aware of just how good a footballer they are losing. Though the club hierarchy have expressed their bitter disappointment at Goretzka’s decision to leave, few have questioned his professionalism.
Meanwhile, Bayern boss Jupp Heynckes has said of the hostile reception given to Goretzka: “Leon has good character and has always showed the correct attitude on the pitch. He always gives his all for his side… I expect him to do that until the summer.”
With the benefit of hindsight, Schalke fans may come to appreciate Goretzka’s contribution to the club. In an otherwise average side which has finished no higher than fifth in the last three seasons, Goretzka has lifted his teammates with his industrious showings from the midfield.
As well as being an energetic, all-action presence in the middle of the park, Goretzka is known for his excellent close control and ability to shield the ball under pressure. At just over 6’2 he’s head and shoulders above most of his opponents which, along with his rangy running style, makes him difficult to miss on the pitch.
Having caught the eye of Joachim Loew and made his national team debut in 2014, last year was really Goretzka’s arrival on the international scene with Germany. As well as netting six times in nine appearances for Die Mannschaft, he also scored probably the best goal of his career during Germany’s World Cup qualifying campaign.
When a delivery from a corner fell to Goretzka at the back post, he found himself facing away from goal with a defender closing in from behind. No matter, because he promptly smashed the ball into the back of the net with a powerfully stroked backheel.
There have also been fantastic howitzers, half-volleys and headers for Schalke, with Goretzka’s penchant for scoring from outside the box leading some pundits and columnists in Germany to draw parallels with Paul Scholes.
While the Schweinsteiger comparison better fits the bill – Goretzka is far less erratic than Scholes was in terms of his discipline and tackling technique – it’s still high praise indeed. If there is one shortcoming to Goretzka’s game it’s his relative paucity of assists for his teammates, though he creates goals in other ways through his movement, deft turnovers and interceptions.
Killer final balls aside, he is very much an all-round midfielder. Just as Schweinsteiger made it his job to do everything and be everywhere for Bayern and Germany in his heyday, Goretzka will be expected to take up his mantle and produce towering performances in the middle of the pitch.
Though Barcelona and Juventus were also said to be circling, Liverpool will be most sorry to miss out on Goretzka. With Emre Can looking likely to leave Anfield on a free this summer, his fellow German would have been the ideal replacement.
Heynckes hinted at Liverpool’s interest after Goretzka signing for Bayern was announced, saying: “For the Bundesliga, it's very good and very important for a Germany international to stay in Germany. There were competitors from England, Italy and Spain. But, in the end, he decided to sign for Bayern.”
Given his high intensity and roaring internal engine, Goretzka would have been well suited to Jurgen Klopp’s heavy-metal gegenpressing and could have added his own personal dynamism to Liverpool’s intermittently flat midfield three.
As it is, he will remain in the Bundesliga instead of moving to the Premier League. Merseyside's loss is Bavaria’s gain, as Bayern Munich and Jupp Heynckes well know.