Leverkusen's Florian Wirtz living up to 'next Havertz' hype

LEVERKUSEN, Germany (AP) — Florian Wirtz has big shoes to fill at Bayer Leverkusen after its last young star left for Chelsea and won the Champions League. He’s doing just fine.

The 18-year-old Wirtz is more than just a worthy successor to Kai Havertz in the Leverkusen attack. He’s one of the leading offensive players in the German Bundesliga outright, with five goals and six assists in 11 games this season, and is settling into the German national team with four games so far.

Wirtz scored Leverkusen’s opening goal in a 3-1 win over Leipzig on Sunday with a smart run past former Manchester City left-back Angelino and he played a part in all three of his team’s goals against Celtic in the Europa League on Thursday, including a fine chipped pass back for Moussa Diaby to score a dramatic winner.

Such is the faith Leverkusen has in Wirtz that none of the reported $92 million fee for the Havertz-to-Chelsea deal was reinvested in buying another attacking midfielder. “Waste of money, because the kid (Wirtz) is already better,” sporting director Simon Rolfes said last week.

Wirtz and Havertz are both versatile attacking midfielders happy playing out wide when needed, but at 1.79 meters (5 feet, 9 inches) tall, Wirtz doesn’t have the height that has helped Havertz to move into a striker’s role at Chelsea. Instead, Wirtz plays deeper, focuses more on creating chances for others, and is a capable set-piece taker whose corners led to two goals against Celtic.

Havertz came through the well-regarded Leverkusen academy, while Wirtz was signed at the age of 16 from local rival Cologne in January 2020. Four months after his arrival, Wirtz made his Bundesliga debut — it would have been earlier if the coronavirus pandemic hadn’t delayed the season — and in his fourth senior game he scored against Bayern Munich.

In a region packed with pro clubs, Leverkusen stands out with a signature offer to young talents — a direct line to the first team. Leverkusen isn’t afraid to move youngsters into older age groups, doesn’t have a reserve team and rarely loans out promising players to get experience elsewhere.

Rolfes told Wirtz and his parents that he could train immediately with first-team players at Leverkusen when he was still playing under-17s soccer at Cologne. Leverkusen’s commitment to its women’s team helped too because Wirtz’s older sister Juliane had arrived two years earlier and was playing as a defender in the Bundesliga.

“They know how professional the club is. They know that we rely on (young) talents,” Rolfes said. “I said to him, ‘From the first day you are here, you will train with Havertz and (France winger Moussa) Diaby,’ and he said OK.”

The hunt to find the next Wirtz — either within the academy or with smart local scouting — is on.

Rolfes said Leverkusen builds its whole club around young players, setting up its first team and youth squads to emphasize technical skills over physical power. Coaches are told not to worry about winning youth competitions, just ensuring players develop. When Rolfes taps the market for older players, he looks for dressing-room leaders who’ll accept long-term contracts and mentor younger teammates.

Increasingly youth development happens off the field, too. Academy head Thomas Eichin said he spends much of his time communicating with parents, who have access to the training center for the younger players. For kids who are the focus of their family’s hopes for a better life on a lucrative pro contract, the club tries to ease the pressure and allow a potential future star to be a child too.

Wirtz has a contract with Leverkusen through 2026 after signing an extension in May. Based on Leverkusen’s recent history and Wirtz’s undoubted potential, it’s unlikely he’ll stay that long.

“We have a really long contract, that’s good. But it’s not only about contracts, it’s also about the feeling that it’s the best place to develop for as long as possible, to grow, to improve in his personality, his technique, tactical, physical things,” Rolfes said.

“So we have to show him that we work on a really high level here, and then we can keep him. And if we have a good squad, with a lot of ambition, we try to keep him for as long as possible.”

___

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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