In the second part of our series showcasing the best performers of the 2011/12 season, we come across some of this year’s best goalkeepers, one of the league’s most improved players and arguably its most underrated. You can catch the rest of the series here.
20. Sven Ulreich
A native of Baden-Würtemburg, Sven Ulreich is gaining recognition for being one of the best Bundesliga goalkeepers despite a great deal of competition. The 23 year-old made his first team debut at Stuttgart in February, 2008 under then Stuttgart coach Armin Veh Ulreich now has over 80 Bundesliga appearances under his belt and a reputation respected throughout the country. After playing understudy to Jens Lehman during the 2009/2010 season, Ulreich was ready for full-time work after being featured 75 times for Stuttgart’s reserve squad. The 6’4″ keeper played every Bundesliga minute in 2010/2011 and 2011/2012, and this year made 120 saves after making 126 the year before.
Ulreich allowed 46 goals this past season, 13 less than the prior year. In January he signed a contract extension with Stuttgart that runs through June, 2017, indicative of how highly he is rated at the club. His solid play not only allowed the Swabians to cash in on the talents of goalkeeper Bernd Leno, who was sold permanently to Bayer Leverkusen after playing so well while on loan during the Hinrunde, but also earned the Swabians sixth place in the table, good for a Europa League play-in spot this summer. Ulreich was one of the biggest reasons for Stuttgart’s incredible run of form in the Rückrunde, a run that was bettered by only Bayern and Dortmund.
19. Tony Jantschke
A players true value is constantly debated amongst football supporters and there are always those considered either overrated or underrated. As far as Tony Jantschke is concerned it is definitely a case of the latter. The Borussia Mönchengladbach right back is arguably the most underrated player in the league at the moment. His consistency over the course of the season played a significant role in turning Gladbach from relegation candidates at the beginning of the season to Champions League participants next year.
Jantschke’s great form throughout the year won him many plaudits including those of Joachim Löw, the German National Team coach admitting that Jantschake was very much in contention in his planning for this summer’s European Championship. What set Jantschke apart from his peers was his well rounded game, equally adept defensively as he was going forward, he was a significant part of Gladbach’s enterprising and entertaining team. Defensively he made up a side that was on the verge of breaking the Bundesliga record for least goals conceded and offensively, his partnership with Patrick Herrmann on the right made for one of the most dangerous in the league.
18. Marc-Andre ter Stegen
20 year old ter Stegen is currently fighting for a place in this summer’s Germany squad for the Euros. The goalkeeper hasn’t been capped before for Germany, and has only played 40 games in the Bundesliga in his career. In fact, just a little over two years ago, ter Stegen was part of Germany’s U-17 squad. This alone speaks volumes about ter Stegen’s progress as a footballer and most of all his quality. 19 vital saves throughout the 2011/12 season and 15 clean sheets clearly indicates how well the current U-21 international has played this season.The Mönchengladbach native kept out 81.25% of all shots coming towards his goal and that is only part of the story.
Ter Stegen is much more than just a strong shot stopper. The 20 year old is almost always in control of his area, catching 53 crosses and 24 corner kicks this season. Furthermore, ter Stegen is also a skilled footballer who knows who to place a pass and read the game ahead of him. A total of 23 goalkicks reached their target this season, and 260 of his throws found a Mönchengladbach player. That statistics is impressive for any goalkeeper, let alone someone playing his first full professional season. Löw is currently deciding if he wants to take ter Stegen or Ron Robert Zieler as his third choice goalkeeper at the Euros. Either way, there is little doubt about ter Stegen being a future national team player if he continues playing as well as he has done for Gladbach this season.
17. Lukasz Piszczek
Coming from relative obscurity only three years ago to being arguably the league’s best fullback this season, the Polish right back has distinguished himself in Germany’s top flight and also caught the eye of Spanish heavyweights Real Madrid in the process. Piszczek’s dynamic style of play is perfectly suited to Dortmund’s game which encourages its fullbacks to drive forward with every possession. This season the Polish international has played an even more attacking role than last and contributed an excellent 4 goals including a contender for goal of the season against arch-rival Schalke, along with 8 assists – a season best for a defender. His intense work-rate saw him regularly cover more miles on the pitch than most midfielders and his acceleration has made him a nightmare to defend against.
His performance against Ribery this season in both matches against Bayern were particularly noteworthy and among the best of the season for a defender, epitomizing both his defensive awareness as well as his ability to push and drag back the opposition wingers. Piszczek could well be the league’s most improved player after being criticized in the past for his defensive game. To be fair to him though, he did play quite a bit as a midfielder before his move to Dortmund and his ability to slot in at right back and improve at the rate he did deserves its fair share of praise. Next season we might even call him the Bundesliga’s Dani Alves.
16. Bernd Leno
Bayer 04 Leverkusen opened the 2011/2012 season with regular goalkeeper Rene Adler sidelined. Former MSV Duisburg keeper David Yelldell was brought in to start for Die Werkself in their first round DFB Pokal match, but gave up four goals to Dynamo Dresden as Leverkusen were unceremoniously dumped from the competition. Fabian Giefer then got the call from Coach Robin Dutt for Leverkusen’s Bundesliga season opener in Mainz, but again Leverkusen came up short, losing 2-0. Not an auspicious beginning for a club that Dutt felt he could take higher than their previous second place finish under Jupp Heynckes. Teenaged goalkeeper Bernd Leno was Dutt’s choice for the club’s third competitive match. Leno. just acquired in August on loan from VfB Stuttgart, made the best of his debut by shutting out Werder Bremen and giving Leverkusen its first win of the season. The 19 year-old went on to start every subsequent match for Leverkusen, and his loan was made permanent by Die Werkself in November.
Leno continued his excellent start in league play by being only the third goalkeeper in Bundesliga history to record shutouts in his first three league starts. He also became the youngest German goalkeeper to start in a Champions League match when he started at Stamford Bridge on September 13, 2011 against eventual finalists Chelsea. Although the London side got the better of Leno that day, the teenager recorded wins over Valencia, Racing Genk and Chelsea in group play as Leverkusen advanced to the Round of 16 before being overwhelmed by Barcelona. Leno started all eight games of Leverkusen’s CL run and made a considerable impression.
Leverkusen had quite an up and down campaign, which included the dismissal of Dutt as the club took one step forward followed by one step back, but thanks to Leno Leverkusen were unbeaten in their final six league games to earn a Europa League spot. Leno allowed 42 goals in his 33 Bundesliga starts while making 99 saves, playing behind a shaky and consistently changing backline in the process.
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