We here at Bundesliga Fanatic enjoy lists and the banter they inspired as much as anyone else. To that end, we’ve taken the opportunity to fill a bit of the winter-break void with our choices for the top 20 players of the Hinrunde, which we will unveil in four installments of five players to help carry you to next Friday night’s Rückrunde start.
Our countdown gets started with a pair of back-line leaders of promoted sides who’ve been punching well above their weight this season, Pal Dardai’s pivotal Norwegian in the rise of Hertha BSC, the bedrock backstop for the Foals, and the other Borussia’s midfielder rejuvenated midfielder.
Let’s get started!
20. Marvin Matip
While 24-year-old Joël anchors Schalke’s backline to higher praise, it’s older Matip brother Marvin (30) who has resurrected his career as a starting centerback with Bundesliga newcomers FC Ingolstadt. Marvin joined die Schanzer in 2010 and has already 157 appearances for the new club.
The mostly 2. Bundesliga veteran has logged almost every minute this season for FCI, all the while clearing the hell of out threatening balls (6.2 per match), bettered only in the Bundesliga by teammate Benjamin Hübner’s rate (6.7 per match). Stressful times at back! Only one of his errors has directly led to an opponent’s goal, a big achievement considering Ingolstadt’s rookie status. In fact, Ingolstadt has conceded the Bundesliga’s third-fewest goals (18) at the break, and Matip plays no small part in this achievement. If FCI stays up this season, surely it’s the likes of Matip and Tobias Levels (another well-seasoned veteran of the lower tier) who will be deserving of accolades.
19. Aytac Sülu
Back in 2013, SV Darmstadt 98 had been relegated from the third tier to the Regionalliga, but in the end stayed in the 3.Liga due to Kickers Offenbach’s financial mess. Had they gone down, Sülu would likely have stayed at Darmstadt and probably become a car salesman on the side. What has happened since is a fairy tale come true. Two promotions in two years with captain Sülu steering the ship all the way to the Bundesliga.
The 30-year-old has been a tough customer on the way to the Bundesliga, once even removing one of his own teeth after it got loose in an areal challenge. This season, Sülu has proven to be one of Darmstadt’s key players, scoring four goals from set-piece situations (that accounts for roughly 25% of all of Darmstadt goals). Furthermore, he’s proven to help make a decent centre back partner with Luca Caldirola, providing the Lilies with the fight and stability they need at the back to be ‘in with a shout’ to stay in the league.
18. Per Ciljan Skjelbred
The former Rosenborg player had most fans at home wondering if he was going to make a speedy return after his time at HSV got off to a very rough start. In the end, a loan move to Hertha turned permanent, and the 28-year-old has turned into one of the most important players in the line-up of the Old Lady ever since.
This season has been no different for the man who got married to a woman he met at school when she managed to snatch the ball away from him through a class-A tackle on her future husband (no doubt she’s wearing the pants in that relationship). From his holding-midfield position, Skjellbred provides the heartbeat of the team, making an average of 2.9 interceptions per game and placing his passes with an accuracy of 84.9%. It has been the Norwegian’s unglamorous job in midfield which has allowed the likes of Darida, Ibsevic, and Kalou to shine this season.
17. Yann Sommer
Both Sommer and Gladbach got off to a shaky start this season, but the keeper and the team managed to eventually dig themselves out of the hole they had dug fover the first five match days of the season. The Swiss international has had to deal with an ever-changing line-up in the back four, due to Gladbach’s many injuries this season. So far, he has managed to take charge and steer his back four, in addition to once again showing that he has a great command of his box.
Sommer was named the player of the season by the Gladbach fans in 2014/15, and he has once again shown why he has made the fans forget all about Marc Andre ter Stegen. The keeper has made few errors and shown good passing skills whenever he’s been in possession for his team. His understanding of the game has led him to quickly take choices, often making the decision that enables the team to shift into attack directly after he the keeper has let go of the ball.
16. Ilkay Gündogan
After a 2014/15 Rückrunde of crawling slowly back to form, Illy is once again a premier Bundesliga (dare we say, “European”?) midfielder. Don’t be fooled by his single assist or his paltry one key-pass-per-match, which is only eighth best on his own club (eighth!). Gündogan’s contributions lie deeper down the pitch in the center. Only Bayern’s Alonso passes the ball more than Gündogan. The German averages 85.6 passes a match, virtually controlling BVB’s play through the right midfield and in the center-right of the final third. Who else is responsible for creating what eventually become teammates’ key passes? No one.
Gündogan is the unglamorous infrastructure of one of Europe’s most-deadly attacks. His ability to feed Mkhitaryan, Kagawa, and Auba is the foundation of Tuchel’s creative attacking schemes. As we saw brilliantly displayed a few years ago, Gündogan can still dictate a match’s cadence and pacing with his controlling touch, deft pivots, and smart passing choices. He’s also added a dangerous long-ball wrinkle (four per match) to his game. He’s back, indeed.
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