We continue our look at the Bundesliga’s stand out performers this past season with the help of fellow fans, bloggers and writers. Part II of the series follows a very diverse group of players, from young to old, from defender to striker, and from anonymity to superstardom. These players all distinguished themselves in their own way and stand above most of their peers.
20. Oliver Baumann
20-year old Oliver Baumann is an admirer of Will Smith and is an admitted Ketchup enthusiast. Sound eccentric? It is. But he is also one of Germany’s up and coming goalkeepers and in his young age proved that inexperience is not a barrier of success. With a shot stopping statistic of 74%, and 8 clean sheets, Baumann has been a huge part in the Breigau Brazilians impressive season, all that in his first full year with the senior team. Germany is known for its’ assembly line production of solid goalkeepers, which makes the fact that Baumann stuck out so convincingly that much more impressive.
A product of Freiburg’s youth academy, Baumann made his Bundesliga debut on the last match day of the 2009/10 season in a 3:1 win over Borussia Dortmund. He had to wait until September of that year to get his next start though but once he did, he never looked back. As it turns out, Baumann’s rise from an anonymous role on the bench to glory was more circumstantial than calculated. Being the number two keeper before the beginning of the season, Baumann was set to continue the role of deputy on Freiburg’s bench. But after Freiburg’s first choice goalkeeper, Simon Pouplin, suffered an injury early in the season, Baumann was thrust into the fold rather abruptly. What followed surprised many not only in Freiburg but across the country. Save after save, stand out performance after standout performance and suddenly Robin Dutt had no choice but to keep young Baumann in goal.
It is now inconceivable for Freiburg supporters to see anyone else guard their goal. Freiburg had a disappointing finish to the season when most sides around them cemented their positions in the standings but for most of the season, they unexpectedly hovered around the Europa League spots. It is credit to the great work of Robin Dutt but also the consistently impressive performance of Baumann.
Key characteristic of Baumann’s goalkeeping are his command over the backline, good aerial control, and a great shot stopping ability. The best goalkeepers instill a confidence and trust in their defenders which then reverberates throughout the team. Baumann’s reliability was the foundation on which the rest of the team’s performances were built on. Alongside the likes of Tobias Sippel, Ron Robert Zieler and Thomas Kraft, Baumann is part of a new generation of energetic goalkeepers, composed under pressure and confident on the ball. All of these keepers like to get involved in their teams play, an element that has been part of the Dutch school of goalkeeping for a long time. Suffice to say, young Baumann has a bright future ahead of him if he continues his fine form.
Not many people expected a Real Madrid legend to pick a Bundesliga club as his next destination after eighteen glorious years in the Spanish capital, let alone an under-achieving club like Schalke 04. The Gelsenkirchen side has a storied history but has recently struggled to live up to that past and establish themselves as something other than an ambitious Bundesliga team. Few would have expected that after just a full season with Die Knappen Raul Gonzalez Blanco would find his name in yet another club s folklore, standing tall as one of the league s best performers and the epicenter of one of Schalke’s most historic season in Europe.
Raul initially cited manager Felix Magath as instrumental in bringing him to Schalke. The notorious manager had been with the club for a year now and was determined to improve upon Schalke s impressive second place finish the previous season and the Spaniard was a crucial part of that project. It did not take Raul long to win over Schalke supporters, starting the season off with a brace against German Giants and rivals Bayern Munich in a LIGA Total Cup match. His spirited and industrious performance was a sign of things to come.
He scored on his debut in a 2-1 loss to Hamburg but his impact was immediately visible. Magath utilized Raul and his experience as the foundation of a young and hard-working outfit. As he had for Madrid in Spain, Raul had played a supporting striker role but also deputized as the lone striker. Over the course of the season Raul became the spiritual leader and creative hub of the side with much of Schalke’s play centering around the Spanish forward. Raul seemed re-invigorated and emphasized that he never felt as fit as he did under Magath. His relentless work ethic and timeless instinct for goal was also the foundation of Schalke s historic run to the Champions League semi-finals. Raul s five goals and three assists were instrumental in overcoming the likes of Benfica, Lyon, Valencia and defending Champions Inter Milan. Despite a disappointing domestic campaign, Raul also lead his side to the final of the DFB Cup, scoring the match-winner against Bayern Munich that sent them to the final. Raul ended up lifting that cup in the most one sided cup final win in over 30 years.
Across all competitions he finished with 19 goals and 10 assists, impressive considering the circumstances and it was his leadership and influence on and off the pitch that was the determining factor in Schalke’s success this season. Few moments embodied his professionalism and dedication better than the post-match celebration against Inter where Raul climbed the stands to celebrate the historic win with the Schalke faithful. All things considered it is easy to understand how in just one year Raul has become not just a Schalke hero but one of the most likable players in Germany.
18. Benedikt Höwedes
While Neuer and Raul are (rightfully) collecting all the plaudits for Schalke’s performances this season, center back Benedikt Höwedes has rather quietly gone under the radar. The defensive stalwart was every bit as instrumental in their Champions League semi final and domestic cup run. At 23, Höwedes has experienced somewhat of a breakthrough season, one that is slowly starting to receive the accolades it deserves. Having been one of his team’s most consistent players since becoming a regular, he never quite received the credit that the likes of Badstuber or even Hummels have despite the fact that in his young age the defender already boasts a truly impressive record.
Before making an impression against defending European Champions Inter Milan, Höwedes captained his Schalke youth side to a national championship back in 2006. A year later he received a professional contract and made his first professional debut in a Champions League match against Rosenberg. By the end of the season he had won the coveted Fritz Walter Gold medal, awarded to the best young player in Germany across different age groups. Two years later Höwedes was part of Germany’s successful 2009 U-21 championship alongside the likes of Özil, Beck, Neuer, Hummels and Boateng. Little do people know though that without a last minute goal against France in the playoffs leading up to the tournament, Germany never would have reached the competition in the first place.
This season, Höwedes helped stabilize a Schalke defense that was leaking goals left and right at the start of the year, eventually helping them become the league’s second best defense for much of the season. Leading up to their semi final against Manchester United, Schalke also boasted one of the best defensive records in Europe as well. Neuer deserves a lot of the credit for keeping Schalke in games this season but even the best keepers need competent defenders in front of them. Höwedes was Neuer’s partner in crime and together they kept 18 clean sheets during the season, remarkable considering the many changes the team underwent.
National Team manager Joachim Löw finally called up Höwedes for their trio of internationals during the summer. And even though it came only after Sven Bender withdrew with an injury it was a long time coming. With Germany’s defensive being its’ biggest problem, Löw should look no further than Höwedes who completed 80% of his passes this season and won an impressive 66% of his tackles on the ground. And being that Löw appreciates versatility, it won’t hurt that Höwedes can play anywhere across the backline quite comfortably.
17. Milivoje Novakovic
Milijove Novakovic had one hell of a season for Köln. On the fringes of the team at the start of the season and involved in a tussle with his coach and fellow teammates, few expected much from the aging striker. Fast-forward to the end of the season and Novakovic can proudly stand amongst the league’s best performers. He started 24 matches and scored 17 goals, finishing 3rd on the goal scoring charts. As the club’s top scorer for the fourth year running, Novakovic was arguably the most important part in the side’s strides to an impressive 10th place finish. His 12 goals in the second half of the season ensured that his team, pegged for relegation from the start, had its’ strongest finish in over a decade.
“SuperNova” was born in the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana (then Yugoslavia), back in 1979. His football journey has been rather obscure, as he kept moving from team to team in the Austrian League, playing for teams Mattersburg and Linz before ending up in Bulgaria at Litex Lovech where he impressed Köln scouts. He found his home in Köln in summer of 2006 but it wasn’t until the 2007/08 season in the 2. Bundesliga that Novakovic would begin to make a name for himself in Germany. In that year, he helped Köln regain promotion by scoring 20 goals, making him the top marksman of the 2. Bundesliga. The rest, as they say, is history.
Novakovic stood out not just because of his numbers but the manner in which he put up those numbers. He was always there for the club at the right place and the right time. He scored match winners, braces, a hat-trick; scored with right foot, left foot, and headers. The 32- year old did it all this season. Relying on his clever movement off-the-ball and a sharp nose for goal, Novakovic was a revelation for many Bundesliga spectators and scored crucial goals on more than just one occasion. Whether it was in a derby, a late equalizer, penalties, rallying the team to come back from behind, Novakovic led by example and his experience. At 32, many players play second fiddle but Novakovic proved that age is just a number. His style of play is somewhat of a throw back and reminiscent of a Gerd Müller-esque quality that you don’t see nowadays with forwards. Often you would see Novakovic waiting to pounce on the mistakes of opposing defenders or time his runs just right to score when least expected.
He may not garner the praise of those who cherish the technical side of the game but he has been a joy to watch for those who appreciate the languid and intuitive side of football. It is not easy to overshadow Köln’s prodigal son, Lukas Podolski, but with match winning performances against the likes of Bayern Munich where Novakovic rallied his side to come back and win after being down two goals, who can deny that Prinz Poldi’s crown should be moved on as new King reigns over Köln.
Here are all goals scored by Novakovic in the 2010/11 season.
16. Sergio Pinto
Few players in the league are less glamorous than the 30-year-old Portuguese midfielder. His resume is not studded with many titles or individual honors and as a player, he even has his fair share of detractors. Despite the low profile, few can argue with Pinto’s performances this season. Mirko Slomka’s Hannover have surprised everyone this year and pushed Bayern Munich to the limit, almost costing them a spot in the Champions League next season. At the heart of Hannover’s great performances was Sergio Pinto, whose combative and cerebral performances ensured that the team finish with the highest points total in club history. Pinto is enjoying the best season of his career but he traveled a long road to get there.
The former Porto youth product made the move to Germany at the unusual age of 12 where he found his way to Schalke. He never quite made the grade there, four appearances in the UEFA Cup being the highlight of that stay. Curiously enough, his next move to 2. Bundesliga outfit Alemania Aachen would see him compete in the UEFA Cup yet again. Aachen had qualified for the competition by reaching the Cup final in the previous season. To everyone’s surprise, Aachen reached the Round of 16 before losing to eventual semi finalists AZ Alkmaar but Pinto played in 6 of their 9 matches and did quite well. It would not be the last time he would be associated with the competition. The following season Pinto was crucial in helping Aachen win promotion. Aachen did not fare too well in the top flight and were subsequently relegated but Pinto’s performances were enough to land him a move to Hannover where he would soon take yet another step towards Europe.
Pinto was never considered a spectacular player and even this season, he partook in a lot of the dirty work, accumulating 11 yellow cards in the process. Suffice to say, he is not the most likable player in the league, or amongst its’ players. But besides putting in the rough tackles or occasional body check, Pinto proved that he possesses finer qualities as well. He took great strides to improve the attacking part of his game and became almost a de facto playmaker in Slomka’s counter attacking set up. Not quite technical enough to be an out and out attacking midfielder but smarter than your average defensive midfielder, Pinto channeled Pirlo to serve as the primary engineer of Hannover’s efficient counter attacks. His passing game improved tremendously as has his reading of the game, which was vital in ensuring that the ball was distributed quickly and accurately out of midfield. The refinement of his game did not take away from his shooting prowess either, the 5 goals will attest to that.
Pinto will never get the credit of players like Schweinsteiger or Sahin and will always leave much to be desired in the eyes of many purists. That said, he found his niche this season and made the most of it. Most importantly, Pinto will once again play in the UEFA CUP. Rather, it is the Europa League now. The tournament evolved over the years, as have some of the players that will participate in it.
Latest posts by Cristian Nyari (see all)
- Bundesliga Hinrunde Best XI - December 27, 2014
- Löw: “We can play better, we haven’t reached our best yet” - June 29, 2014
- Thomas Müller: “The best is yet to come from us” – Germany’s dominant win against the US - June 27, 2014