Euro 2016: German Jonathan Tah the future of defending as he leads new breed of ball playing centre-halves
If Joachim Löw is looking for a way to upgrade and improve his world champion team, to take them further into the future of football, he may just have found it, in an imposing 20-year-old from Hamburg.
Jonathan Tah could well be the future of the German national team, of whichever superclub is lucky enough to sign him from Bayer Leverkusen, or even of defending itself.
Rudi Völler is sporting director of Bayer Leverkusen, who signed Tah from Hamburg last summer for less than £7m and will make a colossal profit whenever they sell him. “Jonathan belongs to a new generation of centre-backs who are very good footballers,” Völler said.
He is right, and this summer’s European Championship could be adorned with this new European breed of ball-playing defender: John Stones of England, France’s Raphaël Varane and quite possibly Aymeric Laporte.
But Tah is three years younger than the best of those, Varane. And he marries that technical skill and awareness with a size and athleticism that is almost unrivalled at the top of the European game. If Germany thought that Jérôme Boateng was the prototype of modern centre-backs, then Tah seems to be the next iteration along. And with Boateng, Benedikt Höwedes and Holger Badstuber injured, missing this weekend’s friendlies, he has the chance this week to impress.
Tah’s rapid rise through the German youth system is testament to his remarkable progress. In July 2015, after confirming his move from Hamburg to Leverkusen, he captained the Germany side, which included Schalke’s Manchester City target Leroy Sané, at the European Under-19 Championship in Greece. Two months later, in September, he made his debut for the Germany Under-21 side.
This month Löw called him to join in with the seniors, after Leverkusen had been knocked out of the Europa League by Villarreal. “Of course, I didn’t know the number and I was a bit speechless, I didn’t really know what to say,” Tah said. “But I was so happy about the call from the national team coach. This is a great honour for me.”
“The senior team have always been my dream, but I did not think it would happen so fast. The fact that I have been so welcomed in Leverkusen since joining has allowed me to improve, I have to thank the team, the coach and the club.”
It had been fairly clear for some time that Löw was intrigued about the young man who had made himself so integral to Roger Schmidt’s intense, high-pressing side. It is not easy to play centre-back in a high-line team, with so much space in behind, but Tah has managed it, with his astute defensive positioning as well as his assured distribution from the back.
Leverkusen have had a solid season, lying sixth in the Bundesliga and just knocked out in the last 16 of the Europa League. And Tah has been there for almost every minute. Everyone at Leverkusen, quite understandably, is proud of him. “Jona has deserved his inclusion,” said Schmidt. “The consistency he has shown throughout this season, playing at a high level, is outstanding.”
Tah’s Leverkusen team-mates enjoy playing with him and some have nicknamed him “Big Mike”, after Carolina Panthers offensive tackle Michael Oher, an even larger man than 1.94m Tah. Others call him “The Battleship” or “The Bear”, while Stefan Kiessling chose another animal. “He has a body like a bull,” the veteran Bayer striker said. “It is incredibly difficult to play against him.”
But as the best young defender in Germany, and not playing for a club likely to be in next season’s Champions League, it is inevitable that there will be big-club interest in Tah. Manchester United tried to sign him in 2012, when he was a 16-year-old yet to make his full debut for Hamburg. Tah chose to stay in Germany, and at Hamburg and then on loan at Fortuna Düsseldorf he learnt the game.
Every big club in Europe knows about Tah now and would love a defender of his profile. Tah himself is understood to want to stay at Leverkusen for next season as well, as he settles into high-level competition.
But if United, Chelsea, Manchester City or Bayern Munich – all of whom are keen – offered Leverkusen more than £25m, that might change matters.