Werder Bremen's Davie Selke could become Germany's future No. 9
While it is time to sum up 2014, allow me to name the best transfer of 2013 instead. No, not Gareth Bale, but rather a bargain that cost 2,000 times less than the Welshman. How about signing a future Germany centre-forward for just 50,000 euros?
Such a deal might sound like science fiction, but that's exactly what Werder Bremen managed to accomplish when signing Hoffenheim's Davie Selke in the January transfer window nearly two years ago.
Selke was barely 18 back then, but already mightily ambitious. He saw Hoffenheim's policy of signing big names like Eren Derdiyok rather than promoting youngsters under general manager Andreas Muller as an obstacle to his development and decided to try his luck elsewhere. By the time Muller was sacked by Hoffenheim in April 2013, the striker was gone, almost without compensation. That mistake alone could have been a good reason for his dismissal.
In the short term, nobody noticed Selke's absence. Hoffenheim were sensational up front in the 2013-14 season, scoring an astonishing 72 goals in 34 games. In the meantime, Selke played for Bremen's reserve side in the third division and was only briefly promoted to the first squad in November, leaving him deeply disappointed that promises were not kept. He made just three appearances in the Bundesliga that were largely anonymous, and made the biggest headlines because of a training ground clash with captain Clemens Fritz. Those who watched him closely, though, knew that the potential was there, and the momentum changed completely in the summer of 2014.
Selke's performance at the European Under-19 Championship in July was nothing short of sensational. The young prodigy scored six goals in five games, equalling the record of Alvaro Morata from 2011. Ably assisted by playmaker Marc Stendera, who himself is making terrific progress this season under Thomas Schaaf at Eintracht Frankfurt, Selke took opposing defences apart. He netted braces against Bulgaria and Ukraine, and was the star of the show when Germany thrashed Austria 4-0 in the semifinals. The final versus Portugal was the only game in which he failed to find the net, but Germany won 1-0 regardless, and Selke was crowned both the top scorer and the best player.
The young forward returned to Bremen as a star in the making. Even his hairstyle became famous, with a local hairdresser advertising a "Selke-cut" for 15 euros. There is little wonder that he was instantly promoted into the first team, especially taking Werder's financial problems into account. Unable to sign new stars, the club is forced to gamble on young players, and Selke was certainly the most promising of them all. Even so, the results exceeded all expectations.
Bremen are struggling, and their porous defence makes them favourites to be relegated for the first time since 1981, but Selke is a ray of light that is giving them hope. He is also the reason they are not rock bottom at the Christmas break.
Borussia Dortmund are hardly a model of perfect defending these days, but even given their troubles one couldn't help but be impressed with Selke's performance against the ailing giants on Saturday. He scored the opener after just three minutes, expertly beating an offside trap and curling a wonderful soft ball into the far corner, and then assisted Fin Bartels after the break with a delicious cross on the counter attack. That was enough to win 2-1, but it was his overall input that was even more eye-catching.
Selke didn't stop running for 90 minutes, and showed an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time to pick up the countless long balls aimed in his direction. He then proceeded to take on defender after defender, frustrating and exhausting them, forcing them to make mistakes. Dortmund were simply unable to handle him, as Bremen leapfrogged them into 16th place.
Such stamina is less surprising if you know that Davie's father Teddy, who is originally from Ethiopia, is a fitness coach who got a job at Werder when his son signed in 2013. Selke's ability to be constantly on the move is actually something of a weakness in some respects, at least until he learns to move smarter. The sensational game against Dortmund aside, the youngster sometimes runs too much, chasing every ball and committing too many fouls.
"He is like a young dog who wants to play no matter what," local expert Falko Bloding says. Tactical awareness comes with experience, however, and Selke is more than willing to learn. His role model, fittingly, is Atletico Madrid forward Mario Mandzukic, who runs himself into the ground for his teammates in every game.
"No ball is lost for him -- he sacrifices himself again and again," Selke says of Croatia star Mandzukic, who is extremely mobile and yet universally considered a classic No. 9.
That is exactly what Selke is, and his progress is huge news for Germany. With Miroslav Klose having retired, Mario Gomez struggling with injuries and probably never to reach his best level again, and Stefan Kiessling controversially discarded by Joachim Low, Germany are left without pure strikers. They usually play with Thomas Muller or Mario Gotze as a false nine, in what could arguably be described as a 4-6-0 formation.
Unearthing a penalty-area predator will enable them to be much more flexible, and Selke looks destined to fill that role in the future.
He will need to grow up first, and new Werder coach Viktor Skripnik is certain to be patient with him. Davie, who celebrates his 20th birthday next month, is still very raw and inconsistent, his aerial ability is still rather poor for someone who is 6-foot-4, and he is still not disciplined enough. Having said that, the prospect is mouthwatering -- a tireless, hard-working, two-footed striker with great instincts and superb technical skills.
Not for nothing are big clubs, including Real Madrid and Benfica, rumoured to be following Selke closely. Werder are thrilled that the youngster has signed a long-term contract till 2018, which means that the club will be able to receive a hefty fee when he is ready to make the big step forwards. In order to keep him for next season at the very least, they will have to stay up, and that is a tough task. Selke's own form will be crucial to their chances. He has four goals and two assists to his name so far, and Low will be studying his development closely ahead of Euro 2016. We should all do likewise.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin