Leon Goretzka states his case for a spot in Germany's World Cup midfield
SOCHI, Russia -- Leon Goretzka was described as a "once-in-a-century talent" by his manager at VfL Bochum, which is perhaps not what a 17-year-old needs to hear when he is making his way in the game.
Heads can be turned too easily at that age, with youngsters believing the hype and inevitably failing to realise their potential. But after watching Goretzka score twice inside the opening eight minutes of Germany's 4-1 Confederations Cup semifinal victory over Mexico on Thursday, it isn't difficult to identify the qualities that prompted Peter Neururer to give the young prodigy such a glowing reference when he was starting out at his hometown club.
Goretzka, now 22, is no longer the raw diamond who made his debut for Bochum in Germany's second tier five years ago. Having moved to Schalke in 2013, he has become one of the hottest properties in German football, but it has taken the Confederations Cup to propel him onto a global stage and show the world what all the fuss is about.
Arsenal want to take him to the Emirates, and Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp has also been pondering a move for a player he knows well -- that should not be a surprise considering that Goretzka runs, passes and scores like a certain Steven Gerrard. But the suspicion in Germany is that Goretzka will spend a further season at Schalke, gaining more experience and first-team football before moving to Bayern Munich, who have seen Xabi Alonso retire this summer and will be aware that Arturo Vidal, 30, cannot sustain his high-energy game forever.
Until this tournament, that plan could conceivably have been executed quite comfortably by Bayern, but now that Goretzka has taken to the big stage like a natural, the interest will grow.
Every major club in Europe is attempting to find the best young talent, particularly in midfield, and Goretzka ticks all the boxes. His two goals were classy finishes, one from outside the penalty area and the other from a narrow angle, and he was a creative force in general, linking well with captain Julian Draxler and covering acres of grass to nullify Mexico's overworked midfield.
It was no surprise that Goretzka was named man of the match, having taken his Confederations Cup tally to three goals ahead of Sunday's final against Chile in Saint Petersburg. But his performances in Russia have ensured that he will be a serious contender to return in 12 months' time when Germany attempt to defend the World Cup.
Low, who called Goretzka into the Germany squad ahead of Brazil 2014 only to lose the then-19-year-old to injury, is a huge admirer, and the manager insisted after this game that Goretzka has rare qualities as a midfielder.
"I think he can be a number 8 or 6," said Low. "He can do both roles. His quality is that he can run longer distances. His ability to run so far and so powerfully sets him apart from the rest, and it is his great strength."
Low is not short of midfield options, though, when he has all of his players fit and available, including those who did not make this trip to Russia. Marco Reus and Ilkay Gundogan are contenders once fit from injury, with Toni Kroos, Julian Weigl and Kevin Schurrle also in the mix. Emre Can, who has played in this Confederations Cup, is another option. But Goretzka can make things happen and break them up. He wins tackles, but he also created 34 chances for Schalke in the Bundesliga last season, scoring five times.
Once he gains greater experience, and perhaps gets that move to Bayern or another Champions League mainstay, he could take his game to a higher level and become the focal point of the German team for the next decade. For now, though, Goretzka is focused solely on emerging from St. Petersburg on Sunday with a trophy.
"I was really happy to help the team with the two goals tonight," said Goretzka after the Mexico victory. "The objective was to get to the final and we have done that, so we are very happy.
"There is only one match to go, so our chances are good. I am happy to play against Chile because we felt that the draw wasn't enough in the first game, and this is our chance to show we can play and win against teams of that quality.
"We are in top condition and I think we are ready for the pace of the game."
With Goretzka driving the midfield, Draxler leading by example and Timo Werner a constant threat up front, Germany look ominously confident. Chile will pose a greater test than Mexico, but this new-look Germany is on a roll and Goretzka is pushing them on harder than anybody.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_