Jonathan Tah: Bayer Leverkusen’s defensive rock – and the next Jerome Boateng?
When a player makes his Bundesliga debut at the age of 17, it’s usually a good sign.
Take colossal central defender Jonathan Tah. In August 2013, he became the youngest debutant ever to pull on a Hamburg shirt. Now, at just 22, he’s the bedrock of a Bayer Leverkusen side chasing UEFA Champions League football.
“Jonathan has come on leaps and bounds at Leverkusen, he’s surpassed all expectation and now ranks as one of Germany’s best defenders,” said Bayer sporting director Rudi Völler last month, after Tah penned a three-year contract extension through to summer 2023. “It’s no surprise that he’s interesting so many top clubs, but he knows what he has at Leverkusen and wants to continue his current trajectory.”
The Hamburg native appeared to be on a one-way ticket to the top, long before his move to Leverkusen. He was snapped up by Hamburg at the age of 13 and fast-tracked through the ranks of the Bundesliga’s only ever-present founding member, but after falling out of favour under Mirko Slomka in 2013/14, the former Germany Under-19 captain’s search for first-team football took him on loan to Bundesliga 2 outfit Fortuna Düsseldorf. It turned out to be a win-win situation for all concerned.
Promotion hopefuls Fortuna acquired a player with prior Bundesliga know-how, and Tah had the ideal stage on which to rebuild his confidence and show parent club Hamburg exactly what they were missing. Although Düsseldorf finished the 2014/15 campaign 14 points adrift of the promotion places, Tah’s time in the shop window proved a roaring success. Impressed by his positional sense and aerial prowess, Leverkusen made their move. “Jonathan is quick, technical and tough,” enthused Völler at the time. “He can still improve in all areas, but we know how important he’s going to be for us.”
Tah has lived up to the hype. He made 29 Bundesliga appearances in 2015/16, as one integral part of the German top flight’s third-meanest defence (40 goals conceded). Injury restricted him to 19 outings the following campaign as Bayer battled against relegation, but he has only missed four matches so far this term, underpinning Die Werkself‘s push for a top-four finish with beast-like defensive qualities that have drawn comparisons with Bayern Munich and Germany juggernaut Jerome Boateng.
It’s easy to see why. Aside from the fact the two players spent their formative years at Hamburg, both stand at over 6′ tall; are physical, clean in the challenge and strong in the air. They can use both feet, and have heat-seeking ball distribution in their respective lockers. Boateng is widely regarded as one of the most complete centre-backs of his generation, but it would not be an exaggeration to say Tah – with his bone-crunching 67 per cent success rate in the tackle, 89.4 per cent pass completion average and season-high sprint speed for a centre-half of 21.3mph – has the potential one day to be mentioned in the same breath.
“Jerome is among the best defenders in the world,” Tah told kicker magazine when asked if he models his game on the 2014 FIFA World Cup winner. “I watched him a lot growing up – him and Mats Hummels. They’re the best in Germany. They pass the ball more like No.10s, and I still make mistakes that they never would, so I’ve still got a lot to learn from both of them, even though I’m my own guy and don’t want to copy anyone.”
Individuality aside, if Bayern’s Niklas Süle is the natural heir to Hummels, Tah has to be considered the most natural fit to fill the boots of Boateng – at least at international level. His chance to prove it might not come at the 2018 World Cup, but it will arrive eventually. Ask anyone who has played with or against him: nothing gets in the way of the Bundesliga’s appositely nicknamed ‘battleship’.