Schalke 04 have one of the best academies in the world. Over the past few years, many of Germany’s top names have come from their academy: Manuel Neuer, Leroy Sané, Ilkay Gündogan, Julian Draxler, and more. Mesut Özil joined the side at a young age, while US international Weston McKennie did the same. Despite this, the historic side were relegated two seasons ago.
Last season marked Schalke’s first time in the second tier in 30 years. With the club suffering financially, many of its prize assets jumped ship, making the club look increasingly in peril. Things looked especially dicey at center back: Ozan Kabak left for Norwich, Timo Becker joined Hansa Rostock, Shkodran Mustafi became a free agent, and Matija Nastasić left for Fiorentina. So how did Schalke fix this? They went back to their famous academy and found a top center back: Malick Thiaw.
Thanks to the heroics of Thiaw, Schalke earned promotion back to Germany’s top flight. Now, ahead of the upcoming Bundesliga season, the 20-year-old defender looks set to prove himself at an elite level.
Thiaw’s Career Path
Thiaw started his youth career with TV Kalkum in his native Düsseldorf. From there, Thiaw moved to Düsseldorf’s major club, Fortuna Düsseldorf. Moves to Leverkusen and Mönchengladbach followed, before Thiaw joined Schalke at the age of 13.
In 2020, Thiaw made his debut in the Bundesliga at the age of 18. He played a total of four times, playing 19 more games the following season as Schalke were relegated. Last season was his break-out year — Thiaw played 31 of Schalke’s 34 Bundesliga 2 matches and led them to promotion.
Malick Thiaw is eligible to play for Finland, Senegal, or Germany. He has reportedly turned down Finland in the past and represents Germany at U21 level.
Statistics and Comparisons
Thiaw was one of the top defenders in the Bundesliga 2 last season. The defender finished top ten in both tackles and interceptions per FBref.com, better than all other Schalke players in both categories. In addition, the official Bundesliga website put him in the league’s top 20 duel winners.
The player I statistically am comparing Thiaw to is Armel Bella-Kotchap in 2021. Bella-Kotchap spent last season in the Bundesliga after helping Bochum to promotion from the Bundesliga 2 in 2021. Now at Southampton, Bella-Kotchap shows how well second-tier players can adapt to the Bundesliga.
As a playmaking defender, Thiaw is statistically better. He completed more passes, created more chances, had a more accurate passing percentage, more successful dribbles, and more goals. However, as a pure defender, Bella-Kotchap was better — he had more interceptions (66 to 52), clearances (118 to 106), headed clearances (59 to 53), and a more successful tackle percentage (58% to 56%). Thiaw did, however, win more tackles overall and block as many shots. Overall, they are close statistically, but Bella-Kotchap was more successful in the Bundesliga 2.
Thiaw’s Strengths and Weaknesses
A tall (6’4″) defender, Thiaw is a very well-rounded player. Defensively, he’s good at winning the ball, whether in the air or on the ground. He’s able to bring the ball out from the back, with good passing and decent dribbling. He’s reliable, playing almost every game for Schalke last year, and is very physically capable.
Thiaw can occasionally be a bit clumsy, though. He averaged over a foul a game last season and has a habit of collecting cards — eight yellows and one red in his past two seasons. He’ll continue to improve and commit fewer fouls as he gains experience but at the moment it could be viewed as a weakness.
This has all the makings of a big season for Thiaw. Schalke has built a team capable of avoiding relegation, and the German could impress with an improved backline. It also could be huge in deciding which national team he ends up with — a big season could result in a senior call-up.
With Schalke’s season beginning this weekend, Thiaw will get his chance to shine sooner rather than later.
Image Courtesy of Wo st 01 / Wikimedia Commons.
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