Without the vast broadcasting revenues enjoyed by Spain’s ‘big two’ and the Premier League’s ‘big 20’, the Bundesliga’s best players will perennially be linked with moves abroad. Bayern München’s dominance gives them usual first refusal, but Pep Guardiola is a not a coach to unnecessarily stockpile players. That’s just not his modus operandi.
In that regard, there is a rich vein of players linked with Premier League clubs. Lars Bender, Sven Bender, Julian Draxler, Christoph Kramer, Leroy Sane, Patrick Hermann, Benedikt Howedes. Kevin de Bruyne, Son Heung-Min, Baba Rahman, Roberto Firmino and Kevin Trapp were all notable exports this summer. All 25 or under, all seeking their fortune elsewhere.
At Bayer Leverkusen, Hakan Calhanoglu might well be the next on the production line. Manchester United have been mentioned. Arsenal and Liverpool too, Chelsea completing the set of the four biggest drivers of internet traffic in the Premier League.
Let’s not pretend this isn’t a clever game. A newspaper only needs to write ‘looking at’ or ‘keeping tabs on’ to give the story validity. With vast scouting networks, which sensible clubs wouldn’t be aware of Calhanoglu’s form and potential?
Calhanoglu is a star for the modern age, his reputation for free-kick taking making him the subject of a million Vines. He has scored 11 free-kick goals in the Bundesliga alone. Still just 21, that’s a striking statistic.
Yet to limit Calhanoglu to the status of performing monkey is highly reductive, undermining one of the Bundesliga’s form players. Despite not turning 22 until February, he has been one of Roger Schmidt’s star performers during a difficult first three months of the season. Leverkusen sit eighth in the Bundesliga and must eliminate Roma to qualify from their Champions League group. They will probably need to take a point of Barcelona to do so.
Calhanoglu is a refreshingly direct player. He is comfortable in virtually every position behind the striker, having already operated at left midfield, as a No. 10, as a right winger, as a more reserved right midfielder and as a central midfielder this season. Only two Bundesliga players have created more chances, Bayern’s Douglas Costa and Pascal Gross of Ingolstadt. Gross, the leader of that list has played more than 200 extra minutes than Calhanoglu.
The most obvious thing about Calhanoglu is his confidence. He is continuously demanding the ball from his team-mates, cutting inside when playing out wide and never afraid to shoot from distance. His record from set pieces now makes it impossible for any other Leverkusen player to get an opportunity. That’s an understandable status quo.
If Calhanoglu is to leave Leverkusen for more glamorous climes, he is at least used to the upheaval. Having left Waldof Mannheim's youth system at 15 to join Karlsruher, he arrived in the Bundesliga with Hamburg in 2012 at the age of 18.
After just two seasons at Hamburg – and one of those back on loan at Karlsruher – Calhanoglu engineered a move away from the club. Having gone on sick leave for reasons of stress after his car was vandalised by fans, Hamburg eventually agreed to sell him to Leverkusen for £12m. The Turkish midfielder received widespread abuse from Hamburg’s supporters for the manner of his exit.
It all creates a persona and ability that has been impossible for Leverkusen to keep covered up. There are some footballers who just seem destined to play at the very highest level. With 20 Bundesliga goals and 11 assists in the embryonic stages of his career, Hakan Calhanoglu is one of them.