Demirbay finally coming of age at Hoffenheim

Highlights – FC Augsburg vs Eintracht Frankfurt

Kerem Demirbay’s career has seen numerous peaks and troughs, yet the midfielder’s first genuine shot in the Bundesliga has brought out the best in his game.

Now he stands on the brink of leading TSG 1899 Hoffenheim into the Champions League.

Struggle is the central theme through Kerem Demirbay’s budding football career. Now aged 23, he has stood out as one of the Bundesliga’s most outstanding players in his third attempt at success in Germany’s top division. Though it hasn’t been straightforward, the encounters, the troubles and the triumphs, are what has shaped Demirbay into his current self.

Demirbay’s six goals and nine assists have helped power Hoffenheim into Europe for the first time in the club’s history. Julian Nagelsmann’s high-flying side can confirm a place in next season’s Champions League against Eintracht Frankfurt on Sunday. Indeed, it was Demirbay’s injury-time leveller, rounding off an influential performance against 1. FC Köln, which rubber-stamped Euro qualification.

Packing data, which measure the number of opponents and defenders taken out of the game, ranks Demirbay behind Naby Keita as the league’s most dangerous playmaker. He takes out nine defenders per game on average, which in turn creates several key situations in attack. It’s an impressive record considering he is ranked higher than Ousmane Dembele or Arjen Robben in those measurements.

In terms of attacking midfielders, he is joint-top with FC Bayern München’s Franck Ribery as the league’s most potent and creative forward, according to the Packing data set from Impact Media.

Brought up near the Parkstadion – FC Schalke 04’s former home in Gelsenkirchen – Demirbay has been shaped by his roots. For the German-Turkish community in Nordrhein-Westfalen, the importance of football sits far and beyond a career opportunity, but for social integration into Germany’s working class cities. With a chip on their shoulder and an aggressive, ambitious mindset, players from Turkish heritage are in vogue within academies and recruitment departments.

Demirbay embodies exactly the characteristics which are so revered in the Bundesliga. He is a cerebral footballer, clever in his positioning and often the player to pierce through defensive lines. He can play across the attacking line to a high-level and is brilliant technically. What shines most from his upbringing, is his hidden tenacity and aggressive impulses. It’s learned on the street, as is so often proven in Europe, and not in modern academies.

After several years of training via Schalke’s community programme, and then in one of their youth teams, he was picked up by Borussia Dortmund, who recognised his talents. Demirbay went through the same hardships as Marco Reus and Kevin Großkreutz, who were shipped out to Rot-Weiss Ahlen in the lower divisions. He was small and not commanding enough for the level of Under-16 football at Dortmund.

Demirbay landed in SG Wattenscheid until he was 18, a period which he claims was the turning point in his development.

“In the U16, I was left in the lurch. It was not an easy time for me. Then I was only playing in the regional leagues for a short time – usually on ashes,” he told the Mannheim-based Sport-Kurier.

As he explains, he wanted to play on grass, a platform to showcase the abilities and traits he had as a player. The harsh environment of ash pitches wasn’t quite suited to a player with a fairly poor temperament.

After a season in the U19 Bundesliga with Wattenscheid, he returned to Borussia Dortmund, where he was given a chance at the same level. A year later, following a positive impact, he was promoted to the club’s U23 squad, then under the guidance of current Huddersfield Town coach David Wagner in Germany’s third division. There, his technical abilities were combined with the tactical nous of Germany’s modern coaches.

Demirbay was rewarded with his first crack at the Bundesliga, moving north to Hamburger SV, a club which was undergoing something of a much-needed revoluton under newly-appointed sporting director Frank Arnesen. The Dane, who also served at Chelsea, was a great admirer of Demirbay. But then aged 20, he spent practically the whole campaign nursing two long-term injuries. It was a missed opportunity in his eyes to shine in the Bundesliga.

A fall out with Bruno Labbadia and a change of representative led to unnecessary friction in northern Germany. An unsuccessful loan spell in 1.FC Kaiserslautern didn’t do him wonders on his return to the Volksparkstadion. He was shipped out for a second time to Fortuna Düsseldorf, where Demirbay found something which resembled home. With 10 goals in 25 appearances in the 2.Bundesliga, the playmaker showed he could cut it in a competitive league for the first time in his career.

His time in Düsseldorf was not without its struggles, however. A sexist remark made to female referee Bibiana Steinhaus led to a three-game suspension and extremely negative headlines for the then-22-year-old. He was chastised by other football fans and became national news for the wrong reasons. As punishment, he was forced to referee a girls’ football match, and the midfielder turned up in designer clothing.

But at the third attempt, Demirbay became a roaring success in the Bundesliga. Signed for 1.7 million euros, he has represented one of the smartest pieces of business in the league. Demirbay has flourished so much in this Hoffenheim side, that the club has already extended his contract until 2021. Building the pieces together was the easy part for Nagelsmann – he did it last season in keeping the club above the drop – but integrating difference-makers has proven to be crucial this season.

If his performances continue on this trajectory, the national team question cannot be avoided for much longer. Like Lars Stindl at VfL Borussia Mönchengladbach, he is the viable alternative to Germany’s key players when they are under-performing. He has represented both nations at youth level and is naturally coy about his answers when the question is posed to him: Germany or Turkey?

What will be music to the ears of Joachim Löw is that Demirbay only has a German passport. In order to represent Turkey, he would need to waive his German passport – and potentially in the long-term any red-tape-free transfers to the English Premier League or elsewhere. With interest almost certain to grow with exposure through the Champions League or Europa League, Demirbay will want to keep his options wide open.

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