Although FC Bayern Munich has been held without a trophy for the past two seasons, the upper reaches of Germany’s 1. Bundesliga have still been occupied by the same group of powerhouse clubs and players. The race for the league title is usually exciting (more so than in most other big league), but the universe of possible candidates – as well as exciting teams in general – is relatively limited. Bayern, Dortmund, Schalke, and Bayer Leverkusen have the star players, and are usually in a battle for the title. Add in Werder Bremen, VfL Wolfsburg, and Stuttgart, and you have every league champion, and the team of every Footballer of the Year in Germany, for the last 14 years
But this year, the complexion of the Bundesliga season, and perhaps even the battle for Footballer of the Year, are being shaken up by a pair of Hungarian stars who are carrying their respective teams almost single-handedly: Adam Szalai of FSV Mainz and Szabolcs Huszti of Hannover 96.
As a Bayern supporter, I’ve been aware of Huszti’s existence for a while. I’m pretty sure my first memory of him is from early in the 2008-2009 season, when he beat Bayern with a perfectly planted free kick from the right wing:
Looking back at that now … I guess that’s Michael Rensing wearing a baseball hat in goal? Weird. Anyway, because of that play, I always thought of Szabolcs Huszti as a free-kick specialist. It’s only been over the past 6 months that I realized there’s a lot more to his game (he recently returned to the Bundesliga after a 3-year spell in Russia, highlighted by a few bright moments but a lot of time on the bench). Turns out, Huszti excels at the short passing game, and is one of those rare offensive players who goes into practically every situation with the goal of figuring out a way to set up a teammate.
In league play this year, Huszti’s 7 assists (to go along with his 7 goals) are one off the pace for the Bundesliga lead. But even those numbers don’t give you the whole story. In early September, he led Hannover to an emphatic 4-0 road win over VfL Wolfsburg; in that one, he assisted on all 4 goals and earned the ever-elusive “perfect 10” rating from whoscored.com. If, like me, you’re a football nerd who spends a lot of time on statistical/analytic sites, you know how hard it is for wing players in a 4-4-2 to rack up big stat numbers. They usually don’t touch the ball as much as central midfielders, and don’t score as much as strikers. But Huszti’s match chart is littered with goals, assists, MotM designations, and 9+ player ratings.
And in Europa League play, Szabolcs’ performances have been just as impressive. Counting the play-in rounds, he’s added another 4 goals and 2 assists in powering Hannover past the group stage. At no point was he more impressive than in the November 8 comeback win over Helsinborgs, where he set up one goal with a beautiful cross and then scored the match winner on a penalty. As a result, the Lower Saxons won their group and are now back in the Europa knockout stage for the second time. And with a bit of luck, they have a decent chance at a deep run in that tournament.
By the way, at least one gambling house has installed Hannover at long shot Europa League odds of 60-1. Just FYI.
Unlike Huszti, Adam Szalai was largely unheralded coming into this season. He spent some time with Real Madrid’s reserve side, and I’m sure a few people knew who he was, but even some serious Bundesliga supporters were only vaguely familiar with him as recently as 6 months ago. That’s all changed, though, as Adam’s constantly threatening presence and 11 goals in league play have Mainz in the hunt for their first ever Champions League spot. He’s a big guy (at least 6’4”) but he has good lateral movement and a nose for the ball.
Szalai is always quick to credit the team and the coaching staff for his recent success, but his individual skill continues to shine through. He recently attracted the attention of Arsene Wenger, but (fortunately for Mainz) no deal was reached, and Adam will remain in the Bundesliga at least through the season.
It’s yet to be seen whether the stellar form of this pair can help the Hungarian national side in its quest to qualify for Brazil. Huszti is currently not even playing with the national team, apparently harboring a grudge against coach Sandor Egervari. But Hungarian supporters hold out hope that he might return to the help the qualification campaign. Szalai, though, has his shoulder to the wheel: a pair of goals in 4 qualifying matches, and he has Hungary in a position to advance to the qualification playoff.
Whatever happens with the national team, though, these guys deserve a lot of credit for mixing bringing their exciting play to Germany and for leading their clubs to their current heights. Mainz has never played in the Champions League, but they currently sit only one spot back. With a good spring campaign from Szalai, we could be looking at a history-making year. And Hannover has never won a European competition, and hasn’t won a trophy of any kind in over 20 years. If they can make a deep run in the Europa League, this could be the most exciting season for Die Anderen Roten in years. Does either of them really have a shot at Footballer of the Year in Germany? Maybe, maybe not. But so far, they’ve proven that it wouldn’t be a good idea to bet against them.