Position: Central Attacking Midfield
Meritan Shabani is the definition of a home-grown talent. Born in Munich, the Kosovar-German midfielder joined the Bayern Munich youth ranks in 2006 at the age of 7. He arrived to no fanfare and remained an unknown quantity for large parts of his youth career.
The prodigious attacker is most comfortable in the center of the park, typically in an advanced role, but his skill set and development have seen him begin to move deeper. He is capable of playing on either wing, but in the same vein as Thomas Müller, he is most effective operating centrally.
The young midfield prospect was promoted to the U19s at the age of 16 where his rapid development accelerated. A breakout year with the U19s saw him promoted to Bayern II for 2018/19 in addition to earning time with the first team in the preseason and more recently in cup and Bundesliga matches.
Not until his impressive season with the U19s in the 2017/18 campaign did he catch the eye of the first-team shot-callers. Jupp Heynckes gave the youngster his senior debut in the Bundesliga against Eintracht Frankfurt last season when the title was in hand, and it was then he truly emerged as a potential star of the future.
Since his appearance with the first team at the tail end of last season, the dynamic attacking midfielder has been one of the prospects to feature most prominently for Die Roten. Most recently, the German youth international came on for a brief cameo against Eintracht in the league to add to his substitute appearance in the DFB Pokal and his prominent role on the US tour.
His strong performances for Bayern II and his role in the first team garnered attention from the German federation resulting in a call up to the Germany U20s. The dual national is eligible to play for Kosovo, but the Germans are in pole position to tie him up for the duration of his international career should his development continue as it has the last year and a half.
Shabani’s statistical output sheds light on the way the aggressive midfielder plays. At the U19 level, the young prospect put up a prolific 15 goals and 12 assists in 69 appearances, a solid output to say the least. When his stat line is dis-aggregated by season, however, it becomes clear that the young German really came into his own in 2017/18 with 8 goals and 5 assists in 20 matches.
His transition to Bayern II has yielded a similarly strong output, tallying 9 goals and 4 assist in 19 matches in the Regionaliga and UEFA Youth League. 3 goals in 4 matches in the UEFA youth league really jumps off the stat sheet considering the historic prowess of both the Benfica and Ajax youth setups, while 6 goals and 4 assists in 15 matches in a physically grueling league like the Regionalliga shows a high degree of versatility in adapting to vastly different styles of play.
This season with Bayern II has also seen the versatile midfielder play in a deeper role, splitting time between an attacking midfield and central midfield position. Much like Thomas Müller and James Rodriguez, whose defensive contributions are grossly underappreciated, the first-team hopeful enjoys pressing and does not shy away from a tackle. This was on full display in his first-team debut.
His appearances with the first team have been limited to a few minutes here and there, minus a start under Jupp Heynckes. Shabani put on a lively display in his one and only first-team start, completing 70% of his passes, winning 7 tackles, and adding one dribble. He was taken off after 56 minutes of lung-busting running.
What immediately stands out about Shabani’s game is his work rate. Although he naturally plays in an advanced role, his movement deeper into the midfield suits his defensive work rate and desire to charge forward when in possession. Standing at 6’1’’, 160 lbs. his strength and pace make him an imposing figure. Given his stamina that allows him to play as a box-to-goal midfielder who enjoys getting forward with the striker.
Shabani’s energetic displays are not lacking in intelligence either. He spearheads pressing movements, suffocating defenders in possession and sparking breaks, while his ability to run with the ball and find simple, brilliant passes jumps off the screen. He masterfully brings the ball from deep, shrugging off midfielders with deceptive strength and drawing defenders to him. This allows him to play simple through balls in behind, since his own run with the ball stretches the defense.
In this way, Shabani plays similarly to Serge Gnabry. He charges at defenders at pace, rather than rely on intricate dribbling, and forces them to make a decision. Simple and effective.
The Munich-native also enjoys making late runs into the box that have contributed to his forward-like goal count. He is more than capable with his head, which was clear against Manchester City this preseason, and his tirelessness helps him to find space in the opposition box.
Shabani’s goal tally is not up to his attacking IQ alone though. He is a bona fide finisher with both feet. For a young midfielder, his clinicality in front of goal is unbelievable. Like a young Toni Kroos, Shabani finishes with power and precision without batting an eye. He shoots well from distance and on his charging runs into the box, preferring to place to ball neatly into the top corners. But it is his ability to hit shots first-time on the move that is reminiscent of Kroos and even Thiago-esque. The young prospect redirects the ball with the accuracy of these two veterans, which makes him a real asset for a team that likes to cut passes back for late runners.
I’ll admit I was uncertain when I began following Shabani, but have become increasingly convinced by his abilities and potential to contribute for the first team. He knows the club, plays hard, and is more skilled than I first thought. His athleticism and energy will be an asset for Bayern for years to come.
I fear his breakthrough will not come this campaign, or at the Allianz. The young German will need to go on loan to a Bundesliga, or even Ligue 1 club willing to give him the minutes he needs to hone his game at the highest level. In time, Shabani has the potential to contribute for the Bavarian giants.