#ISSUE 23: The Uncapped Midfielder Key to Germany’s Hopes of a 5th World Title
4-years ago Robert Andrich was plying his trade in the 3rd tier of German football. Today he is on the precipice of an international call up for Hansi Flick's national team.
Though we still have over 9 months until the World Cup kicks off in the Gulf state of Qatar, it is only natural that Hansi Flick, Germany's national coach, will begin to shift his focus from the mundane qualification procedure towards formulating a tournament-ready roster in the coming weeks.
The Bundestrainer has been scouring the continent in recent months on a sightseeing tour of all his potential candidates, and an international break in late March will provide the first opportunity in months for the former Bayern manager to preach some of the ideas he has been mulling over.
For a vast portion of the squad a friendly against Israel will be scorned as another laborious 90 minutes in an already relentless calendar year, but for one man in particular, it could be the culminating moment in a meteoric rise through Germany’s lower tiers.
Robert Andrich, Bayer Leverkusen’s 27-year old midfield terrier, is one of those who excelled under the watchful eyes of Flick in Bayers 5:2 win over Dortmund earlier this month. Not only did his delicate freekick open the door for Die Werkself’s runaway victory, but the Berlin native was a constant nuisance in the center of the park.
As he has done so often this season, Andrich provided the metal and steel in a Leverkusen side overflowing with attacking nuance and youthful exuberance. His value may not always appear on the post-match transcripts - even ending the Dortmund fixture with the fewest touches of any player who went the distance - but his €6.50m fee has more than paid off just 6 months into his 5-year deal.
In this individual spotlight, we take a look at Andrich’s long road to the top, the fundamental role he plays in a gifted Leverkusen side, and how he could prove a key late addition in Germany’s hopes of adding a 5th World Championship to the nation’s trophy cabinet.
A Slow Ascent up the Ladder of German Football
Not only did Robert Andrich need to wait until he was almost 25 to make his Bundesliga debut, but Leverkusen’s number 8 wasn’t even playing in Germany’s second-tier until 2018, an oddity when you look at some of his new teammates on the precipice of stardom barely a couple of years after earning their drivers license.
After beginning his journey in Hertha Berlin’s under 9s setup, Andrich’s time in the capital came to an abrupt end shortly after his 20th birthday, forced out the door with first-team opportunities blocked by foreign stars and massive investment.
Thus, it was further East where Andrich made his first steps in the professional game, joining former East-German giants SG Dynamo Dresden in their bid to bounce back from the third tier. Within his first full season, Dresden achieved run-away promotion, but for Andrich, it was anything but a booming success.
A self-proclaimed addict of the Berlin nightlife, Andrich brought this same carefree attitude to Dresden, regularly entertaining a late night bender before crawling out of bed and onto the training pitch. For a while it worked well as Andrich featured prominently in his first half-campaign, but before long the luxury life took its toll, and the once future star of Berlin was now rarely even seen in the matchday program. As Andrich failed to come to grips with the demands of professional football, something clearly had to change in the off-season lest he continue to head down the path towards lower-league obscurity.
It was ultimately SV Wehen Wiesbaden - a club borrowing the name of the Hessen state capital but actually with a home at the twenty five thousand inhabitant town of Taunusstein - which took the gamble on Dresden’s forgotten man, a move which Robert Andrich still to this day considers the ‘most important in my entire career’.
Speaking to Gunnar Schmid, author of 111 Gründe, den SV Wehen Wiesbaden zu lieben and the creator of Stehblog.de, it was repeatedly expressed how far from certain it was that Andrich would become a star in 2016, joining a side which had never boasted a history of developing prominent Bundesliga stars, and had narrowly avoided relegation to the regional fourth-tier the previous campaign.
Nor was the mid-sized Hessen city the destination of choice for a party-hungry footballer, instead earning its reputation for the relaxing thermal spas and 19th century architecture which attracts German tourists. Without the off-field distractions, Andrich was almost forced to focus on his football, a masterful combination which worked wonders on the youngsters career.
In 2 seasons at the Brita-Arena, Andrich completed 67 matches for Wehen Wiesbaden, not once relegated to the stands, or even spending a full 90 minutes on the bench, for performance-related reasons. A stunning 35-meter freekick vs SF Lotte was probably the highlight of his two seasons in red & black, but it was far more than these odd moments of magic which saw Andrich leave a lasting impression on fans like Gunnar.
Masterfully combining his bold aggression with a technical profile far too good for the lower-leagues, Andrich quickly became a fan favorite, with Gunnar and his friends even inventing various drinking games to salute the next crunching tackle which landed their number 10 his customary booking.
With performances helping the club within a couple of points of promotion, Andrich’s stock had risen enough to generate intense interest across Germany’s higher divisions, interest which Die Rot-Schwarzen ultimately couldn’t compete with.
In January 2018, Andrich finally confirmed his departure, preemptively choosing 1. FC Heidenheim as his destination of choice for the 19/20 season. Like Wehen Wiesbaden, Heidenheim presented the perfect arena for a young footballer like Andrich to ascend the next rung in the professional ladder one division higher. Under manager Frank Schmidt, FCH had been revolutionized from a club coasting around Germany’s fifth tier, to one battling against giants of German football in the Zweite Bundesliga.
Having fought for every inch of his career since imploding in Dresden, Andrich fit right into a side brimming with Bundesliga outcasts and other lower-league warriors. With a 30-man squad composed entirely of Germans and Austrians, Heidenheim quickly materialized into a cohesive unit on the pitch which was unburdened by the expectations of a large fanbase, or individual egos within the locker room.
For Andrich, Frank Schmidt’s hands on management and aggressive playing style fit like a glove, and it wasn’t long before the former Wiesbaden man grew into his role as a leader in the division’s promotion outsiders. Throughout the 17-game Rückrunde, Andrich started all but 3 matches, collecting his typical bounty of bookings, but also scoring 4 goals in the process to end the 18/19 campaign as one of the most dangerous goalscoring midfielders in the division.
Heidenheim would ultimately miss out on promotion by just 2 points, but for Andrich it had been more than enough to prove his qualities as a topflight candidate. With his versatile skill-set and impressive development, newly promoted Union Berlin took a gamble - one which unsurprisingly paid off.
Playing with the ferocity of a player forged through the hardships of taking the long road to the top, Andrich became a cornerstone of Union’s unthinkable survival. Only Christopher Trimmel and Marvin Friedrich played more matches for Union in Andrich’s two seasons at the club, whilst the Berlin native was constantly in the headlines for producing magic and madness in equal measure.
From getting sent off 23 minutes into the Berlin derby, to redeeming himself 4 months later with the opener in the return fixture, or getting trounced 5:0 by Borussia Dortmund only to score the decisive goal in the DFB-Pokal midweek, Andrich embodied Union Berlin’s image of refusing to accept defeat by rebutting past failures with even greater success down the road.
On his way to becoming a Union legend after playing a starring role in the club’s first ever Bundesliga campaigns, it would have been easy for Andrich to simply extend his contract in Berlin. With his wife expecting his first child and Andrich playing the best football of his career in the comforts of his home city, one could be forgiven for being lured into the security of a long-term deal.
Yet, if there’s anything we’ve learned throughout Andrich’s turbulent route to the top, it’s that settling with what you’ve got just isn't in his nature. Driven on by his late start to life in the Bundesliga, Andrich refused to extend his expiring deal, prompting Union into a record €6.50m sale in late August.
That’s where the story of Robert Andrich the Bundesliga pro ends, and Robert Andrich the potential German international begins.
The Missing Piece in Bayer Leverkusen’s Exemplary Summer Window
For Robert Andrich, making the move to a club of Bayer Leverkusen’s stature would have seemed inconceivable less than 2 years ago, but as the final days of the window counted down, it became increasingly clear that his signature was all that was left to complete a tremendous summer at the Bay-Arena.
Since Rudi Völler’s appointment as Sporting Director in 2005, Leverkusen have earned a name as one of the most intelligent market manipulators in German football, not only seeking out youthful talent, but also remaining financially viable by selling those same prospects once they have outgrown the club’s stature.
This is why, despite spending the 4th most of any Bundesliga club since the 18/19 campaign, Leverkusen have only registered a €12.75m loss in that time frame (€14.05m, €64.95m and €118.03m less than fellow European aspirants Borussia M’gladbach, Hertha BSC, and VFL Wolfsburg).
Moreover, whilst the €80.00m sale of Kai Havertz may never be topped, the current squad remains filled with illustrious talent capable of demanding outlandish fees. Florian Wirtz, The German Football Weekly’s main subject in Issue #5, is now valued as the third most expensive teenager in world football, Euro 2020's top goalscorer Patrik Schick has kept turning heads with his fine goal scoring form, and a whole host of other young talents from fullback Jeremie Frimpong (21) to the electric Moussa Diaby (22) are attracting suitors from around the continent’s elite circles.
So how does a 27-year old Robert Andrich fit into this equation, two years older than the average age of Leverkusen’s most used XI, and the oldest permanent outfield signing since a 28-year old Sven Bender arrived from Borussia Dortmund in 2017?
Well, the topic of “Bender” leads us precisely in the right direction.
Sven and Lars, twin brothers who combined for over 500 Bundesliga appearances, jointly decided to retire at the end of last season - now playing recreationally for boyhood club TSV Brannenburg in the 10th division.
Their footballing value was always seen as a big loss for the Bayer bosses, but more than anything, appropriately replacing their leadership in the squad was what had the potential to make or break the upcoming seasons. Not only is this current squad the youngest Leverkusen outfit since 2017, but it is also the most foreign-based in the club’s 118-year history.
74% of the current roster is ineligible to feature for Germany, whilst Kerem Demirbay and Karim Bellarabi are the only players over the age of 27 to have ever done so. Adding not just another experienced head to the mix, but also one who carries with him the experience of scraping through Germany’s lower divisions before ultimately arriving as a late-bloomer, is invaluable for this squad.
Andrich even mentioned this himself in one of his first interviews, responding poignantly when asked by a Bayer 04 reporter if he could take over a leadership role in the dressing room, despite his relative inexperience in the topflight.
“Mentality means how do I deal with my teammates, how do I really try to help a younger player who isn't from Germany and has a language barrier. And that's what you have to do. I'm 27, I've only played two years in the Bundesliga, but I've gained a lot of experience. I know very well how German professional football works and what it's all about. And that's why I try to get my teammates involved and help them.”
These are exactly the elements a young squad needs to sustain performances across a 34-game season, but even without such a youthful roster, few clubs could benefit more from a bit of tempered aggression and hard-truth leadership than Bayer Leverkusen.
While Borussia Dortmund has become German media’s scapegoat for “a lack of mentality”, Bayer 04 don’t trail far behind, routinely imploding in the latter months of the season, and even earning the nickname Neverkusen after a stretch of 4 second place finishes from 1997-2002.
Andrich, for all the impressive ability he has shown on the ball this season, is still first and foremost a hardened midfield fighter, willing to jump into a leg-breaking tackle if it means Leverkusen’s attacking stars have the freedom to thrive further up the pitch.
The fact that he received a red card just 5 matches into the season for lunging with open studs into his opponent’s knee may have taken things a tad too far, but in a more controlled manner it has precisely been what this club has needed. Like their namesake Bayer - a pharmaceutical company which holds a majority stake in the club - Leverkusen have historically tended to project the values of a corporation rather than a football club on the pitch, proving too nice and polite to ever win anything meaningful. With the arrival of Andrich, Leverkusen don’t just have the most sent-off player in German football since 2014, but a bit of the unfiltered street mentality which has had a positive rub-on effect on other aspects of the side.
There’s no better place to judge this than in the fairness table, a statistic Leverkusen have notoriously placed well in. In the 2020/21 season Bayer Leverkusen received the third highest marks in the division, but following Andrich’s arrival that has all changed. No club in the 2021/22 Bundesliga has collected more yellow cards, or placed worse in the fair-play table, than Bayer Leverkusen this season.
A potential X-Factor for Hansi Flick’s National Team
A stand-out campaign at the heart of Leverkusen’s midfield may be attracting attention, but it is by no means a precursor for a call up into one of the most illustrious midfields in the international scene. In Joshua Kimmich, İlkay Gündoğan, and Leon Goretzka, Germany has a set holding hierarchy, and even 32-year old Toni Kroos has left the door open for a potential return after announcing his international retirement days after Germany’s Euro 2020 exit.
With so much star-studded quality in possession, it is imperative that Hansi Flick not only finds the right balance in his set up, but also has a different style of midfielder available off the bench. Other alternatives like Florian Neuhaus or Mahmoud Dahoud have qualities which could benefit most sides at the upcoming World Championships, but both the former and current Borussia M’gladbach midfielders profile eerily similar to Germany’s main candidates in their tendencies in and out of possession. This offers Flick very little when looking for individuals who he can bring off the bench to completely change the style of play and tip tight matches in his favor.
Andrich, however, could be this man, a complete new mold in this modern Germany, and arguably the first defensive specialist since Sami Khedira in 2014.
As Qatar’s straining conditions will undoubtedly prove taxing on a player's physical state, being able to bring an injection of life off the bench could prove crucial in either protecting a lead, or revitalizing the side in search of a late equalizer. With İlkay Gündoğan sitting on the wrong side of 30, and Leon Goretzka routinely sidelined with overuse muscle injuries, Robert Andrich could easily end up being an imperative late-game introduction to both close up shop defensively, and ensure that Germany’s first choice midfield remains fresh into the latter stages of the competition.
Robert Andrich may be completing considerably fewer touches per 90 than any of Hansi Flick’s first-choice operators, but when it comes to his defensive influence, nobody can compete. This impressive presence against the ball gives Andrich a clear advantage over other fringe midfielders who, albeit technically brilliant, are too similar to Germany’s starring cast to be valued as big influences capable of changing the tide of a game off the bench.
“I didn't come to Leverkusen to say: now I've made it. I want to achieve the best possible and play for Germany”
(Robert Andrich for Sport Bild)
Like his game on the pitch, Robert Andrich hasn't held back in recent interviews, expressing his clear desire to become a German international, and take yet another leap in his steep upward trajectory.
By constantly seeking out new challenges, maintaining faith in his own abilities, and evoking an unrelenting desire to constantly improve his game, Robert Andrich has become a mainstay in the Bundesliga just years after being written off as another young talent overwhelmed by the perceived glamor of being a professional footballer.
Whereas other talents from Andrich’s generation may have amassed 50 Bundesliga games before their 21st birthday but now linger in the lower divisions, Andrich took the less trodden path: working his way up from the obscurity of a 3rd tier reserve to now being in the reckoning for the biggest honor in German football.
Title Image: Gabriel Foligno