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Norwich pass master Moritz Leitner at home in the Premier League
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Last Updated: 09/09/19 9:06am
His career has had its dips but Norwich's Moritz Leitner is back in the big time where he belongs. Adam Bate examines the German playmaker's journey to Norwich, the statistics that reveal his influence, and the challenge that Daniel Farke still faces with him...
It was Moritz Leitner's first home game for Norwich when the feeling hit him. On a cold February afternoon, the Canaries were already a goal and a man up when their new signing from Germany came off the bench. That first taste of the Carrow Road crowd was all it took. "That's it," Leitner said to himself. "That's the feeling you want to have again."
A prodigious talent in his youth, the now 26-year-old midfielder had been in danger of becoming one of football's wasted talents. Jurgen Klopp had once rated Leitner as "outstanding" when part of his title-winning team at Borussia Dortmund. Reiner Maurer, his coach at 1860 Munich before that, fully expected him to become a Germany international.
But that was all a long time ago when he pitched up at Norwich. There had been a fall-out with the veteran coach Huub Stevens at Stuttgart, where he was accused of arrogance - the local paper even referring to his snooty playing style. A failed move to Lazio always looked a gamble. Leitner recognised too late that a subsequent switch to Augsburg was a bad fit.
At that stage, the words of Ralf Minge, his old coach with the Germany U19 team, seemed more prophetic than ever. "He has all the prerequisites and talent," Minge had once said. "But to have the talent and to exploit the talent, they are two very different things."
Leitner himself came to see that the die had been cast for him in Germany. "I had been put in a box," he said. "The picture of me was that I did not want to learn, that I was arrogant, that I only thought of myself, that I didn't work hard enough, that I was just a talent."
He could not have been sure that the move to Norwich would have been a better fit than Augsburg. It is true that he knew Daniel Farke from their time together at Borussia Dortmund. But this was England's second tier, a division famed for requiring robustness, and he was joining a team that was in the bottom half of the Championship table.
And yet, he soon won over the supporters with his supreme technical abilities. He found time on the ball where it seemed there was none. Despite having not kicked a ball for Augsburg in six months, the skills had not deserted him. The player who Maurer had noted was "very difficult to separate from the ball and always has his head up" was still in there.
Leitner's fan-favourite status was secured when he scored against arch-rivals Ipswich in September of last year - a strike with his weaker left foot from outside the box. Though he was unable to force his way back into the team after returning from injury in February, he played his part in the promotion and has found himself back in the team this season.
There was always a sense that the Premier League would suit Leitner's talents better anyway and so it has proved in these opening weeks. His 105 passes in the 3-1 win over Newcastle were the most by any player in the first fortnight of the competition. There were 88 more of them against West Ham last time out. Leitner is a magnet for the ball.
In part, those passing numbers reflect the ambitious attacking game of Farke but they are also peculiar to the player himself. Leitner is averaging well over 80 passes per 90 minutes so far this season but no other Norwich player is averaging over 60. No other player at any of the promoted clubs is averaging over 60. He is unusual in his ability to dictate.
Leitner wears Norwich's No 10 shirt and that is where he played in his younger days, but he is being used deeper than that by Farke in a role that the player once referred to as an "offensive six". Playing as one of the two in a 4-2-3-1 formation helps the team because it gets him on the ball.
As Alex Schmidt, his old coach at 1860 Munich, once pointed out, Leitner is "technically very clever" - but he is "not a simple player" either.
Finding the right role has long been an issue. So has that diffident reputation ever since Stevens bawled him out on the training ground at Stuttgart. While Leitner has talked openly of growing up at Norwich and "pressing the reset button" on his career, not all of these concerns have completely gone away. It is a solution still challenging Farke.
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For all Leitner's silkiness, and despite everything that he can do with a football, goals such as the one against Ipswich have been few and far between. His career goal tally stands at four. That means moving him deeper makes sense. But playing closer to his own defence necessitates protecting that defence and taking responsibility to suffer for the side.
The early signs are that this could be a weakness for Norwich. According to the stats, Leitner has been dribbled past 11 times already this season - the fourth most of any player in the Premier League this season. Norwich have conceded more goals than any other team and it is no coincidence - it is a by-product of their open and expansive approach.
That is a conundrum for Farke but not for the neutrals. The sight of Leitner spraying passes from midfield is a pleasure. There are the aesthetics of it, of course. But there is also the satisfaction of seeing a talent that had been in danger of fading from view restored to the limelight. Restored to where Leitner - and his many admirers - have always felt he belongs.