There is an argument to be made that Moritz Leitner is too good for the Championship.
With each passing game, Norwich City’s number 10 continues to cement his place as the metronome of Daniel Farke’s fearless young side. Leitner is effortless in possession, orchestrating Norwich’s “beautiful football” from a deeper role and proving integral to making the Canaries tick.
It should come as a little surprise when considering Leitner’s past employers that he’s had such an impact, but it does beg the question: just how does a player of his calibre end up plying his trade in the Championship?
The rise of a super talent
Moritz Leitner would begin his footballing career aged just two, joining FC Unterföhring.
His talent blossomed and his admirers grew, leading him to sign for 1860 Munich in 1998 where he would rise through the ranks of the club’s youth set-up and education system. As the 2010/11 season drew in, Leitner – aged just 17 – found himself in the first-team picture. Klaus Schmidt – assistant to manager, Reiner Maurer – had overseen Leitner’s development over the past four years and spoke to Tageszeitung of a central attacking midfielder with heaps of potential and technical ability, though stressed he was not a “simple player” and already had his “quirks”.
In August 2010, Leitner would make his first-team debut and the stage was set for what would prove a meteoric rise over the space of a few months.
The youngster proved a super sub as his side trailed SC Verl 0-1 in a DFB-Pokal clash, grabbing an assist as 1860 overturned the deficit to win 2-1. A debut for Germany’s U19 side would soon arrive, along with three goals and three assists in Leitner’s next trio of appearances for Ralf Minge’s side. He had quickly established himself as an integral part of Germany’s next generation.
By now, Leitner had forged a reputation as a refined, creative player, one that was excellent on the ball and able to cope with the physical side of the game. His coach, Reiner Maurer, hailed him as a “super talent” and one that could reach the very top of the game.
And by late October, some of the Bundesliga big boys were beginning to circle.
An unsavoury end
Leitner’s reputation was growing fast and his performances in the 2. Bundesliga saw the likes of Bayern Munich, Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Dortmund come calling.
The starlet would join the latter – a little over two months after making his first-team bow – for a reported €600,000 to the delight of Jürgen Klopp, who praised Leitner as an “outstanding talent”. A key driver in the move had been 1860 Munich’s financial woes, something alluded to by Leitner. “I am glad that I can support the Lions in this difficult time and give something back to the club which gave me a home and an education. I am proud that Borussia Dortmund have faith in me making the step up to the Bundesliga. For me, I now have to justify this faith.”
Leitner would not make the switch to Dortmund immediately, instead he would stay on loan with his childhood club until the following summer – at least, that was the plan.
In January – when Leitner made the move to the Westfalenstadion official – he joined 1860’s rivals, FC Augsburg on loan until the end of the season. The starlet faced the wrath of fans and his former Sporting Director, Miki Stevic.
Stevic claimed that Leitner had wanted to join Augsburg and expressed disappointment after the role 1860 had played in his development. According to Leitner’s father, Erwin Feldberger, this was not true. Feldberger spoke of the fan anger and felt his 18-year-old son had deserved better. Stevic would later respond, stating he was surprised at Feldberger’s statements but would call Leitner a “good boy”.
It was the first instance of Leitner’s public image being knocked. It wouldn’t be the last.
Justifying the faith
After nine appearances and two assists with Augsburg, who won promotion to the Bundesliga, it was now time for Leitner to get down to business at Dortmund.
Leitner would be limited to just a handful of starts during his debut season – making 23 first-team appearances in total – though still made a big impression. A look at Leitner, courtesy of The False 9 in March 2012, spoke of a 19-year-old who’d been “nothing short of brilliant”, displaying a passing ability that “surpasses that of any other central midfielder at the club” while complimenting his work rate, positional sense and flexibility when it came to his ability to slot into several different positions. During this season, Leitner would also be handed the captaincy of Germany’s U21 side.
After Shinji Kagawa’s exit to Manchester United, Leitner was given more game time in 2012/13, albeit still mostly from the bench, and was a feature of Klopp’s Champions League squads. Still tasked with playing in several different positions, Leitner was found to be most effective when deployed in a deeper role. Outside the Boot’s scouting report in 2013 described him as being “very comfortable on the ball, a skilful dribbler and a player with tremendous vision, he completely oozes class. Everything about him is so calm; you can tell he has been developed by Dortmund, he is a Dortmund sort of player.”
But Dortmund’s sort of player wasn’t finding himself a regular Dortmund starter.
With the 2013/14 season on the horizon, Leitner told the Münchner Merkur that a player – a young one especially – is unlikely to get better sitting on the bench and was considering a potential move in a bid to show just what he’s capable of.
A false dawn
Leitner was handed a new deal by Dortmund in 2013 and subsequently joined Stuttgart on a two-year loan, hopeful it would prove a “big step forward” for him.
In an interview with Süddeutsche Zeitung in October 2018, Leitner alluded to an image those in Germany had of him, of someone that was arrogant, someone who didn’t want to learn and someone who wasn’t working hard enough.
The origins of this image perhaps stem from his spell at Stuttgart.
Shortly after the midfielder’s arrival, the Stuttgarter Zeitung ran a piece on Leitner, talking his outstanding talent and of suggestions he already believed he was as good as his illustrious Dortmund compatriots, Marco Reus and Mario Götze. Stuttgart head coach, Bruno Labbadia was quoted in the same piece as having had “intensive discussions” with Leitner in a bid to unlock the best of the player, but Labbadia would be sacked just a month later.
It would be one of several managerial changes during Leitner’s two years at Stuttgart.
In October 2014, Armin Veh – Leitner’s fourth boss at Stuttgart – said he would need to defend better to become a real #6 long-term, while if he wanted to become a #10, he would have to develop more of a goal threat. Veh would soon be replaced by Huub Stevens – back for his second spell – and in January, Stevens and Leitner would have a falling out on the training ground.
It was an incident that compounded the image that people had of the midfielder.
While Leitner made amends with Stevens in what he called a “good conversation” to BILD, he would still find himself out of the team as Stuttgart battled against relegation. Stevens told the Stuttgarter Nachrichten that Leitner had been unable to adjust to the fight against relegation and spoke of concerns of “egoisms” in his squad and players that thought of themselves.
Stuttgart would avoid the relegation play-off by a point, but Leitner would not feature in the squad for any of the final seven games of the season.
It had hardly been the ideal environment for Leitner to develop, showcase his talent and find a settled rhythm – with multiple managerial changes, a battle against the drop and a off field changes to complete a difficult set of circumstances.
He would return to Dortmund, having not really taken the “big step forward” that he’d been looking for.
A landmark meeting
By now, Jürgen Klopp had left Dortmund and been replaced by Thomas Tuchel.
Leitner was clear. He didn’t want to go back on loan. However, he would again find first-team opportunities hard to come by and wound up playing for Dortmund II under David Wagner. Leitner took to the Regionalliga West with ease, helping his side drastically improve their form. Wagner would then leave for Stuart Webber’s Huddersfield in November. His replacement? A certain Daniel Farke. A landmark meeting that would later prove pivotal to Leitner’s career.
Leitner would play several times for Farke’s Dortmund II before injuries handed him the chance to return to Tuchel’s first-team squad. Speaking in January 2016, Tuchel praised the midfielder’s handling of what had been a very difficult situation, with Leitner going on to play nine times in the Bundesliga along with a handful of appearances in Europe.
But ultimately, after almost five years at Dortmund, that first-team breakthrough had never properly came.
Something had to give.
Into the wilderness
The man once hailed as a “super talent” would leave Germany for Italy, Serie A and the Eternal City of Rome, when joining Lazio in Summer 2016.
Leitner felt a move had made sense for him and was hopeful that Lazio would prove the right step forwards. Instead, it was a case of several steps back as Leitner made two appearances – totalling a combined 13 minutes – in six months.
He was on the move again in January, rejoining FC Augsburg.
Having previously been promoted to the top tier with FCA during his maiden spell at the club, Leitner was glowing upon his return. He said that he hoped to wear the Augsburg shirt for “a long time”.
But yet again, there were few signs of steps in the right direction and Leitner faced stagnation. Attributed to issues adapting to the club’s playing style, Leitner made just six appearances in 2016/17 and would not feature at all the following season.
Leitner told the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Augsburg hadn’t been the optimal location for him after all. In truth, Leitner hadn’t really found an optimal location anywhere for himself. He hadn’t yet found a home to flourish in.
That would change in January 2018.
A big chance
Leitner would join Norwich on loan in January 2018 – a move driven by his “really good” relationship with Canary boss, Daniel Farke.
Leitner spoke of Farke being a “very good coach” and someone that wants to “control the game, control the ball, which is what I like.” Introducing his new signing, Farke touted it as a big chance for both Norwich and Leitner himself, explaining “if he’s there with all his quality and potential, then he’s too good for the second tier.” Farke spoke of the “difficult couple of years” that Leitner had, had but expressed a belief that “we can develop him and bring back to his full potential.”
Leitner would make 12 appearances for Norwich on loan, with a hamstring injury disrupting his spell at Carrow Road a little.
However, Leitner made an impression with the Canary faithful.
And the Canary faithful made an impression with Leitner.
It was as early as his home debut in February – when Norwich beat Middlesbrough 1-0 – that Leitner had a feeling he’d long craved. After enrapturing the Carrow Road crowd with a particular touch – and hearing their reaction – Leitner said to himself, “Mo, that’s it. That’s the feeling you want again.”
A new home
Leitner would make the deal permanent in the summer.
The switch to NR1 has proven that elusive “optimal location” for the midfielder, who mapped out how in England nobody cares what shoes he wears, what hairstyle he’s got or whether he laughs a lot.
Here, it’s all about playing football.
Here, he can finally show what he can do.
Daniel Farke’s initial assessment that Moritz Leitner can be “too good for the second tier” increasingly looks to be true.
And with Leitner at the heart of things, pulling the strings, Norwich City may well prove themselves to be too good for the Championship as well.
A huge thank you to Cory for sharing a wondering narrative on Norwich’s number 10. You can find his blog here. Cory is also on Twitter, @iwritethings23 and is hoping to produce a number of other Norwich City player stories on his blog.
Be sure to follow him on Twitter and keep an eye on his blog!