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SSFC Spotlight: Malik Tillman makes first-team debut at Bayern Munich

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The German-American scored a goal in the DFB-Pokal.

FC Bayern Muenchen v 1. FC Koeln - Bundesliga Photo by Tom Weller/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

As the United States Men’s National Team continues to ascend, more players could be enticed to join the program. Competing at a World Cup is an appealing prospect, particularly for dual nationals that may not receive as much of a chance on a more impermeable roster. Delayed by a year due to injury, Bayern Munich attacker Malik Tillman recently debuted for the first team in a 12-0 cup victory. While primarily competing for German youth sides, his future is far from decided but on a promising path.

Born in Nuremberg to a German mother and American father, Tillman was a member of the ASV Zirndorf and Greuther Fürth academies before moving to Bayern Munich in 2015 with his brother, Timothy. The president of the latter club referred to him as “the greatest talent [they’ve] had in 30 years” and his departure as “a disaster.” He progressed through the levels, putting up fantastic numbers, serving as captain, and earning a contract extension. The Guardian included him on the Next Generation list for 2019, describing him as “tall, tough, [and] good with his feet” and possessing the ability to “dominate games on his own.” The forward contributed 15 goals and 10 assists in 42 appearances for the U-17s managed by world class former player Miroslav Klose, only to be surpassed by 17 goals and 11 assists in 36 U-19 matches.

“The respect was huge,” shared Tillman. “When Klose came into our dressing room for the first time, all the players looked at him with wide eyes. We only knew him from television. He told us that we should come to him at any time and deal with him normally.”

He was added to the reserve team in June of 2020, playing 57 minutes in a 2-0 win over FSV Zwickau. In 12 third-tier appearances for Bayern Munich II, Tillman has scored five goals. Total Football Analysis broke down his performance, praising his ability to defend space, work rate, vision with the ball, and body positioning. After winning the third division title, the club signed him to another contract extension through June of 2023.

“We are very pleased that we were able to tie Malik to the club for another three years,” said academy manager Jochen Sauer. “He has made excellent progress in his sporting and personal skills, most recently taking his first steps in men’s football with the amateurs and showing strong performances in the third division. We have great confidence in his abilities and his potential.”

He came close to a breakthrough early last season, training with the first team and appearing on the bench for the UEFA Champions League and Super Cup matches against Chelsea and Sevilla, respectively. Unfortunately, Tillman suffered an ACL tear in his left knee, resulting in months of rehabilitation and walking on crutches. His return to the field came two weeks ago, playing 90 minutes in a reserve team fixture against SV Schalding-Heining.

He finally made his senior debut in the first round of the DFB-Pokal against Bremen SV of the fifth-tier Bremenliga. Tillman entered into the match at halftime, replacing Thomas Müller. His first goal came 90 seconds later, intercepting a pass in the final third and placing an easy finish past the keeper to make the score 6-0.

At 19, Tillman finds himself in an interesting position, an awkward limbo faced by many young talents. While on the periphery of the first team, he likely will not receive significant playing time for the Bundesliga giants. However, with the reserves relegated to the fourth-tier Regionalliga Bayern, his development would be better served against a higher level of competition. According to Bild, manager Julian Nagelsmann has “big plans” for the teenager which bodes well, although a loan may be the best option.

As for his international future, Tillman accepted a call-up to the U.S. program in 2016, playing in two matches for the U-15s at a tournament in Croatia. Since then, Germany has consistently brought him into the fold. He made two appearances at the 2019 UEFA European Under-17 Championship, which resulted in an early group stage exit.

At 6’1”, the “physical beast” has been described as “Paul Pogba-esque” due to his “pace, strength, control, and awareness.” He is capable of lining up as a forward, box-to-box, holding, and attacking midfielder, possessing the ability to play long passes and locate teammates with incisive through balls. His coaches have praised his combination in the final third and chance creation while also putting in defensive work. World Football Scouting compared him to Emre Can, pointing to “remarkable physicality with a good basic technique” and “high intensity” when engaging in physical duels.

“I prefer to play as a number eight or number ten, rather than as a central striker,” he told Bild, recently expressing a preference for the playmaker role. “I can score goals from midfielder, and I can exploit my creativity with more space in front of me. When I play as a number eight or number ten [in central midfield], my playing style is similar to Paul Pogba’s. I like him a lot. I really like how he plays. He’s something of a role model for me.”

Coaches have suggested that he needs to become more dynamic, playing faster in transition. In a recent fan Q&A, Tillman admitted that his left foot and “ambition in certain situations” need to improve. He admires Robert Lewandowski, particularly for his professionalism and hard work at training, which would ideally manifest throughout his career. With high intelligence and the confidence of someone produced by a high-level academy, his ascent should continue at the club and international level.

The conversations surrounding dual-national players are perhaps not as contentious as years past. USMNT manager Gregg Berhalter, sporting director Earnie Stewart, and general manager Brian McBride have made talent recruitment a priority, aided by the benefit of competing alongside something of a golden generation. While Tillman has been outside of the program for a long time, there could be a chance or at least the opening for a return. The 19-year-old is merely at the start of his career, rebounding from a long injury layoff, embarking on an unknown and undefined future at one of the world’s top clubs.