Born in 1996 in the small Stuttgart town of Tubingen in the canton of Baiden Wurttemberg in Germany, Thilo Kehrer knew he wanted to play football as soon as he was able to take his first steps. In 2000, he joined TSG Tubingen academy and his parents encouraged a hobby that soon become an all-consuming obsession.
Aged just 14, Thilo had already switched from right back to centre back, sharpened and honed his abilities on the pitch enough to catch the of Bundesliga club Stuttgart, where he quickly ranked up in the academy and eventually established himself as one of the best young centre backs in the German youth set up.
At this point, he was still young, naïve and playing close to home. Stuttgart is the capital of the state of Baden-Wurttemberg. But after his two years at Stuttgart, he took an even bigger step, by joining Schalke 04. Although Bayern have utterly dominated German football and Schalke doesn’t have any recent successes to their name, Die Königblausen have the second most fan memberships of all clubs in Germany and the fourth largest fan memberships in the world.
It was on this high-pressure stage that Thilo moulded his game, shaping into the confident, assured and intelligent defender we see now. The man entrusted with sculpting this development was Norbert Elgert, who has been a key part of Schalke’s coaching staff, both in the senior and academy sides, for 26 years. Elgert has been credited with some of the early development of Mesut Özil, Manuel Neuer, Julian Draxler, Leroy Sane and many other stalwart professionals.
His Bundesliga debut came on 6th February 2016 against Wolfsburg in a 3-0 home win, and scored his first goal for his new club on 1st April 2017 in the Revierderby against Borussia Dortmund, earning his side a share of the spoils. Thilo’s abilities lie far beyond just his technical ability. It mainly is his awareness. The awareness of the strength and weaknesses of the other players around him, and his positional awareness allows him to cover for the other players on his team when needed and gives them the opportunities to shine when they can.
Having 59 appearances, scoring 4 goals, having 4 assists, as a result of his good performance at Schalke 04, most elite clubs in Europe showed strong interest in the young German. From his first season to his second season with Schalke 04, he went from 1.8 tackles per 90 to 3.0 per 90 in his sophomore campaign. Crucially, this development, along with his performances in the Champions League, were pertinent to Kehrer’s £33 million move to PSG. Making him the Bundesliga’s most expensive defender ever.
“Tuchel called me and we talked a lot about the club, my progress, my position and what we could achieve together.” He explained to me where I can progress individually and collectively, some time passed then I spoke with Antero Henrique, “I am proud to have signed for PSG.” But joining PSG gives me an opportunity to progress, train with great players and work with a manager who wants to help me grow”, Thilo said after he joined PSG.
Kehrer was subbed halfway through his PSG debut against Angers. Understanding when to go into a tackle is one of his key strengths. His ability to block shots, make interceptions and clearances and compete for the ball aerially is very similar to one of the greatest defenders in football history Paolo Maldini. He scored his first goal for PSG in a league match against Strasbourg that ended in a 2-2 draw, he scored his second goal for the club, giving them a 2-1 away to Nantes. He had a solid partnership with Marquinhos but had few games under his belt and was sidelined for 3 months of action due to adductor injury.
After losing his position, the prodigy decided to find a new club. After spending 3 years at the French club, he won manifold titles, he won three Ligue 1 titles, two French cups, one French league cup and the Trophee des Champions. At the international level, he has gone on to earn 33 caps at age group levels from U16 to U21, appearing in the UEFA European U21 for Germany on their way to winning the tournament in Poland in June 2017.
The young sensation made his senior Germany debut in a 2-1 friendly over Peru. The promising centre back is calm under pressure, able to communicate clearly, and is technically proficient with the ball at his feet. After making his debut for the senior national team, no player has played more minutes (956) under their new coach Hansi Flick. Thilo is a top talent and will be instrumental to the national team at the FIFA World Cup this year at Qatar.
Flick too, is familiar with Kehrer as his Bayern side came up against PSG in the 2020 Champions League final. Kehrer was on the losing side but his inclusion in the lineup and his role in the journey was indicative of his remarkable rise.
The prodigy has also helped in the establishment of a youth centre at Burundi. It is a charity foundation which is committed to education and supporting young people in the country, of which Kehrer has a connection to, his mother is Burundian.
“Not everyone is lucky enough to be on the sunny side of life” Thilo commented. After spending four seasons for PSG, the versatile 26-year-old joined the hammers on a four-year contract with a two-year option for a fee of £10.1 m.
“I am very excited to sign for west ham United and I am excited about coming to play in the premier league, I talked to the manager and he told me how he sees me fitting in at the club. The biggest goal is to get to the team, integrate myself within the group and enjoy playing for west ham”, Thilo added.
This season, Kehrer has stuttered a little in his start to life in London. He has clear abilities and his positional awareness is as good as ever. However, the Hammers have had their struggles this season. Languishing in 15th, it’s not the start many envisaged but there have been statistical reasons for this.
According to Understat, no team in the premier league has underperformed their xG (expected goals metric) more than West Ham, who are 7.68 goals under their expected tally. Another thing is that West Ham just aren’t great at tackling. They are the second worst this season for tackles that have won possession of the ball, according to FBref. Only Manchester City have less, and that’s because they have the ball 70% of the time anyway.
Importantly, he will be a good addition to this West Ham set up once things start to click from a team performance point of view. His ability to push offensive players off the ball, win headers and shield the ball well will eventually set him apart from other centre backs. Statistically, he’s in the middle of the road for defensive metrics, he is, however, in the 97th percentile in the Premier League for progressive passing among centre backs.
The German is a megastar, who can become one of the best defenders West Ham has ever had, and that’s quite a claim with players like Bobby Moore and Rio Ferdinand having a great place in West Ham’s history. Time will tell how good the young German is, but this season poses one of the German’s biggest tests yet.
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Rob Newell – CameraSport