When Olympiacos officially announced the transfer of Panagiotis Retsos to Bayer Leverkusen on deadline day, it was a record-breaking deal not only for the Greek SuperLeague, but for any Greek footballer. It culminated a whirlwind 2016-17 where the precocious central defender was heavily scouted by a number of Europe’s biggest clubs on the back of his performances in the Europa League. He had been monitored by the likes of Arsenal, Manchester City and Bayern Munich since featuring for the Olympiacos’ U19 side in the UEFA Europa Youth League. According to scouting observers, he is the biggest talent to ever come out of Greek football.
His rise from the U19s to the the senior outfit was nothing short of meteoric. Consider how rare it is to see a young academy talent win a place in the starting XI for a major club like Olympiacos, a club known to prefer experienced foreign players, and to
hesitate on featuring Greeks in their first team.
Former Leverkusen defender Kyriakos Papadopoulos encouraged his national team colleague Panagiotis Retsos to transfer to the Werkself. Perhaps Papa felt his calm, quiet assuredness playing in defense on top of the undoubted talent would be a perfect fit for Bayer’s emphasis on playing youth in the senior squad. Also, as many as seven Greek players have played for Leverkusen over the past 10 years.
But Die Werkself needed to replace Ömer Toprak, the club’s best defender over the past few seasons, after transferring to Borussia Dortmund this summer. On top of nagging injuries to Jonathan Tah and lacklustre performances from Aleksandar
Dragović and Tin Jedvaj, Leverkusen needed to inject new blood in their back line. The addition of Panos Retsos could very well be an important remedy to a rather porous defense last season.
Panagiotis Retsos has the ideal traits that are indispensable for a modern central defender. He stands 1.85m tall, always a crucial factor in winning dogfights against hulking Bundesliga center forwards. If he still looks a little frail, it is not a huge drawback to his game. No doubt he should fill out his frame in time, especially in joining a club like Bayer Leverkusen with much more importance placed on strength and fitness training to meet the physical demands of the Bundesliga. His physical growth is not over yet, and soon, he could physically match up with his compatriots in Kostas Manolas and Sokratis Papastathopoulos.
His forte is winning duels–whether in take-ons or in the air. Anticipation and reading movement are his greatest assets in his timing of tackles. He isn’t the quickest, but he is positionally sound, and knows how to use his body to shield the ball as attackers chase down astray balls. Panos Retsos has intangibles that most central defenders of his age do not have yet — namely leadership qualities and the ability to organize the defense.
However, Retsos is still susceptible to mistakes due to occasional indiscipline off the ball, which leads to accumulation of fouls and eventual cautions. But these things do not seem to rattle him, as seen in the first leg match vs Osmanlispor. Receiving an early yellow card, he still played the full ninety minutes, winning 5 aerial duels, making 5 clearances, and 2 tackles.
In central defense, he can evolve with a teammate of variable profiles: faster, slower, less technical or ball-playing center back. Retsos offers plenty of different solutions for leaky defenses-he’s versatile enough to play in a three-man defense, either in the central axis or side.
Furthermore, Retsos is also very comfortable going forward. From his central defender position, he is capable of dribbling into the half-space and does not hesitate to circulate the ball in possession to find the right vertical pass, but he is also content to pass short to more creative players. He often makes himself available to solicit the ball as an outlet and to support overloads, but he still lacks the decisiveness in delivering the lethal through ball, a la Sergio Ramos or Mats Hummels.
One of the biggest reasons Retsos spent €22 million on him is his versatility. For Olympiacos last season, he played as a defensive midfielder, center-back, and full-back. He is a natural right-footed central defender, but his track record is evidence enough to suggest he can succeed wherever his manager plays him.
Under then-Olympiacos manager Paulo Bento, Retsos became a serious alternative for the professional team in the summer of 2016. He made his debut in the vital Europa League qualifying game against FC Arouca. For 120 minutes, he impressed at right back, ushering himself into Bento’s good graces by helping the Kokkinoi advance to the group stage, and opening up the possibility of more game time. He dutifully replaced Alberto Botía during the first game of the season against Veria, after the veteran Spanish defender picked up an injury. Bento then continued to take advantage of his versatility: using him on the left side
following the injury of Alberto De La Bella, and featuring as an inverted wing-back for the first half of the Greek Super League Season and in key Europa League Group Stage matches.
As the season progressed, he was used as an all-purpose weapon in the Thrylos back line, impressing with his clarity and increased tactical flexibility. Among his 34 matches, 18 were in the Greek Super League, eight were in the Greek Cup, and were eight in the Europa League, but his Europa League performances were truly the highlights of his 2016-17 season. Against Osmanlıspor, Bento deployed Retsos as part of the midfield double pivot, in place of Argentine stalwart Esteban Cambiasso. In typical fashion, he didn’t put a foot wrong in both contests, completing over 80% of his passes and averaging over 5 clearances in both legs while playing positionally as defensive cover in front of the Olympiacos backline. Then, in the Round of 16 playoff against Beşiktaş, interim manager Vasilios Vouzas started him at his natural position in central defense.
On February 8, 2017, Retsos led the perennial Super League Champions out onto the pitch as club captain for the Greek Cup Quarter Final home leg against Atromitos Athens (0-0). He became the youngest ever captain for Olympiacos at the tender age of 18 years and five months. Also, because he was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, he was eligible to play for the Bafana Bafana. South Africa boss Stuart Baxter made overtures to secure his commitment, but in the end, Retsos earned a late summer call-up by Michael Skibbe to the Ethniki. He would make his first start for Greece at right back alongside Papa Papadopoulos.
Retsos made his Bundesliga debut on matchday 4, against SC Freiburg. As expected, he turned in a fine performance against the Breisgau-Brasilianer, completing 87/100 passes, winning 5 aerial duels, making 3 clearances and committing only one foul. He didn’t put a foot wrong throughout the match and had great understanding right away with his defensive partner Sven Bender. This game, against an aggressive Freiburg team that loves to press the opponent’s backline and disrupt build up, was always going to be a baptism of fire, but Retsos was superb.
Bayer Leverkusen fans should be looking forward to more outstanding performances from the Greek defender, as well as a sturdier defense from last season. Whether it’s with Bender, Jedvaj, Tah, or anyone else, Retsos will be there.
By: Victor Charnetsky/@VanDerCharks