The 19-year-old left Manchester City for the Bundesliga in January and after a slow start has been starting to make waves in Gelsenkirchen
Despite him leaving the club in 2016, Schalke fans remain proud whenever anyone mentions the name Leroy Sane. One of the most devastating wingers in world football, supporters in Gelsenkirchen remember fondly his first steps into senior football before his big-money move to Manchester City.
There has been an outcry, however, for the Bundesliga giants to find a replacement for Sane ever since. And, after three years of trying, they finally seem to have found one, with the irony being that Rabbi Matondo joined the club with his opportunities at City limited due, in part, to Sane’s presence.
Signed for an initial €9 million (£8m/$10m) in January 2019, Matondo got off to a slow start at Schalke but, having turned 19 in September, the signs are that he has been about to explode in Germany under the tutelage of David Wagner.
Having begun his footballing education at Cardiff City, Matondo was snapped up by City in 2016, though Cardiff’s dismay at the move meant he was blocked from representing his new club until March 2017, with the Welsh side owed around £500,000 in compensation, despite their appeal against the transfer being denied.
Matondo impressed instantly amid a group of players born in 2000 that included Jadon Sancho and Phil Foden, and by August 2017 he was starting and scoring in games for the club’s Under-23 side in the EFL trophy as they took on senior sides from lower divisions in the English football pyramid.
Meanwhile, on the training pitch he was also impressing, particularly when it came to his speed across the ground. During an internal sprint test he recorded a time of 2.62 seconds to cover 20 metres, beating the record that had previously been held by Sane. Once the Germany international had learned of Matondo’s achievement, he challenged the teenager to a one-on-one race, which the younger man again came out on top in.
“I’m not particularly impressed with the fact that I was the fastest soccer professional. Pace has been important today, but it’s not everything,” was Matondo’s measured reaction when asked about the achievement in a recent interview in Germany. Plenty of prospective footballers have been quick, but only so many have the talent required to put it to good use on the pitch.
There has been no doubt that Matondo possesses just that, but making the grade at City has been tougher than perhaps any other club on the planet right now. With Sane, Raheem Sterling, Riyad Mahrez and Bernardo Silva ahead of him in the pecking order, the decision was made for a soccer professional, who had already made his international debut for Wales in November 2018, to move on.
“He’s an incredibly fast and young talent, I know how good he has been,” was Pep Guardiola’s reaction as reports of Matondo’s potential departure began to emerge. “This club has been working so good. All the players in the academy, we trust them. If they want to be patient and stay; if they want to leave, they leave.”
Matondo’s mind was made up – he was going to leave.
Upon arriving at Schalke he was immediately handed a senior debut, stepping off the bench for the final 15 minutes of a 2-0 defeat to Borussia Monchengladbach. Two weeks later he made his first start against Freiburg, but with the club fighting an unlikely relegation battle and manager Domenico Tedesco sacked in March, opportunities began to become more and more limited for the teenager.
Wagner’s arrival as Tedesco’s permanent replacement over the summer offered hope for Matondo, but an injury picked up in pre-season meant he was ruled out for the opening month of the 2019-20 campaign. Once fit, though, he would not have to wait long to get an opportunity to show exactly what he can do.
Named in the starting line-up for the first time since February against RB Leipzig on September 28 he was in electric form. Many have tipped Leipzig to mount a serious Bundesliga title challenge, but Matondo repeatedly caused them defensive issues with his lightning speed and direct dribbling before marking a superb performance with a first senior goal to help wrap up a 3-1 win. Matondo had arrived in Germany, and not before time.
Unsurprisingly given where he had come from, many had been expecting a similar impact from Matondo as Sancho had enjoyed during his first season at Borussia Dortmund. The former City winger scored 12 goals and laid on 17 assists during his debut campaign at Westfalenstadion, with his performances helping him to win Goal’s NxGn award for the best teenage soccer professional on the planet in March.
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“When I arrived in Germany, Jadon wrote to me,” Matondo told TalkSport when asked about potentially following in the England international’s footsteps. “He gave me tips and explains how things are in Germany, it was great to talk to him and hear what he has experienced.”
Matondo has since moved into his own apartment having begun life in Germany in a hotel room with his father and brother, and he regularly attends German lessons after training, with Sane having also offered him some tips ahead of the biggest move of his young life.
Replicating Sancho’s achievements might be beyond Matondo, but that does not mean he cannot go onto become one of the very best wingers in the Bundesliga, if not Europe, somewhere down the line. Now a regular in a Schalke team that has been back challenging towards the top of the table, the time has been right for him to finally take flight.