“I’m not someone who really aspires to play in England or Spain. I have always wanted to play in the Bundesliga, preferably with the best team," Nico Schlotterbeck said in a recent Kicker interview.
That was not a hint; it was a very clear statement. The 22-year-old Freiburg centre-back is open to an offer from Bayern Munich and is ready to take the next step in the summer.
With the champions in the market for a new defender as Niklas Sule looks increasingly likely to depart, a deal could be feasible, and Schlotterbeck is widely considered the best prospect in Germany.
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For many, he has been the most impressive defender of the Bundesliga season so far – the main figure in the magnificent Freiburg rearguard that has conceded just 16 goals in 17 matches, the best record in Germany alongside Bayern.
The Black Forest outfit have kept seven clean sheets and are positioned third at the winter break in what could be the club's best season since 1994-95, when they finished third.
Schlotterbeck even scored a couple of goals in December - the icing on the cake in his breakthrough year.
At the beginning of 2021, few German fans had even heard of the defender, who barely played for Freiburg during the 2019-20 season and who had missed the first half the previous season on loan at Union Berlin with muscle injuries.
In January, though, he was fit again and delivered superb performances that helped Union to finish seventh and qualify for Europa Conference League.
The Berliners would have loved to extend the loan, but Freiburg coach Christian Streich wanted Schlotterbeck back. He has since built the defence around the versatile left-footed stopper, who feels equally comfortable in 4-4-2 and 3-5-2 formations.
Tall, athletic and very good in the air, Schlotterbeck is also quick, reads the game well, and excels in ball distribution.
His elegance resembles that of Jens Nowotny, the 2002 World Cup finalist who remains the best central defender to be raised at the Karlsruhe academy. Like Nowotny, Schlotterbeck is capable of performing in defensive midfield, even though he is yet to try his marauding runs forward.
Nowotny grew up when Karlsruhe were a significant force in the Bundesliga, but that is no longer the case, and the club were disappointed to lose Schlotterbeck to Freiburg in 2017.
Edmund Becker, who was head of Karlsruhe academy at the time, told ka-news: "I was clear that Nico would go on to establish himself as a top professional, but he has always remained down-to-earth and still maintains contact with us.”
At Freiburg, Nico was joined by elder brother Keven, who was ahead of him in his development at the time. Nico made his Bundesliga debut alongside Keven in April 2019, an exciting family occasion with their parents watching on from the stands.
"As little kids, we often played in the garden, dreaming of becoming a professional football player. Very few children are capable of fulfilling that dream, and it was incredible that we both made it. That is still the favourite moment of my career," Nico told Sport1.de this month.
In second place, he mentioned the call from Hansi Flick, who invited him to join the Germany national team in September ahead of Die Mannschaft's World Cup qualifiers.
Flick received warm recommendations from Stefan Kuntz, who led the Germany Under-21 national team to the European Championship title in the summer.
Schlotterbeck was imperious in central defence alongside Arminia Bielefeld starlet Amos Pieper, as Germany conceded just four goals in six matches and kept a clean sheet in the 1-0 win over Portugal in the final.
Delighted to receive the first medal of his career, Schlotterbeck returned to Freiburg in high spirits and starred on the second Bundesliga matchday as the underdogs defeated Borussia Dortmund 2-1, only conceding an unlucky own goal.
For Schlotterbeck, who did not face either Bayern or Dortmund during his stay at Union, marking Erling Haaland was of huge importance, and he was more than up for the task.
"That was my first duel against a true world-class striker. It was special for me, as I finally knew where I was and where I could go.
“What Haaland brings in terms of physicality and quality is brutal, and I had to remain focused throughout the entire game. He didn't score, and I realized that I could compete with that level of strikers. It was a key experience," Schlotterbeck said.
His self-confidence skyrocketed after that August afternoon, and the Germany call-up did not do it any harm either.
Schlotterbeck is yet to play for the senior team, after spending five matches on the bench, but witnessing the skills of Antonio Rudiger, Thilo Kehrer and Sule from close range has been valuable.
All of those are right-footed, as is Mats Hummels. Left-footed centre-backs are in high demand, and Flick is delighted to see Schlotterbeck's development.
"You definitely want to see left-footed stoppers, and Nico's talents are quite versatile," the former Bayern coach remarked.
During the first half of the season, he barely put a foot wrong. Freiburg impressed defensively in their 2-1 defeat at Bayern too, as the champions' decision-makers took a closer look at a player who could be of major interest to them come summer.
Schlotterbeck enjoys playing under Streich, who is one of the best man managers and tacticians in the league, but is thinking about the next step already.
"Few players would refuse to play for Bayern. I am at Freiburg at the moment, and will concentrate on the season until the end. Then I shall see what the future might bring," he told Sport1.de.
Team-mates usually call him Schlotti, but adoring fans invented the longest nickname ever – Schlotterbeckenbauer. Time will tell whether it is prophetic.