24th October 2016. By Edward Stratmann.
Werder Bremen's magnificent 2-1 win over Bayer Leverkusen last weekend was a remarkably historic, monumental evening for one man in particular. That man, of course, was Ousman Manneh.
Having spent a decade training within the confines of the Rush Soccer Academy in his native Gambia, Manneh decided to flee the violence and unrest in his homeland at just 17 to start a new life for himself in Germany.
Upon arriving in his unfamiliar surroundings back in 2014, he immediately began playing football in a refugee centre in Lesum, before a successful trial at Blumenthaler SV saw him join the fifth division outfit's ranks.
His quality became emphatically obvious with the languid forward scoring 15 goals in his 11 matches for the club based to the south of Bremen's U19s.
Unsurprisingly, his scintillating form alerted the attention of many club scouts across the country, with the likes of St. Pauli, Hamburg, Wolfsburg and Schalke inviting him for a trial. But Bremen crucially won the race for his signature, offering him a three-year contract that he was only too happy to accept as soon as he turned 18 in March of last year. It really was Incredible that just a year after his arrival in the country, Manneh had already earned himself a move to a Bundesliga club.
Manneh got stuck into work with Bremen's reserves under now interim first-team manager, Alexander Nouri, making an instant impression. Given the chance to debut in a preseason friendly last year against minnows, Wilhelmshaven, Manneh spectacularly announced himself by scoring four goals in 15 minutes.
After spending the 2015/2016 campaign honing his skills, Bremen's recently sacked manager, Viktor Skripnik, stated his admiration of his prospect and that he believed it wouldn't be long before he'd be a part of the first-team, noting: "Should he continue to make a name for himself in the third league, I am fully convinced that he can not only train with us but also play.
Following a promising start to the 2016/2017 crusade in the reserves, where he bagged two goals and two assists, Nouri immediately called him up to his squad after he was announced interim manager, when the sacking of Skripnik was confirmed. Indeed, Nouri was well aware of the quality the towering target man could bring to the side from their time working together in the reserves.
His Bundesliga debut then ensued in Bremen's match vs Mainz 05 on September 21, and Nouri's faith in Manneh hasn't wained since, as he's started all of Bremen's matches since his bow. While Manneh produced glimpses of his capabilities in his first three outings, it was in the aforementioned Leverkusen game where he really stole the show.
Against one of the toughest team's to play in the league, in Roger Schmidt's high octane Leverkusen, the forward etched his name into history, in a memorable 2-1 win, in a match in which he became the first Gambian ever to score in the Bundesliga.
"I don't know if I really did score a goal or if that was just a dream. It's an indescribable feeling, especially to score the winner against a team as good as Bayer Leverkusen. I just can't believe it. This is the greatest moment of my life," gleamed an overjoyed Manneh after the triumph.
"I've been so proud to be the first Gambian to play four Bundesliga games, and now I'm proud to be the first one to score."
The goal wasn't the only contribution from the man who wears the number 47 Werder Bremen shirt, however, for his physicality, pace and mobility saw him cause numerous headaches for his opposition.
Facing off with Bayer's accomplished central defensive pairing of the experienced Omer Toprak and talented starlet Jonathan Tah, Manney put his 189cm frame to good use, as he ensured Bayer found him a very challenging proposition to manage.
Firstly, his blistering speed saw him be a constant threat in behind. With Manneh cleverly choosing to operate on the shoulder of the centre-backs, the threat of him getting in behind successfully widened the gap between Bayer's midfield and defensive lines. This crucially created additional space for the likes of Serge Gnabry, Zlatko Junuzovic and Izet Hajrovic to exploit, which they duly did on many occasions.
In addition, whenever his side needed a quick out ball when they struggled to break down Leverkusen's compact pressing setup, Manneh's aerial prowess meant he acted as a brilliant target man for Bremen to utilise in these instances. Whether by using his enviable leap, his notable strength or his terrific heading ability, he showed why his aerial prowess is such a valuable asset to Nouri's side, for his capacity to win such duels gave Bremen an excellent chance to retain possession.
Due to Die Werderaner only enjoying 33% possession, his defensive work had to be of a very high standard. And, to his credit, it unquestionably was. From the outset, Manneh illustrated a great deal of tactical discipline and concentration. This was especially evident when he'd regularly slide across and cover for his left-winger, Gnabry, in moments when he was caught out upfield. Furthermore, the way he quickly got back into positions where he could press or block passing lanes to make life difficult for his opposition to pass out from the back only amplified his stopping importance.
Having toiled so tirelessly, Manneh's reward finally arrived in the 59th minute, where his instinctive, brilliantly struck sliding volley gave his team the lead. Indeed, there couldn't have been a more fitting moment of magic to inscribe his place in history.
Although there's still plenty of improvement needed by the raw striker to fulfill his dreams of becoming a world class marksman, it's promising to hear how driven he is to reach the top of the sport and who his idols are. "My dream now is to become a proper goal machine like Robert Lewandowski or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang," he confirmed.
"I've got a lot of them (idols), and I played against one today in Chicharito. I still can't believe I just played against him. Otherwise, I've always been a big fan of Robin van Persie. Another one is my teammate: Claudio Pizarro."
It was refreshing to hear the youngster also make a point of thanking his club for everything they've done for him, something that's often very rare to hear in the egotistical world of modern football. "I'm so surprised at how everything has gone," he explained.
"I really have to thank coach Nouri for believing in me and giving me the opportunity to play on the big stage. And I need to thank the whole club for all the support they've given me too."
Even though it's still early days for the 19-year-old in Germany's top flight, he'll certainly be over the moon that his exceedingly brave decision to leave home at 17 is now handsomely paying off.
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The Fascinating Story of Werder Bremen's Ousman Manneh
24th October 2016. By Edward Stratmann.