Back in April 2014, German newspaper Bild interviewed two young Schalke players under the headline: "Generation of the sons." One was Leroy Sane, son of Souleyman Sane, one of the first black footballers in the Bundesliga; the other was Philipp Max, son of Martin Max, who -- though rather anonymous outside of Germany -- was a magnificent striker for Borussia Monchengladbach, Schalke and 1860 Munich, and was twice crowned the Bundesliga top scorer in 2000 and 2002.
While Sane's rise was meteoric -- he made an impressive Champions League debut in 2015, was signed by Manchester City for around €50 million in 2016, and is now a major star for the Premier League leaders at the age of 21 -- Max's progress was much steadier. Yet the 24-year-old left-back could be on his way to England in January to join his former teammate -- though City face tough competition, as Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool have all been linked as potential suitors.
There's one main reason these elite clubs are tracking the Augsburg defender, and it's not for his defensive skills. It's because he is the top assists provider in the whole of Europe.
Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva and Neymar have all been outperformed by a left-back who plays for a midtable Bundesliga outfit tipped for relegation in the summer. Incredibly, Max has assisted 10 of 27 Augsburg goals, and did so in 10 separate games against Cologne, Frankfurt, Dortmund, Hoffenheim, Bremen, Wolfsburg, Mainz, Hertha Berlin, Schalke and Freiburg.
His crosses from the left are precise, his delivery from dead balls is improving, and he has developed outstanding partnership Augsburg's trio of strikers: Alfred Finnbogason, Michael Gregoritsch and Caiuby. His success is even more remarkable given the fact that Max supplied just three assists in his two previous seasons at the club combined.
One of the major secrets behind his development is the defender's relationship with coach Manuel Baum, which can be traced back a long way. Believe it or not, Baum was Philipp's high school teacher when the youngster studied in Taufkirchen on the outskirts of Munich. Max spent his early years there, and studied at 1860 and Bayern academies, before his family moved back to Gelsenkirchen in 2010, where he joined his beloved Schalke.
That was an extremely important step, because Max was privileged to study from Norbert Elgert, one of the best youth coaches in Germany, who played crucial part in the development of Mesut Ozil and Julian Draxler. Max scored 15 goals as a winger as Schalke won the youth league title in 2012, but then switched to defence where his tenacity and speed could be used to better effect. Playing in a different position from his father was seen as advantage. "His shoes could have been too big, but we are not compared, because he was a striker and I am a left-back," he remarked.
Max dreamed of playing for Schalke and made his debut in the Ruhr Valley derby at Dortmund in March 2014, even though he came on in injury time and didn't even get to touch the ball. With his chances of performing regularly slim, the ambitious youngster wisely decided to leave in order to develop.
Karlsruhe offered him an opportunity in the second division, and Max took it with both hands in 2014-15, becoming a vital cog in the team that reached the promotion playoffs and nearly beat Hamburg to reach the Bundesliga. Augsburg, under the advice of his father, then spent €3.8 million to sign him as a replacement for Chelsea-bound Baba Rahman.
Max put in some decent, if somewhat inconsistent, performances under Markus Weinzierl in his first Bundesliga season and earned a place in the Germany squad for the Olympics, even though he mostly witnessed the team's run to the final from the bench. Last season, which started with Dirk Schuster as a coach, he was moved into midfield as Greek star Kostas Stafylidis impressed as an attack-minded left-back. But when Baum arrived in December 2016, he blossomed.
"Under Baum, Max has improved defensively thanks to the methodical training sessions. Without international tournaments in the summer, Philipp had a proper preseason, and that is why he is so fit," Robert Goetz, sports editor at Augsburger Allgemeinen told ESPN FC.
Indeed, Max covers a lot of ground in every game, constantly joining attacks and yet also able to fulfill his defensive duties. "He is incredibly fast going forward," Goetz added.
Upon returning to his preferred role as a left-back this season, Max has flourished and his performances have reportedly caught the eye of national team coach Joachim Low. Germany don't have a big name in his position and the spot still looks up for grabs: Cologne's Johan Hector has done a magnificent job in recent years, but is not a superstar and injury sidelined him in September; Hertha's dead ball specialist Marvin Plattenhardt and RB Leipzig's Marcel Halstenberg were tried without cementing their place.
Martin Max only represented Germany once, playing six short minutes in a friendly in 2002, but if his son can break into the squad in the coming months then one member of the family could be playing at a World Cup. Philipp could also achieve something his father never did, if his rise continues: play abroad.
Liverpool need a left-back, and Jurgen Klopp knows the Schalke graduate pretty well; Manchester City are looking for a backup to the injured Benjamin Mendy, and Fabian Delph clearly is a temporary solution; Max's experience as a winger would make him a good fit for Antonio Conte's tactical system at Chelsea, even though they might not be willing to sign another player from Augsburg after Baba's failure; Manchester United are seemingly in an endless search for defenders as well and may be looking to move on Luke Shaw in the coming months; one could even see him fitting in at Arsenal as a wing-back.
The options are interesting, but for now Max has his eyes firmly fixed on trying to break the all-time assists record in a single season, set at 22 by Leipzig's Emil Forsberg last term. That would be a phenomenal achievement for a defender, yet if the next stepping stone in his career comes to fruition in January, he might not get the chance.