“Back then, from U14 to U16, he impressed me with his game intelligence, tough duels and his attitude of always wanting to win. Vitaly was already a special player,” reminisced former Hamburg youth coach, Daniel Petrowsky, to German publication, Bild.
Brentford’s engine of a midfielder, Vitaly Janelt, had been highly regarded throughout his time at Hamburg, RB Leipzig, and in the youth national teams, but it hasn’t always been straightforward for the 23-year-old.
Despite once being described as one of great talents of German football in his age group, Janelt was branded a ‘scandalous professional’ by the German press at 18 following an incident with the Under-19 national team.
Now his career is on a positive trajectory after becoming an important figure in Thomas Frank’s setup at Brentford and is set to prove his undeniable quality in arguably the best league in the world this season. The Bees have their eyes firmly set on becoming a mainstay in the Premier League and Janelt will no doubt play a key role.
This is the story of Vitaly Janelt.
The Janelt family consists of three active footballers: Vincent, a holding midfielder for SV Curslack-Neuengamme, and Victor, a centre-forward for SG Elmenhorst, as well as Vitaly. The three of them started at local club Bargfelder SV before moving on to SSC Hagen Ahrensburg’s academy.
At the age of 12, Vitaly joined Hamburg’s academy setup and would go onto to spend four years at the club, becoming a frequent feature for the Under-17s as a 15/16-year-old, before joining RB Leipzig.
At the time of joining the club in the summer of 2014, Leipzig had just earned promotion to the 2. Bundesliga and was an up-and-coming presence in German football, albeit an unpopular one. A part of the Red Bull football network, which currently has multiple clubs in Austria, Brazil, and the United States, the east German club now has a widely known reputation as being one of the best in Europe for player development. It should have been a perfect fit for him.
Janelt can be described as an archetypal Red Bull midfielder. He is strong, versatile, commanding, composed in possession, possesses great awareness, is a good passer, and an aggressive winner of the ball, but he was never given the opportunity to play for the first team in his two-and-a-half years at the club - not even making the bench.
He was a frequent feature for the Under-17 and Under-19 sides, as well as going on to play for the now defunct RB Leipzig II team in the Regionalliga Nordost.
A huge factor behind his failure to succeed in Saxony was due to an incident in October 2016 during his time with Germany Under-19s.
As he trained with the team, a shisha pipe he had in a room shared with then Leipzig team-mate, Idrissa Touré, caused a small fire that was spotted by a member of staff. The pair was sent home by head coach, Frank Kramer, and ultimately made an example of by Leipzig sporting director, Ralf Rangnick, who suspended the duo, forced them to move out of the academy accommodation, and train away from the squads.
This proved to be the end of Janelt’s Leipzig career as he didn’t feature at any level before joining VfL Bochum on an 18-month loan in January 2017.
He started with Bochum II where he impressed and earned his chance in the first team at the back end of the season. He made seven appearances before a knee injury ended his campaign with two games to spare, and caused him to miss nine of the first 12 matches of the 2017/18 season. He featured 13 times in the 2. Bundesliga that year but was unable to secure a spot in Gertjan Verbeek’s side.
Despite it being a loan spell riddled with injuries and inconsistent game time, Bochum activated their purchase option in the summer of 2018. He was considered as one of the great talents of German in his age group by club sporting director, Sebastian Schindzielorz.
Verbeek was sacked that summer and replaced with Ismail Atalan, which saw Janelt’s opportunities become scare as he played a combined 90 minutes across three league appearances under the new head coach before he was sacked after 10 games in charge.
The lack of game time continued under Jens Rasiejewski, who made him an unused substitute in 10 of his 11 matches before he was also sacked in February 2019.
It proved to be third time lucky for Janelt as Robin Dutt took a liking to him after a 45-minute performance that saw him score in a 2-1 defeat to Ingolstadt 04. He went on to complete four consecutive matches, two at left-back and two at defensive midfield, which earned him his Germany Under-20 debut against Portugal in March. He completed 49 minutes at centre-back before he tore his adductor and missed the last eight games of the season.
The German was able to overcome his injury problems in 2019/20 and went on to make 24 appearances in the 2. Bundesliga, scoring once and assisting twice.
In January 2020, Janelt showed the full extent of his versatility as he went in between the sticks after Manuel Reimann was sent off against Armenia Bielefeld in the 84th minute. He was unable to keep a clean sheet as Fabian Klos scored in the third minute of stoppage time to secure a 2-0 win.
Janelt's performances in the previous campaign attracted interest from clubs domestic and abroad. On the final day of the summer transfer window, Brentford secured his signature on a four-year contract for a reported fee of under £500,000.
Described as a "very talented and game intelligent player" by co-sporting director, Rasmus Ankersen, he was brought in primarily to provide competition as a box-to-box midfielder, but Christian Nørgaard's injury against Preston North End in October opened an opportunity that he grabbed firmly with both hands.
After a little bit of experimentation in defensive midfield, Janelt became an undisputable starter in Frank's side, featuring in all but one of the next 45 Championship matches (including play-offs), starting 39 of them, as Brentford went on to secure promotion to the Premier League. He also made two appearances in the club's journey to the Carabao Cup semi-finals.
Janelt's dominant displays in midfield quickly won the hearts of Brentford fans and his reputation was enhanced with excellent finishes against Queens Park Rangers, Stoke City, and Middlesbrough, as well as a vital deflected effort to level the aggregate score in their play-off semi-final against Bournemouth.
It was the most successful season of his career to date. One weekend he had his hands on the play-off trophy in Wembley, the next he was a European Under-21 champion after playing a bit-part role off the bench throughout the tournament as Stefan Kuntz's side defeated Portugal 1-0 in the final on June 6.
Janelt hit the ground running upon his arrival in west London last summer and he hasn't stopped since. In the opening round of Premier League fixtures, he covered 11.8km in Brentford's 2-0 win over Arsenal which was the third most that weekend, behind Nørgaard (12.5km) and Liverpool's James Milner (12.65km).
The German has started the new league campaign well and has contributed to Brentford keeping two clean sheets so far - making seven tackles across the opening two fixtures. He has also had an important role in the side's build up with a 92.3% pass success rate in his own half and a majority of his passes have been progressive. (35.7%).
He has represented his nation at every level from Under-15s to Under-21s. If his development continues at this rate, he will be knocking on the door of Die Mannschaft in the near future.