Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Young talent dominates German league

The German national team caused many surprises and won many admirers with its performance in South Africa. Choosing a young team with some extremely gifted talent, Germany proved an extremely good side and made England look rather stupid along the way. 

This was only the beginning for a hugely exciting future for both Germany’s national and domestic game. All across the Bundesliga, young talent is coming through, and it is coming through in vast and endless waves.

These youngsters are getting regular competitive top-level football. Take, for instance, Bayer Leverkusen’s Sidney Sam, a player who has particularly impressed me lately. He is slightly older than the young group of German stars who lit up the World Cup, not to mention the hugely promising ones coming behind them. But at 23 years-old he is young, quick, highly technically gifted and has played a very important role in a successful Bayer 04 season, which looks set to see this young side earn Champions’ League qualification. Yet Sam can get nowhere near the national side. This shows the scale and extent of German youth development.

Look one place above Leverkusen in the current league standings at Borussia Dortmund. They, just like their Ruhr rivals, can boast five nationals aged 23 and under playing first-team football, and four of these five have been called up to the current Germany squad. Taking the national side as a whole, the average age of the squad for the next round of international matches this week is 24.0, a squad which includes twelve players aged 23 and under, and many new faces since South Africa. Not content with resting on the last injection of youth into their World Cup squad, they are continuously rebuilding. The German national team has a very bright future indeed. There is no place for Thomas Hitzlsperger after his return from injury, having captained them before being sidelined, and there is no place for Michael Ballack. The side has simply moved on.

All across the German league, young nationals are playing regular competitive football. This season, up until the end of March – matchday 27 of 34 – there are 59 German players aged 23 or under playing frequent first team football. Some sides, including the division’s top six, have four or more first team members who are young and German. They are not just young, but they are good. Along with competitive top-level football comes experience and quality. Players’ potentials are realised and extended, with the fact that they are seeing competitive football, much unlike their English counterparts, only boosting their confidence and ability. 

Of course these 59 players will not all be good enough to play for Germany, but this competition for places can only make the players who want it better. Plus, as we all know, not all of the English youngsters in the Premier League will be good enough to play for their country either. This is a sad reality considering we only have 29 youngsters playing regular football compared with Germany’s 59, shared among 20 teams rather than 18. *

Needless to say this is an implicit criticism of the way the English national team is run. The plethora of German talent in what is widely regarded as an inferior league is an indictment of our own model. Among England’s fresh faces are Ashley Young and Gary Cahill. Both at 25, they are not exactly young and if they were truly of the standard a team with the stature and domestic-league-strength of England would expect, they, the pacey, attacking Young in particular, would have expected to have broken into the side before 25. The fact that, at this age, Young’s international career has yet to take off suggests that he is not good enough for this level, likewise Darren Bent. There is less incentive for English youngsters either, as there is little hope for them to break into the first team, with more than half of the sides in the Premiership featuring one or fewer English players aged 23 and under playing regularly. 

Most interestingly, the teams that have closely followed the model so familiar in the Premier League of big summer spending, Stuttgart, Hamburg and particularly Wolfsburg, have had exceedingly disappointing seasons, with Wolfsburg, German champions only two seasons ago, currently in the relegation zone with seven games left, Funnily enough, they also have among the fewest home youngsters in their teams. 

Indeed, the correlation between the increased quality and success of sides like Dortmund and Leverkusen, interestingly too Hannover and Mainz, not to mention the national side, and such youth selection policy we have seen, does not appear accidental. Young sides grow together. Dortmund’s success with youth seems to be mirroring the Manchester United side of the mid-90s, Fergie’s 1992 FA Youth Cup-winning team and the core of England’s so-called ‘golden generation’. But Dortmund’s model is reflected almost across the board in the Bundesliga. 

Looking again at Leverkusen, youth in the likes of Sam, Gonzalo Castro and Daniel Schwaab is well-complemented by experience in the figures of Ballack, Simon Rolfes, Sami Hyypia and goalscorer Stefan Kiessling. But the team’s youthful and vibrant ethos shines through; this season, the team has not relied on its experienced players but encouraged the creativity in its youngsters to drive them forward, much like the German national team and much unlike the English one. Ballack has been restricted to irregular appearances this campaign, partly due to the improving performances of 21-year-old central midfielder Lars Bender, another rising talent who has yet to earn the call to the national side. 

Comparing this again to the situation in England, it is too easy to criticise our own national team for persisting with the older generation, and to criticise clubs for not picking youngsters, but they cannot be selected if they simply are not there. To address this issue, it would again be well-worth looking at how the Germans have done it, and how it has come to be that so many talented youngsters grace their top league?

It was after France ’98, when Germany only reached the quarter finals, that officials at the head of the Deutscher Fussball Bund decided that change was drastically needed. With the championships regarded as a national failure, and little sign of talent coming through (a view confirmed as they exited Euro 2000 in the group stages without winning a match), a root-and-branch redevelopment of youth facilities was undertaken, with 121 national talent centres created for 10-17 year olds, with emphasis on technical skills. These centres are run by the DFB, and all 36 clubs of the two tiers of the federal league (the third and lowest national tier was only added two years ago) must have a centrally-regulated academy in order to even be allowed to participate. This is a team who learns from the mistakes of the past.

On our side, Arsenal and Liverpool may be the leaders in youth development, but the amount of players coming through across the board is pitiful compared with Germany, with no places for them in Premier League first teams even if they do come through. The German national side at the World Cup was young, energetic and had a wonderful spirit and team ethos built not least around its young talent. This season, this has replicated itself in the Bundesliga. Where Bayern Munich were widely expected to be crowned champions, it has instead been a season of great excitement, unpredictability and improved quality, and the kids have been running the show.

* players aged 23 or under playing in a minimum of one third of all league matches, as of March 22 2011.