Germany's Under-21s fell at the final hurdle in Italy, capping a disappointing year for German football. But despite justified criticism, there is no doubt that the talent is there and it will be given its chance.
Two years to the day since Germany triumphed in the European Under-21 Championship in Krakow, Poland, there was to be no repeat as Spain ran out 2-1 winners in Udine in north-eastern Italy.
After a largely convincing journey to the final, including comfortable wins over Denmark and Serbia, plus a more hard-fought triumph over Romania in the semi-final, the Spaniards proved a bridge too far for Stefan Kuntz‘ side who were punished for uncharacteristic errors – although Nadiem Amiri did provide consolation late on with a deflected effort.
Mikel Oyarzabal capitalized on Timo Baumgartl's ill-timed run out of defense to set up Fabian Ruiz, who beat Alexander Nübel from distance with just seven minutes played. The young Schalke goalkeeper had no chance, but he was at fault for Spain's second midway through the second half, spilling Fabian's shot and alllowing Dani Olmo to pounce.
It was unfortunate for the 22-year-old who had only conceded once from open play en route to the final and has reportedly attracted the interest of Bayern Munich. But he shouldn't be made to shoulder all of the blame on an evening where several of Germany's most promising stars failed to shine.
Bad day at the office
Luca Waldschmidt – only one goal away from a tournament record having already scored seven going into the final – endured a frustrating first half after surviving an early foul from Jesus Vallejo, who was lucky to get away with only a yellow card. But the Freiburg youngster was forced to drop deeper and deeper to get involved in play, and almost an hour had passed before he recorded a couple of long-range efforts on goal.
Borussia Dortmund's Mahmoud Dahoud and Hoffenheim's Nadiem Amiri, two of Germany's most creative forces at this tournament, also struggled to influence proceedings. The latter's deflected strike did provide hope in the closing stages but it was too little, too late. A comeback would have been sensational but undeserved against a Spain side which could easily have scored two more.
The introduction of Florian Neuhaus and Marco Richter in the second half gave Germany more balance, the Borussia Mönchengladbach midfielder linking up well with the Ausgburg striker to set up Waldschmidt, who scuffed the ball wide – but it was the best chance the defending champions managed to create.
And yet, as underwhelmingly as it ended, this tournament can still be counted as a success for German youth football, which has come under deserved scrutiny over the past 18 months.
A difficult year
A disastrous year began with World Cup humiliation in Russia and then included a triple disappointment at club level in the Champions League. Meanwhile in the Bundesliga, the big emerging stars were no longer home-grown talents such as Julian Brandt, Leon Goretzka or Joshua Kimmich but foreign imports like Leon Bailey, Ibrahima Konate and Jadon Sancho. Had even the English overtaken Germany?
Most worryingly, while the likes of Bailey and Sancho in particular lit up the Bundesliga, their natural penetration and directness served in stark contrast to the intensely drilled, tactically trained products of German academies, leading to worries that Germany's youngsters had had the individuality coached out of them.
"You hear from every angle that German youth football is suffering," said Reinhard Rauball, vice-president of the German Football Association (DFB), yet the tone of his voice suggested that he himself doesn't agree.
U21 coach Stefan Kuntz has done his job - it's up to Joachim Löw to continue the transition at senior level.
The future's bright
After all, this has still been a successful decade at youth level for Germany, the country having won European titles at under-17 (2009), under-19 (2008 and 2014) and under-21 (2017) level, not to mention a Confederations Cup win with what was effectively an under-23 squad in 2017.
The responsibility for the decision not to take those players to Russia in 2018 and instead to perservere with the remnants of the 2014 World Cup-winning squad lies with Joachim Löw and the DFB. It's not as if the next generation wasn't already there and waiting to make the transition.
Germany's starting line-up for their Euro U21 opener against Denmark boasted 820 Bundesliga appearances between them, while the likes of Leroy Sané, Julian Brandt, Timo Werner, Thilo Kehrer and Serge Gnabry weren‘t even included, having already established themselves as cornerstones of the new senior side.
Of those, Sané and Gnabry - and, to an extent, Werner - can also be considered to have broken the mould of the one-size-fits-all German academy product, street footballers capable of delivering the unpredictable and the spectacular.
Germany's tournament in Italy may have ended in a whimper, not helped by a couple of uncharacteristic mistakes against a technically well-versed Spain side. But the talent in German football is there and it is already being given its chance to develop.