Have England overtaken Germany in youth development? | Sports| German football and major international sports news | DW | 27.03.2019
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Have England overtaken Germany in youth development?

Germany's youth system has long been considered one of the football world's best. Despite an under-21 loss on Tuesday, England appear to have caught up. But do the opportunities in the Bundesliga offer some compensation?

That the best young player in the Bundesliga this season hails from London rather than Leverkusen or Leipzig ranks fairly low on the list of issues German football has had to confront in the past 12 months. But its symbolism and implications are significant.

Jadon Sancho, 19, is already making his mark on England's senior team despite still being young enough to turn out for the under-21s, who lost 2-1 to a late Germany goal in a friendly in Bournemouth on Tuesday.

Dele Alli (22), Declan Rice (20) and Bayern Munich target Callum Hudson-Odoi (18, pictured above) were also young enough to feature in that game but instead have all started for the seniors during this international break. Much as results at youth level matter, is the relative youth of England's squad a sign they have caught up with Germany in development terms?

Since taking charge shortly after a dismal Euro 2016, England head coach Gareth Southgate has won praise and a World Cup semifinal berth by putting his faith in an English youth system overhauled over the last decade or so, after the country fell behind Germany, France and Spain in player development terms.

Jadon Sancho is action for England against the Czech Republic (picture-alliance/M. Pain)

Jadon Sancho is action for England against the Czech Republic

Joachim Löw is belatedly trying to start a similar process of rejuvenation in his senior squad but has complained that "England, France, Belgium and others are ahead of us in this sort of (youth) training". Germany team manager Oliver Bierhoff  has also accepted that standards have slipped a little for the reigning under-21 European champions.

Generation gap for Germany?

"I don’t want to say it’s all doom and gloom," he said last month. "We’re in a more comfortable situation now compared with 2004. Obviously we’ve realized that we have fewer exceptional players at U16 and U17 level, but we have a lot of talented players at the moment who we need to develop further."

While Leroy Sané, Serge Gnabry and Niklas Süle (all 23) look set to become regulars in the new look German senior side, 19-year-old Kai Havertz is the only player under the age of 22 who looks capable of making the step up any time soon. There is also not a single teenager in Stefan Kuntz' squad for Tuesday's game. England have three. 

After the Euro 2004 failure to which Bierhoff refers and the host World Cup in 2006 which served as a new start for German football, the exceptional under-21 side that beat England in the 2009 final offered another surge of hope and laid the foundation for the senior team's 2014 World Cup triumph. Manuel Neuer, Benedikt Höwedes, Jerome Boateng, Mats Hummels, Sami Khedira and Mesut Özil were key men in both sides while, from their opponents XI that day, only James Milner and Theo Walcott won more than a handful of caps.

Germany's 2009 U21 team formed the basis of their 2014 World Cup winning team (picture-alliance/Pressefoto ULMER/M. Ulmer)

Germany's 2009 U21 team formed the basis of their 2014 World Cup winning team

Now the picture looks different, with only Gnabry making the breakthrough from Germany's 2017 winners while England's world champions at U17 and U20 level make significant strides on the international stage. There are also concerns in Germany that the country's youth system is churning out identikit players. Technically proficient midfielders are commonplace but Germany has few young players capable of the sort of improvisation and direct running which comes naturally to Sancho and Hudson-Odoi and a severe lack of quality strikers, both young and old.

Lack of playing time a big concern for England

But Sancho is also a standard bearer for the difficulties many talented young English players have in breaking in to Premier League first teams. The winger left Manchester City for Borussia Dortmund after seeing his pathway to the first team blocked by big money arrivals including Sané at the Abu Dhabi-owned club. Fellow U17 World Cup winner Phil Foden is equally highly regarded at City but has played just 96 minutes in the league this season, compared to Sancho's 1804 Bundesliga minutes for Dortmund.

This disparity is played out across the two squads, with Germany's players having, on average, started more than twice as many top flight games as their English counterparts in their careers to date.

Kai Havertz has played nearly 100 games for Bayer Leverkusen at 19 (Imago/Nordphoto/Meuter)

Kai Havertz has played nearly 100 games for Bayer Leverkusen at 19

"If you looked at the last European Championship in Poland, you’ll see that we were on 19,000 top-flight minutes compared to the Spanish and Italians who were up near 41,000-42,000 minutes in their top league,” England’s U21 manager Aidy Boothroyd said recently.

“It is difficult. I would like them all to be playing regularly. We have some that do, some that don’t. Then we have to decide: is it better for them to be playing in the Championship (second tier) on loan or training with Premier League clubs?”

That increased experience told on Tuesday when Felix Uduokhai fired home an injury time winner to ensure England's under 21s lost to Germany for the third time in a row. While the rivalry between the countries lends its own importance, it's the long game that really counts.

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