Ever since 2003-04, Bastian Schweinsteiger has been a regular starter for Bayern Munich. Having amassed 287 Bundesliga appearances in his career, the player has outlasted coaches Ottmar Hitzfeld (twice), Felix Magath, Juergen Klinsmann, Louis van Gaal, Andries Jonker, and will have outlasted Jupp Heynckes three times before his career is finished.
Truly, Schweinsteiger is a living legend of the club. But even as the 28-year-old enjoys untouchable status in Heynckes' lineup, Bayern are already grooming his replacement.
Looking at the Bavarians' squad, it was stacked with options in defensive midfield long before Javi Martinez made his €40 million move from Bilbao last summer. In addition to Schweinsteiger, Luiz Gustavo had proven his class again and again in the Champions League. Toni Kroos was also an option in the holding role, while Anatoliy Tymoshchuk despite his years continues to be a useful player of tremendous experience.
But four and even five options weren't enough. As sporting director Matthias Sammer said earlier this week following the signing of Jan Kirchhoff, "The Kirchhoff signing was a little message." That message was that Bayern will continue to scour Europe for young talent.
In January of 2012, Bayern struck a deal with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg that saw the then-16-year-old Brondby central midfielder move to Munich on a free transfer. The midfielder was considered one of Denmark's brightest talents at the time of his transfer, and has since seen his stock rise dramatically as he advanced from the Bavarians' U19s to their reserve team. Speaking to Fussball-Vorot, Bayern II coach Mehmet Scholl praised the youngster, who trained with the Bayern first team in Doha.
"Pierre is an outstanding player who will not stay in my hands too long. He has too much quality. In [the Regionalliga Sued] his talent is wasted in the long run."
Bayern only signed Hojbjerg weeks after assistant manager Hermann Gerland admitted his club's interest in Bochum central midfielder Leon Goretzka, who at the time was 16 years old. The addition of Hojbjerg did not change Bayern's desire to sign Goretzka, and according to a November report from Die Welt, Sammer met with the player to discuss a possible transfer.
Like Hojbjerg, Goretzka is a central midfielder with the ability to play on the edge of both penalty areas and everywhere between. The former Germany U17 captain likens himself to Kroos, and in spite of his young age, has started in 18 of a possible 19 games in the 2. Bundesliga this season. He does have a contract until 2016, however, which could stand in the way of a transfer to Bayern or abroad.
The list of young central midfielders on Bayern's radar runs deeper still. On Tuesday, Focus reported that the Munich giants are closely monitoring Hamburg starlet Levin Oztunali. Being the grandson of HSV and Germany legend Uwe Seeler, the 16-year-old has an uncommon pedigree. And with his contract set to expire in June, nothing can stop his move to Munich if he and Bayern come to an agreement.
Curiously, the signing of Hojbjerg and interest in Goretzka and Levin all came while Bayern were fully aware of another midfield super-talent already in their squad: Emre Can. The Germany U19 international, who turned 19 on Saturday, has been with the club since 2009 and since the promotion of David Alaba to the first team has been the crown jewel of the Bayern academy.
A player of tremendous versatility, Emre has played in defensive midfield, at left-back, and in central defense for Bayern. Indeed, his range of skills once led former Germany U17 coach Steffen Freund to label him "The most complete player I have seen in my career."
With two top central midfield prospects already in their ranks and two more still on their radar, Bayern's apparent attempt to monopolize Germany's young talent may seem excessive. And indeed, they have a responsibility to the players and their own image as a club to ensure that every young prospect is given a proper chance to develop, either in Munich or elsewhere.
As of yet, Bayern have handled the situation responsibly. Hojbjerg signed a three-year contract, which expires in 2015, just over a month before his 20th birthday. Emre's current deal expires in 2014, just months after he turns 20. Neither is, for now, stuck in a situation where he could be stranded in the Regionalliga Sued during the critical years in his development, the early 20s.
Who will be Schweinsteiger's long-term replacement at Bayern?
Because players at 16, 17 or 18 years of age are still far from reaching physical, technical and tactical maturity, it's impossible to know for sure who, if any of Bayern's prospects will be an appropriate fit to replace Schweinsteiger in the long run.
National team coach Joachim Loew has typically used Kroos in the absence of Schweinsteiger, but as proven by Bayern's Champions League collapse in 2011, the 23-year-old just doesn't offer the same defensive presence as the Germany vice-captain.
In a few years, Hojbjerg could be a No. 10 or Emre could be a defender. And there is no guarantee that either will be world-class. Thus, Bayern keep both on their books, and continue to pursue more options, like Goretzka and Levin. A large enough net will eventually catch a big fish.
In contrast to previous years, when replacements for Michael Ballack and Willy Sagnol took ages to find, Bayern are being refreshingly proactive. At 28, Schweinsteiger is still in the prime of his career and should have three or four years of top football left in him, plus a couple years on the decline.
By the time Schweinsteiger is on his way out, Emre, Hojbjerg, Goretzka and Levin will be approaching maturity. And by then, it will be clear who—if any—is the best fit to take the torch and lead the way for the next generation of Bayern and German football.