German Youth Football: Has the DFB Finally Achieved 'Talent Without End?'

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German Youth Football: Has the DFB Finally Achieved 'Talent Without End?'
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Goetze is the poster-boy for the German academy system.

The goal of "talent without end" has often been used by DFB officials to describe the ideal state of German youth football: a state of consistently producing several star players in each age group.

Investment in excess of €100 million per year has refined talent recognition and academy pedagogy, and enhanced player motivation. But until recently, "talent without end" was still just a theoretical ideal. Now, that concept is fast becoming reality.

Looking through the last few years, there have been gaps in talent production. The class of 1987 was never considered spectacular, and Sami Khedira is the only player from his age group who has truly made a great career.

Similarly, the class of 1991 is rather limited. Pierre-Michel Lasogga was the greatest talent from his age group before sustaining a cruciate ligament injury, but he was never regarded as well as Toni Kroos and Mario Goetze in the classes of 1990 and 1992, respectively.

As well, Julian Draxler is the only 1993-born to show world-class potential; Leonardo Bittencourt is another talent, but the relative age effect (he is only 24 days older than 1994-born Emre Can) has set him at a disadvantage.

Top German Talents, Year-by-Year
 Birth Year Player Name
 1987 Sami Khedira
 1988 Jerome Boateng, Mats Hummels, Mesut Ozil
 1989 Holger Badstuber, Lars Bender, Marko Marin, Thomas Mueller, Marco Reus
 1990                 Ilkay Gundogan, Toni Kroos, Sebastian Rode, Andre Schuerrle, Richard Sukuta-Pasu
 1991 Pierre-Michel Lasogga
 1992 Mario Goetze, Moritz Leitner, Bernd Leno, Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Kevin Volland
 1993 Julian Draxler, Leonardo Bittencourt
 1994 Emre Can, Marvin Ducksch, Matthias Ginter, Mitchell Weiser, Samed Yesil
 1995 Serge Gnabry, Leon Goretzka, Max Meyer, Marian Sarr, Niklas Stark, Marc Stendera
 1996 Donis Avdijaj, Julian Brandt, Levin Oztunali, Jonathan Tah, Timo Werner

Years such as 1987, 1991 and 1993 seem to have become less frequent in recent years as the classes of 1994 to '96 have all proven to be exceptional. The 1994s lost the 2011 U-17 European Championship to the best Dutch side in years before shattering scoring records at the World Cup later that summer.

Alex Grimm/Getty Images
Ginter is the first of the 1994 class to establish himself as a first-team regular at club level.

Of the 1994 age group, Matthias Ginter is the only player to become a first-team regular, with Marvin Ducksch and Samed Yesil having sustained injuries that crippled their development in 2012-13. Mitchell Weiser similarly had his development stunted by signing with a Bayern team in which he had no real role apart from playing with the reserves in the German fourth division.  Nonetheless, from a developmental perspective, the 1994 class is outstanding: The identification and nurturing of talent throughout childhood led to a truly outstanding cohort.

A year later, Germany's talent pool was somewhat more concentrated in certain areas. Max Meyer was top scorer and voted the tournament's best player, but there were other huge talents in midfield such as Leon Goretzka and Serge Gnabry. December-born Marc Stendera suffered from the relative age effect during the Euros, but made his professional debut earlier this year and looked ready for a regular starting role before sustaining a cruciate ligament rupture in preseason.

All the aforementioned and more played their first professional match at age 17, and Niklas Stark (who made his Bundesliga debut two days after his 18th birthday) now is a regular starter at Nuernberg.

17-Year-Old Bundesliga Debutants
Season Player Names
2009-10 Mario Goetze, David Alaba
2010-11 Julian Draxler, Sonny Kittel, Markus Mendler
2011-12 Maximilian Arnold, Mitchell Weiser, Samed Yesil
2012-13 Marc Stendera, Max Meyer, Niklas Suele, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Marc-Oliver Kempf
2013-14 Levin Oztunali, Timo Werner, Jonathan Tah

Debuting at 17 used to be a rarity, but it's become commonplace in Germany as seven players in 2013 have done just that. Since August, Levin Oztunali, Timo Werner and Jonathan Tah have made their debuts. And it would be no surprise if before season's end, Brandt (who joined the German U17s a year early) and Donis Avdijaj (who scored or assisted an unprecedented 70 goals for club and country last season) joined them in the months to come.

There is a clear trend in the Bundesliga that players continue to debut at younger and younger ages, meaning that their technical, mental and emotional preparation is becoming better and better as pedagogy evolves. The fact that superstars like Thomas Mueller, Marco Reus and Ilkay Gundogan debuted much later than the likes of Meyer and Werner suggests that the most recent classes will produce even better talents than we saw in 1989 and 1990.

Alex Grimm/Getty Images
Lasogga is one of several promising German talents to have suffered a serious injury.

There is a warning to be gathered from player records, especially in the 1994-born category: Responsible and considered management is absolutely critical. Weiser and Emre Can wasted last year in the Regionalliga, with the latter admitting frustration at the fact that he, as a youngster, did not have the opportunities to make his way in a star-studded Bayern team.

Even more importantly, coaches must be careful not to treat young players the same as seniors, just because youngsters are technically, mentally and emotionally prepared. There is a natural, physical barrier, and young players are especially susceptible to debilitating injuries. Ronaldo and Michael Owen are classic examples, but looking through the recent German talent pool, Lasogga, Ducksch, Yesil, Stendera and many more have suffered huge setbacks. Perhaps some have been pushed too hard, too soon.

Like young-age pedagogy, the management of teenage professional talents will eventually be refined. The good news for the DFB is that all evidence points towards the German academy system having finally produced "talent without end" for three consecutive years. The next step will be to ensure that it is properly cared for.

 

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