The Top 10 German Talents to Watch for at the 2018 World Cup
The 2014 World Cup may be the last chance for some of the Mannschaft's current stars to become world champions.
Miroslav Klose is 36 years old, Philipp Lahm turns 31 in November, Bastian Schweinsteiger 30 in August and Per Mertesacker 30 in September. But it is certainly not an endgame for a deep German talent pool that will be ripe to take on any challenge that may await at the 2018 World Cup, and beyond.
In 2018, the players who won the 2009 under-21 European Championship will be no older than 31; those who won the 2007 under-17 Championship will be 26 and those who won the 2008 under-19 Championship will be 29.
Since those title-winning youth sides, dozens more have come through the Bundesliga's academies, some of whom all but skipping the youth national teams on the road to becoming fully-capped senior internationals.
Even still, there are many potential world-class talents in the making who are yet to impose themselves in the senior German national team.
With that in mind, B/R has created a list of the top 10 German talents (in alphabetical order by surname) to look out for ahead of the next World Cup. Those selected are those who were not selected to Low's final 2014 World Cup squad and who are eligible to represent Germany at next summer's under-21 European Championship. Click "Begin Slideshow" for the full list.
Age at 2018 World Cup: 22
Julian Brandt is the youngest player on this list, having only turned 18 in May. And yet, he has every chance of making the cut for the 2018 World Cup.
Along with Timo Werner, Brandt was one of two 1996-born players to be called up to the German under-17 squad in 2012. Nominating such an under-aged player is exceptionally rare, but the player proved himself to be sufficiently advanced and has since taken huge steps in his career.
Brandt made his senior debut this spring, not long after joining Leverkusen from Wolfsburg. He became a starter and ended the season on a blistering run of form, scoring two goals and assisting three more in the final eight games of the season.
A winger with good pace and athleticism, exquisite technique and the ability to both score and create goals, Brandt is built in the mould of Julian Draxler.
He will have considerable competition for playing time at Leverkusen in the form of Hakan Calhanoglu, Josip Drmic and Son Heung-Min especially, but the youngster is perhaps the most talented player on his team. In four years, he could be a big star, at Leverkusen or elsewhere.
Age at 2018 World Cup: 24
Emre Can's professional career is only now starting to kick off, but he has every chance of being a star player for Germany in 2018.
The 20-year-old captained the German under-17s to a third-placed finish at the 2011 World Cup, after which Steffen Freund hailed the Frankfurt-born talent (via Deutsche Welle) as "the most complete player [he had] ever seen."
Indeed, Emre can play at left-back and center-back as well as his natural, box-to-box midfield role. He was expedited to the German under-19 and under-21 teams, although his inability to break into the Bayern first team caused temporary stagnation and resulted in his eventual transfer to Leverkusen last summer.
Especially towards the end of his first and only year at the BayArena, Emre emerged once more as a huge talent.
Gifted with tremendous strength and uncanny ability on the ball, he in many ways resembles a young Bastian Schweinsteiger. And as he moves to Liverpool this summer, he now has a clear path to the big stage in a squad that has potential to compete at a high level and that truly needed a player of his skill set.
If he takes advantage of his chance, he could be the next great central midfielder in world football.
Age at 2018 World Cup: 22
Serge Gnabry made his competitive debut for Arsenal in September 2013, aged just 17 years and 74 days. The winger scored his first-ever professional goal and made 10 Premier League appearances for the Gunners over the course of the campaign. For his efforts, he also became an important player for the German under-19 national team.
Like Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain before him, Gnabry is a classic winger with a blistering turn of pace. But he also has great ball skills, can dribble, shoot from distance and create play. He has all the weapons to become a superstar.
The ex-Stuttgart man recently chose to pledge allegiance to Germany over the Ivory Coast (per Die Welt h/t ESPN) in February, but he has some considerable hurdles to overcome if he's to make it to the 2018 World Cup. In addition to great competition within the German squad, he'll also have to make his way either in the highly competitive Arsenal team or elsewhere.
Age at 2018 World Cup: 23
One year after Emre Can, Leon Goretzka was the next great German central midfield talent to captain the German under-17s. And like his predecessor, the Bochum academy graduate was quickly promoted to the under-19 and under-21 squads and, most recently, to the full senior team.
Goretzka made his debut for Joachim Low's side in a pre-World Cup friendly against Poland, making the starting lineup on the right wing. His inclusion in that team bodes well for his future and speaks volumes of how well Joachim Low rates his talent.
According to German paper TZ, Goretzka claims his role-model is Toni Kroos and sees himself as a playmaker of sorts. But he is a somewhat different type of player, his 6'2" frame making him an imposing aerial threat. He is more athletic than Kroos and has the potential to play more defensively in central midfield, even if he prefers to attack.
At Schalke, Goretzka faces tremendous competition for playing time in attacking midfield. But if deployed in a deeper position, he should expect a considerably lesser challenge. He already is on the cusp of becoming a regular starter; should he make wise career choices, four years from now he could find himself competing for time in the senior squad.
Age at 2018 World Cup: 22
Max Meyer's career path has in many ways mirrored that of Goretzka. Like the ex-Bochum man, Meyer was born in 1995 and developed in one Ruhr-area club (Duisburg) for another (Schalke) in his youth. And like Goretzka, Meyer capped off a breakthrough 2013-14 season by earning his debut cap for the senior national team as a starter. He played all but the final 13 minutes in that match—a scoreless draw with Poland.
Meyer stole the show at the under-17 World Cup two years ago, earning the honor of being named the tournament's best player.
The diminutive attacking midfielder has exceptional control in tight spaces and is an outstanding dribbler and playmaker. He also is an adept scorer, having found the net seven times in addition to his six assists in his debut season.
Heading into the 2013-14 season, Meyer has a good chance of being a regular starter for a Schalke side that has outstanding depth in attacking midfield. His playing style is perfect for Joachim Low's philosophy, and his having already been capped suggests the trainer intends to make him a permanent member of his squad sooner than later. Come 2018, he'll be nearing 23 years of age and entering his prime.
Age at 2018 World Cup: 22
Levin Oztunali became the first 1996-born player to make his Bundesliga debut, coming off the Leverkusen bench for a three-minute cameo in the first matchday of the 2013-14 season. He only made a handful of appearances for the Werkself during the campaign but nonetheless looks to be a huge and rising talent in central midfield.
The grandson of Germany legend Uwe Seeler, Oztunali has more ball-playing skills than Emre Can and a smaller stature than Goretzka. He's more comparable to Ilkay Gundogan and can play in a box-to-box or central attacking midfield role.
After graduating from the German under-17 squad, Oztunali was immediately promoted to the under-19 team. Along with Brandt, he's one of just two 1996-born players in the squad but nonetheless was a starter during the Elite Round ahead of this month's European Championship.
He faces huge competition for playing time at Leverkusen but has more than enough talent to overcome any obstacle that stands in his way.
Age at 2018 World Cup: 22
Jonathan Tah was promoted to the Hamburg senior team ahead of the 2013-14 season, made his debut in the third matchday and was a starter by the sixth. A 17-year-old at the time, the teenager already had the physical, mental, tactical and technical maturity to defend against men.
Perhaps due to the pressure on Hamburg as they struggled to avoid relegation and due to a conflict between the club and his agent, Tah spent the latter stages of the season on the bench. But when he did play, he looked very much up to the task.
Built like a tank and with cool composure on the ball, Tah is the prototype of the modern center-back.
It's rare that a 17-year-old makes his professional debut and rarer still that such a young player is used in a position other than midfield. Tah's maturity at such a young age begs the question of how great he can be when he reaches his prime in seven or eight years. Come 2018, he could be well on his way to superstardom.
Marc-Andre Ter Stegen
Age at 2018 World Cup: 26
As great as Manuel Neuer is, Marc-Andre ter Stegen may well succeed him one day. The new Barcelona signing has played professionally for more than three full seasons, making it easy to forget that he still is just 22 years of age.
A goalkeeper with extraordinary reflexes, exceptional composure for his age and the ability to make miraculous saves, Ter Stegen could be not only the next great German goalkeeper, but the best in the world in his position.
Ter Stegen already has some international experience at senior level, although his introduction was perhaps at too young an age. Barcelona found him mature enough to sign this summer and, if he takes his chances at Camp Nou over the next four years, he'll certainly be in the German squad in 2018.
If Neuer is for some reason unavailable for the tournament, Germany can expect to have a great backup available—just as Neuer was when Rene Adler fractured his rib shortly before the 2010 World Cup.
Age at 2018 World Cup: 25
Kevin Volland did not make Germany's 2014 World Cup squad, but he was given his senior international debut shortly before the tournament began.
The Germany under-21 captain had a breakthrough season at Hoffenheim in 2013-14, scoring 11 goals and assisting nine more. Should he continue to progress, he could soon be one of the Bundesliga's brightest stars.
Volland in many ways embodies the modern German model for a striker.
Although not the tallest of players (he stands just 1.79 meters), he has good upper-body strength, a lightning-fast burst of pace and as great a work rate as any forward in the Bundesliga. He's very mobile, can play on the wing or in the center and has assisted as many goals in league play over the course of his career as he has scored.
At the moment, Volland is at somewhat of a competitive disadvantage compared with other young attacking talents; he is nearly 22 and still has no Champions League or Europa League experience. But if he does begin to play on the greatest stage in the coming years, at Hoffenheim or elsewhere, he could well become a very useful option for the Mannschaft in attack.
Age at 2018 World Cup: 22
Probably Germany's greatest talent in any position and certainly their greatest center forward prospect for a very long time is Timo Werner. The Stuttgart man has been far ahead of the curve throughout his young career.
Per Transfermarkt, Werner scored seven goals in 10 appearances for the Stuttgart under-17s, mostly as a 14-year-old. The next year he scored 24 in as many appearances, leading VfB to the German title. For his efforts, he was promoted early to the German under-17 national team for the European Championship, starting twice despite being a year underage.
In 2012, Werner was promoted to the under-19 side and, as a 16-year-old, scored 24 goals in 23 appearances. That summer, he was promoted to the German under-19 squad. In August, he became the youngest-ever player to debut for Stuttgart.
Werner made 30 appearances in his first season, scoring four goals and assisting five more. He gave two assists in his first start and became the youngest player in Bundesliga history to score twice in a game.
Capable of playing both at center forward and on the wing, Werner has the goal-scoring instincts of a great center forward. He's developed exceptional quickness, even in his youth, and is a cultured enough player to be suitable to dribble, pass and play on the wing. If he stays fit and continues to progress as he has thus far, Werner could yet be the next great German striker.
Those Left out
There are some big names missing from this list, for a variety of reasons.
Schalke starlet Kaan Ayhan, who made a name for himself this spring with some brilliant performances during the club's defensive injury crisis, is missing due to his having switched affiliation from Germany to Turkey.
The 19-year-old has represented Germany at under-16, under-17 and under-18 level but hasn't played for a Germany youth team since 2012. He played for Turkey as an under-17 and now continues to play at under-21 level.
Zelalem has been left out for similar reasons. The Arsenal man represented Germany at under-17 level but recently turned down a call to play for the Mannschaft at the European Championship this summer. His official reason was to focus on his duty at the London club (per 101 Great Goals, citing ESPN's Jeff Carlisle), but in truth, he may just be keeping open his option to play for another country, like the United States.
Because he is not a dual citizen, Zelalem is ineligible to switch allegiance during his youth after appearing at a major tournament. He could represent several countries but has only spent just over half his life in Germany, where he left at the age of nine.
He could yet opt to play for the Mannschaft, but considering his currently limited ties to Germany, it shouldn't be expected.
Leno is off the list not because of possible nationality conflicts but because of where he is in his career. He's the same age as Ter Stegen, but it is the Gladbach-born who will be playing his football at the very highest level (at Barcelona) in the coming years while Leno, for the time being, remains in modest circumstances in Leverkusen.
Ter Stegen will be under more pressure at Barca than Leno at Leverkusen but should he be the No. 1 goalkeeper at Camp Nou—there's little doubting he'll make Germany's next World Cup squad. Leno will have to do more than just convince at Leverkusen and could be in need of a move to a bigger club if he is to assert himself in the senior national team.