For a brief spell approximately six years ago, Germany were the holders of the European Championship at under-17, 19 and 21 levels. In 2008, they narrowly missed out on the trophy at senior level, losing 1-0 to Spain in the final. But that same year, their youth team, which featured Sven and Lars Bender, claimed the title at under-19 level.
The next year, Mario Gotze, Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Shkodran Mustafi and others lifted the under-17 trophy. That same summer, a team featuring Manuel Neuer, Mesut Ozil, Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng, Sami Khedira and Benedikt Howedes won the under-21 championship.
The summer of 2009 was the first sign that the reforms the German Football League (DFL) imposed after the Nationalmannschaft's failure at Euro 2000 were starting to take hold. The concept of "talent without end," an ideal situation of top-class players emerging from academies on an annual basis that national trainer Joachim Low had often spoken of, was finally starting to become a reality.
Confirmation of the quality being produced in Bundesliga academies came in the summer of 2010, when the senior team—featuring six members of the under-21 Euro-winning squad, plus newcomers such as Toni Kroos, Thomas Muller and Holger Badstuber—placed third at the World Cup in South Africa.
The experience gained by Germany's young internationals at under-21 level would prove to be invaluable. It wasn't a tournament at the very highest level, but it instilled a sense of confidence and was just about as great a stage as some of the youngsters could have expected to play on at that time.
In the years that followed, the German philosophy changed. It had previously been rare for teenagers to feature in the Bundesliga, but the number of 17, 18 and 19-year-olds featuring regularly skyrocketed. And many of these talents were promoted to the senior national team at a very young age.
In recent years, Mario Gotze, Max Meyer, Julian Draxler, Leon Goretzka and Maximilian Arnold have respectively become the fourth, sixth, seventh, 14th and 26th-youngest players to debut for the Nationalmannschaft. Andre Schurrle, Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Matthias Ginter and Lewis Holtby aren't far behind, debuting within two months of turning 20. All of the above were fast-tracked to the senior team, and some skipped two or more youth levels altogether.
The under-21 team followed a similar pattern, and instead of using more mature players, opted to send many well under the cutoff birth date (January 1, 1988) to qualifiers for the 2011 tournament. Facing players often two or three years older, that team failed to qualify, with a 4-1 loss to Iceland the benchmark for their woeful performance.
Despite continually churning out talent for the senior side, Germany's academies went five years without producing a team that would win a youth national competition. That streak ended last summer, as the under-19s lifted the trophy in Hungary, but that result was hardly considered a big deal. Nor was the streak without titles: It seemed the German FA (DFB) had followed Johann Cruyff's wisdom that trophies at youth level are not nearly as important as producing quality players.
Yet as the summer of 2015 approaches, it appears that the German philosophy has once again changed. Speaking to reporters at a press conference on Tuesday (via ESPN), Low commented on the state of many highly rated youngsters in his talent pool, several of whom who had debuted last spring: "Right now, I don't see the necessity to bring in new players. Emre Can, Kevin Volland, Max Meyer and Leon Goretzka—they shall play the [under-21] tournament in June."
Previously, only Ter Stegen was demoted to the under-21s after making his senior debut. Gotze and even Draxler and Schurrle, who've been relative outsiders in Low's team, never returned to youth level after earning their first nomination to the Nationalmannschaft. Now, Volland, Meyer, and Goretzka have been sent back to the under-21s, along with Ginter. They'll make a very formidable team in the Czech Republic this June.
Curiously, there are some players born in 1995 and 1996 playing regularly at professional level who have been omitted from the under-21s but brought into the lower teams.
Davie Selke was top scorer at the under-19 Euros last summer and has made huge strides with Werder Bremen this season. Marc Stendera has has played in all but one game since late October and is having arguably as good a season as Meyer. And although he's rarely played at the top level, Julian Brandt is every bit as talented and developed as under-21s like Leonardo Bittencourt, Yunus Malli, Amin Younes and Moritz Leitner.
The reason some deserving of the under-21 have been left at under-20 level, it seems, is that Germany are also going to make a push to win the under-20 World Cup. As such, they've called up some marquee players to provide the boost needed to overcome tougher opponents.
Similarly, Jonathan Tah, Leroy Sane and Gianluca Gaudino—who have all played more than a few minutes of senior-level football this season—have been left at under-19 level, seemingly to add a touch of class ahead of this summer's Euros. The wild cards of those born in 1996 are Bremen starlet Levin Oztunali and Stuttgart sensation Timo Werner, both of whom haven't yet been placed in a Germany youth team but would be big assets to any.
That leaves the under-17s, who have qualified for the European Championship and will play at the World Cup this October if they are among the six best performers at the Euros.
The team features some real class in prolific center forward Johannes Eggestein, who's scored 23 goals and given five assists in 21 games for Bremen's under-17 and under-19 teams this season. Captain Felix Passlack may be the most interesting player in the squad. The Dortmund lad is a complete package who can play almost anywhere, preferably at right-back or on the right wing, and he is a natural leader. His BVB teammate Dzenis Burnic joined him with Jurgen Klopp's senior side during January's winter training camp and also looks to be a top-class talent.
None of the under-17s look ready for promotion and there aren't any underage players in the squad, as Werner and Brandt once were. But elsewhere, Germany's youth teams appear to be crafted with special attention to winning the many trophies that will be up for grabs this summer. It's a clear reversal from a policy that focused on preparing players for the professional level and bringing them out of the youth teams as soon as possible.
In one sense, it may be necessary due to a lack of available space in the senior team. For example, the return of Holger Badstuber in Low's squad coincided with the demotion of Ginter, as one center-back took the place of another. In the past, however—with the exception of Ter Stegen—players still eligible for youth football were often simply dropped from the senior squad instead of sent back to youth level.
Germany's policy reversal has some clear benefits that were seen after the under-21 side won the European Championship. It brought out leadership qualities. Nowadays, the players from that team are among the most confident performers for Germany. Neuer, Khedira, Hummels, Boateng and Howedes are all captain material.
On the other hand, the policy comes with risks, particularly in overuse. Few will remember now, but the Germany under-17 team of 2011 was truly exceptional. The Netherlands beat that side at the European Championship, but at the World Cup, Germany hit a new level. They shattered the tournament's record for goals scored, notching 11 during the group stage and 13 in the elimination rounds (including the third-place playoff). They took third place after a shock semi-final loss to hosts Mexico, who turned around a 2-1 deficit in the final 15 minutes.
These days, Emre Can is the only player from that squad who has truly made an impression. Samed Yesil soon suffered an anterior cruciate ligament tear and sustained the same injury shortly after returning. Marvin Ducksch and Levent Aycicek both spent almost a year on the sidelines after injuring themselves not long after a summer that included two youth tournaments.
Young players are especially susceptible to injuries, particularly if their immature and smaller bodies are put to the test against full-grown men. Frankfurt know this well, having seen Stendera and Sonny Kittel suffer cruciate ligament damage within months of debuting for the senior team. For a youngster to play professional football after a shortened summer, which make overuse injuries a big danger, can heighten the risk of career-threatening injuries.
That is a risk the DFB is apparently willing to take. And the benefits of developed leadership and experience are certainly worthwhile positives to counteract the increased risk of injury.
Looking ahead, there are many talented youth internationals who will also be looking to make names for themselves this summer, and it's entirely possible that Germany's youth teams will be stretched too thin. Youth tournaments can be fickle and luck will always play a role, so a perfect five-for-five isn't likely.
Still, there's good reason to believe in each of the Nationalmannschaft's contestants this summer. They really could make history. If they do, Low may well have a repeat of 2010 as he approaches Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup: several prepared, experienced and confident young players ready to deliver.