SCHALKE, GERMANY — At any major youth game in England, several Germans are likely to be among the scouts nestled in the ground. They have come planning to continue the influx of young British players to the Bundesliga.
“Our scouts from Bundesliga clubs – we have a look at the youth league in England or at the second teams,” Christian Heidel, the sporting director of Schalke 04, tells i. A few years ago, the best young German players were courted by English clubs; now, the direction of travel is mostly the other way.
The phenomenal impact made by Jadon Sancho this season for Borussia Dortmund – he has scored or assisted 18 goals in 24 league games – is at the forefront of the Bundesliga’s wider embrace of young British talent. There are now six British-born players in the Bundesliga; the oldest is Reece Oxford, who only turned 20 in December.
Of course other players have not quite matched Sancho’s remarkable impact. But this is a league which is not reluctant to entrust youth. “I don’t know if they nurture better than the other leagues but they definitely give you a chance when you’re young,” Reiss Nelson, who has scored six goals for Hoffenheim on loan from Arsenal this season has said.
These positive experiences in Germany are encouraging other British players to move to the Bundesliga. In January Arsenal’s Emile Smith Rowe joined RB Leipzig on loan, while Man City’s Rabbi Matondo joined Schalke 04 permanently. “Watching Jadon and Reiss do so well has obviously attracted a lot of us over in England trying to get first-team football,” Matondo told i recently.
To understand this shift, go back to 2014. Amid the debris of another failed World Cup campaign, Dan Ashworth – the Football Association’s director of elite development, and later technical director – launched the ‘England DNA’ programme. The notion was easy to mock, but essentially it aimed to produce an easily identifiable English style of play, from youth to professional football, which would improve the technical skills of players and make the transition between levels easier: as players aged, “only the size of the shirt will change,” it was proclaimed. England’s stunning success in youth football since – in 2017 alone, they won the U20 World Cup and U19 European Championships – together with their run to the World Cup semi-finals points to the project’s effectiveness.
There has also been an increased focus on youth development from the Premier League. In 2012, the Premier League introduced the Elite Player Performance Plan to encourage clubs to produce more homegrown talent. While aspects of this have been deeply controversial – clubs can now sign any young players, not just those within 90 minutes of travel time, encouraging the largest teams to stockpile the best young talent – it has coincided with greater levels of talent emerging. The creation of national U18 and U23 leagues is regarded as particularly significant. The Premier League has also experimented in other ways, organising their first biobanding tournament – with players in teams based on their physical maturity, not age – in 2015.
German success, then struggle
One nation that England studied in revamping their youth system was Germany, who had transformed their own development programmes after a dire Euro 2000. Yet now young English talent has overtaken young German talent, Borussia Dortmund’s sporting director Michael Zorc said recently.
What is so striking about the British influx in the Bundesliga is that it is concentrated most upon midfielders who are quick and creative. This is simultaneously a reflection of their qualities and a failure of German youth production, now struggling to nurture young footballers of similar ilk.
Compared to German young players, English young players now have “more speed, more freedom – that’s very interesting,” Heidel says. “The German clubs very often have the problem that we have don’t have enough speed. Speed is the most important thing in modern football. You have players with speed and technique. And that’s the reason why I think we have to change our work in the youth academies.”
Economics is also driving the Premier League’s export of players. As the Premier League’s economic clout has intensified, clubs have been able to invest more in youth development, and their academies have evolved into footballing universities. “When you see these youth academies – for example Man City – you can’t compare it with the German standard. It’s much higher, much higher,” Zorc said.
Shrewd clubs have adapted the purpose of their academies. Rather than produce first-team players for their club, their new role is increasingly to churn out graduates.
This is “a business model for them,” Zorc noted. The model is being pushed to extreme heights. Chelsea have 41 players out on loan this season. Most of these will never play first team football for the club, but by doing well elsewhere, and then being sold on for a profit, they are still performing an important function for the club. Such players are like stocks that clubs invest in so they can cash out later.
There is actually no contradiction between the quality of youth talent increasing and the number of minutes played by home-grown young players decreasing. As the concentration of the world’s best talent in the Premier League has increased, so the bar for a youth player making it at a leading club has risen. And so while the supply of youth talent in the Premier League has increased, players need to be of a greater standard than ever before, relative to the overall talent pool in global football, if they are to win an opportunity to become a first team regular.
In search of match practice
As Premier League clubs have so much cash, it is natural that they will have an abundance of players who do not get first team minutes at their clubs yet could excel elsewhere.
“Right now England ranks among the leading countries in the world producing young talent in football,” says Domenico Tedesco, the manager of Schalke 04. “On the other hand a lot of Premier League teams have large squads with world-class players or at least very experienced good ones. That makes it even more difficult for young talent to come through. They need match practice and they get that right now in leagues outside England like the Bundesliga.”
Yet economics alone does not explain why moving to the Bundesliga is so attractive for young English players. There are salient cultural differences too. This year, the average age of players in the Bundesliga is 26.17; in England it is 27.09. Four of the Bundesliga’s top seven – Wolfsburg, RB Leipzig, Bayer Leverkusen and league leaders Borussia Dortmund – have a lower average age than the lowest in the Premier League. Premier League sides generally have more money to invest in established older players – but when German clubs have equal resources to English clubs, they are also likelier to prefer young players.
As the Premier League’s boom continues, it is poised to accelerate its development into less of a normal sports league and something more like a global talent hub – effectively a marketplace for foreign clubs to buy players. More than ever, Premier League clubs do not just exist to produce talent for themselves; they also exist to export talent.