With this weeks 4-0 drubbing of England u21s by the German u21s, Die Mannschaft completed a hat-trick of youth level European Championships (winning the u17, u19, and u21 tournaments). Such success indicates that the future of the Bundesliga is bright, and that while the Serie A begins a period of decline, the Premier League is used as a scapegoat for the failures of the English national team, and La Liga devolves into a 2 horse race, the Bundesliga is poised to regain its place amongst the top 3 leagues in Europe.
It is difficult to overlook the fact that in this past Euro Under 21 Championship, held in Sweden, the German youth outplayed Spain’s young stars, out-‘Italianed’ the Italian team, and obliterated a promising England team. To be sure, the German team did not always appear dominant, as they had to work through difficult periods in the games against Finland, England (during the group stage), and Italy, however these difficult periods provided an excellent opportunity for this next generation of German national team players to gain experience doing what many pundits claim the German team does best: finding a way to win. In nearly every area of the park the German team showed a level of maturity greater than that of their opponents – a maturity that only comes from playing in first-team matches in a top flight league. A quick look manager Horst Hrubesch’s squad from the Match day 1 squad against Spain shows that every member of the starting XI had racked up ample first team action during the last Bundesliga campaign. Such thorough top-flight first team experience was hard to come by in teams like Italy, Spain, and England- all stemming from the fact that the Bundesliga is a league in which promising youth players are given excellent opportunities to prove themselves.
Of course, this recent domination of youth competitions by Germany would have been impossible without the complete revamp of the German youth structure after the debacles of the 1998 World Cup and 2000 European Championships. The combination of training centers run by the 36 1.Bundesliga and 2.Bundesliga clubs and the DFB organized Stützpunkte, regional training centers, have helped cultivate and develop a sizable amount of young talent within Germany. While many of the names now breaking through at youth levels for Germany may not have typical German surnames, one cannot doubt their loyalty and desire to wear the famous White-on-black kits, nor their ability to play the German way.
With the core of the current German squad aging, Senior National boss Joachim Loew will undoubtedly be looking to add fresh faces to the senior set up following next summer’s world cup in South Africa. The championship winning squad of this past week is where you’ll find the future of the German squad moving towards Euro 2012 and beyond.
While Rene Adler, Germany’s current number 1 between the posts has both youth and ability, Schalke’s Manuel Neuer is certain to contest for the starting spot. A goalkeeper with Champions League experience, Neuer showed a level of maturity and composure that his counterparts lacked. Nowhere was this disparity in experience and maturity more apparent than in the final against England. While England goalkeeper Scott Loach made several critical errors, and looked uncomfortable all night, Neuer was the model of composure between the posts. Admittedly, Loach was the backup goalkeeper for the England squad, but the mere fact that starting keeper Joe Hart missed the final due to a silly, avoidable booking only adds to the argument of immaturity.
In defense, Germany looked stellar all tournament. The German defense pulled shutouts in 4 of their 5 games in Sweden, allowing only 1 goal off a set piece in the group match against England. The fulcrum of this impregnable defense was young Schalke centerback Benedikt Howedes. Howedes got quite a bit of playing time during this past campaign due to rampant injury problems at the Veltins Arena. One of the few symbols of youth in speed in an aging Schalke defense, Howedes is now a prime candidate to replace the aging and inconsistent Christoph Metzelder as a partner for Per Mertesacker in the central defense of the senior squad. Along with his partner Jerome Boateng of Hamburg, (though himself used to playing more on the outside at the Nordbank-Arena) proved a team capable innenverteidiger.
On the flanks of the defense Hoffenheim’s Andreas Beck and Werder Bremen’s Sebastian Boenisch (note to the English commentators from Sky sports, his name is pronounced ‘Bo-nish’ not ‘Boz-nitch’) dealt with the threats from the likes of Theo Walcott, James Milner, and Sebastian Giovinco, as well as tormented opposition defenses with their effective forward runs. Nowhere was this trend more on display than with Beck’s wonder goal against Italy in the Semi-final . This pair gained their experience and effectiveness from successful domestic campaigns at their respective clubs. Hoffenheim’s rise to competitiveness at the top of the table undoubtedly gave Beck the confidence to deal with the likes of Theo Walcott. Meanwhile, Sebastian Boenisch certainly found both the confidence and maturity to hold his own in the final from the fact that it was his third cup final in a little over a month, having previously appeared in both the finals of the UEFA Cup and DFB Pokal for club side Werder Bremen.
Although the confident and capable nature of the goalkeeper and defense certainly proved the foundation for German success, the cutting edge was found in the Midfield. For all intents and purposes, Horst Hrubesch was effectively playing with 5 midfielders. Anchoring the midfield was Stuttgart player, and Germany under 21 captain Sami Khedira. Khedira did an excellent job of absorbing the attacks of the opposition as well as initiating attacks from the critical role linking defense and midfield. On the right flank, Gonzalo Castro of Bayer Leverkusen showed the timing and pace to cut through opposition defenses with this slashing runs, netting goals in both games against England. The star of the German midfield in this tournament, however was Mesut Ozil.
Schalke fans should certainly be proud of the performances put in by Manuel Neuer and Benedikt Howedes, they should be absolutely infuriated with their club for letting a talent the likes of Mesut Ozil go to rival Werder Bremen. The young attacking midfielder came into his own this past season, albeit in the shadow of talismanic number 10 Diego. Many were rightfully critical of Ozil when he seemed to fold under the pressure of playing without Diego during the UEFA Cup final against Shaktar Donestk, however the young number 11 from Werder Bremen has done much to put such criticisms to rest since then, scoring the winning goal in the cup final against Leverkusen (ironically, off an excellent pass from Diego), as well as being the creative spark in the German midfield during this past tournament. By his own admission, Ozil prefers to set up his teammates rather than score himself, but the somewhat fortuitous goal against England in the final shows that Ozil is developing in this regard, as he seems to be learning the age old truth that “you gotta shoot to score.” Ozil will have a chance to prove himself capable of performing consistently at the highest level this next season for Werder Bremen with the departure of Diego to Juventus. Fans of Die Mannschaft will undoubtedly be eager to see if he continues to progress.
The position of striker is perhaps one place where this German team needs to improve. Ashkan Dejagah of Wolfsburg, was played out of position as a striker by manager Horst Hrubesch. While MSV Duisburg front man Sandro Wagner scored two excellent goals against England in the final, it remains to be seen whether or not he is senior team material. With the likes of Miroslav Klose aging, Lukas Poldolski’s career stagnating, and Mario Gomez still unable to find top form with the national team, the German team is still looking for a cadre of strikers for the next generation. There is certainly hope to be had in Patrick Helmes, who is himself still young. If Helmes can find his feet at the national team level, and Lukas Podolski and Mario Gomez can begin firing on all cylinders, the German national team will be well set for strikers for several years to come, and the current drought of youth team strikers can be surmounted.
It remains to be seen if any of the stars of the German Under 21 victory in Sweden 2009 will break into Loew’s team for South Africa 2010, it is certain that Germany will not want for quality players heading into Euro 2012 and World Cup 2014. With the likes of Metzelder, Friedrich, Frings, Ballack, and Klose all entering the final acts of their national team careers, it is a safe bet to say that the talents of Howedes, Beck, Khedira, Ozil, Marin, and Kroos will be there to fill their places. The future is bright for the German National team. A future made all the brighter by the fact that the Bundesliga provides an environment and opportunity for young, talented players to ply their trade in a top flight league that is highly competitive in regards to title-challengers. As other leagues in Europe face identity crises or a lack of competitive youth, the Bundesliga continues to bring in larger profits by the year both on and off the field.