Top Talent Coming up the Ranks at VfL Wolfsburg and Bayer 04 Leverkusen

Watching a game between Vfl Wolfsburg and Bayer Leverkusen is usually nothing extraordinary. People often mock the clubs for lacking tradition, a proper history, and the word “plastic” is often used when rival fans describe what the two clubs are. But the encounter between the two on MatchDay 9 was still worthwhile. Wolfsburg took the lead in the first half, and Leverkusen spoiled the fun for the home supporters late in the second when they scored two goals to turn the game around.

But the highlight of the game wasn’t the goals, it was the young talents that  make up a portion of these two clubs. Like Julian Brandt in Leverkusen, and Hendrik Hansen in Wolfsburg.

It’s true that Wolfsburg and Leverkusen both like to spend big in the transfer windows, and doing so usually means that academy players have a harder time reaching the senior teams. But there is actually more to Leverkusen and Wolfsburg than just 20 million euro deals to sign Kevin Volland, and 36 million euro deals to sign Julian Draxler. Wolfsburg is one of the most successful clubs in the U17 and U19 level in northern Germany, and Leverkusen is not far behind in the west.

Opened a new academy in 2008

Wolfsburg opened a new youth academy in 2008, one of the most modern and fancy facilities of its kind in Germany. The club has gone on to win the Under-19 Championship in 2011 and 2013 since then, and they won the Under-19 Bundesliga North/Northeast in 2008, 2011, 2012 and 2013. Wolfsburg has had some success in the Under-17 level too, winning their regions Bundesliga competition in 2009 and 2016.
So it should be no surprise to anyone that plenty of Wolfsburg players today come from the club’s youth ranks. It doesn’t stop them from splashing the cash on star players like Julian Draxler, Kevin De Brüyne and André Schürrle from time to time, but the joy in watching Wolfsburg lose 2-1 to Leverkusen these days isn’t in seeing Mario Gomez having a hard time finding space in the final third, it’s in seeing Hendrik Hansen make his Bundesliga debut.

And thankfully, Hansen wasn’t the only young talent that Wolfsburg threw onto the field on Saturday. Josip Brekalo made his fourth appearance in the green shirt when he replaced Draxler on the pitch late in the second half, and he even had a 100 percent passing rate during the 12 minutes that he got to play. It wasn’t enough to turn the game around, but the Croatian will probably not have to wait for long before he gets a place in the spotlight for the first time.

Hansen on the other hand, has already represented Wolfsburg 46 times in the Regionalliga Nord, and it was a matter of when, rather than if, he would be called up to the senior team. The 21-year-old got a pretty average rating of 6, 5 by Who Scored after his debut on Saturday, but that grade would probably have been a bit better if it wasn’t for the fact that the current Wolfsburg team would have a hard time even competing in the Swedish second division.

Borja Mayoral is another exiting young talent that is under a contract with Wolfsburg right now, but since he hasn’t spent any time in the club’s academy, he’s not really made for this list. Instead, let’s focus on the academy players that are just waiting to get their chance to conquer the Autostadt.

Justin Möbius is a 19-year-old attacking midfielder that has represented Germany’s Under-15 national team. He has scored four goals in the Regionalliga Nord this season, and a Bundesliga debut looks imminent in the near future for the Berlin-native.

Amara Condé left Leverkusen in 2012 to try his luck in Wolfsburg, and he has grown to become a member of every German national team, from the Under-15 to the Under-20, since then. The 19-year-old has represented Wolfsburg’s reserves in the Regionalliga seven times this season, and it might not take long before the fans in the Volkswagen Arena gets to scream his last name for the first time.

Jannes Horn and Robin Ziegele might also get the chance to show what they’ve got in the Bundesliga on a more frequent basis sooner, rather than later. Horn has already represented Wolfsburg two times this season, and he has even assisted a goal in the process. Ziegele is still waiting for his debut, but the fact that he gets to compete with the German Under-19 national team and in the Regionalliga already, goes to show what a great talent he is

Phillip Menzel is still waiting for his chance to debut in the Regionalliga, but the Kiel-born goalkeeper is probably satisfied with his current position in the Wolfsburg hierarchy anyway. Menzel has represented the German Under-18 national team, and he has also shown his worth in the UEFA Youth League at six times. It’s especially hard for young goalkeepers to reach their respective senior teams, and we might have to wait a couple of more years before we get to see Menzel between the posts in Wolfsburg. When that day comes though, it will hopefully be the start of a long and successful career.

Julian Brandt also came through the youth ranks at Wolfsburg, but has made a name for himself as a Leverkusen player. The Bremen-born left winger departed Wolfsburg back in 2014, and made his debut in the Bundesliga shortly afterwards. Brandt has since become one of the biggest talents on the globe, and he has caught the attention of some of the most successful clubs in the world over the years with his creative and quick play. Brandt looks destined to leave Leverkusen in the not too distant future, and that deal will guarantee the club millions in revenue. It’s easy to say that Wolfsburg probably regrets that they released him two years ago.

Kurtekotten, the home of some of the finest talents in North Rhine-Westphalia

Leverkusen’s commitment to youth football dates back many years, but their current academy, called Kurtekotten, was opened in 2000. Players like Gonzalo Castro, Rene Adler and Pierre-Michel Lasogga have all spent time at the academy, and Leverkusen won the latest edition of the German Under-17 championship. Leverkusen has also won the Under-19 Bundesliga West twice since the academy was unwrapped: in 2007 and 2010, and they won the Under-19 championship in 2000, and again in 2007. Some truly talented players are currently spending many hours per week at the Kurtekotten.

Benjamin Henrichs played the full 90 minutes against Wolfsburg, and assisted Admir Mehmedi when he scored the equalizing goal. Henrichs has been a Leverkusen player since 2004, and scored six goals and assisted one in 16 outings in the Under-19 Bundesliga West last season. The 19-year-old is not a new name for the Leverkusen faithful’s, he represented the club nine times last season, and has shown his worth at eight points already this year. The right-back has represented every German national team from the age of 15 to 21.

Kai Havertz entered the field in Wolfsburg with 20 minutes left on the clock, and he had a 67 percent passing rate in that time. He got a 6, 4 rating by Who Scored, and did not show any signs of nerves during the game. The 17-year-old has been a key-player in Leverkusen’s youth ranks, scoring 26 goals in 54 games for the Under-17 team, and he will probably show his worth in front of the Werkself fans at many more occasions this season.

Lukas Boeder is a highly talented center-back with routine from the U15 all the way to the U19 German national teams. The 19-year-old was on the bench in Wolfsburg, but wasn’t selected to make a substitution, and is therefore still waiting to make his Bundesliga debut. Boeder will hopefully not have to wait for long, he has shown his qualities in the Under-19 Bundesliga West regularly since 2013, and the only thing that might stand in his way of making his first senior appearance, is the fitness level of Leverkusen’s center-backs.

Boeder’s partner in crime in the backline in Leverkusen’s Under-19-team is Joel Abu Hanna, another Werkself player with routine from the youth national teams in Germany. The 18-year-old might be a bit further away from the senior team than Boeder, though that difference is probably nothing but minimal, but he has definitely played a role in lifting Leverkusen to a second position in the current Bundesliga West table.

A chance to build teams around loyal players

There is no denying that there is a certain level of truth attached to the claim that Volkswagen and Bayer AG have partly bought the success that their respective clubs have achieved. Wolfsburg wouldn’t have a former Bundesliga winner within its city border if it wasn’t for the car manufacturer, and most people in Leverkusen would probably support 1. FC Köln or another big club from the area if it wasn’t for Bayer AG. But it’s still great to see these two teams investing in youth, and it’s something they should be credited for more often.

And who knows, when Wolfsburg host Leverkusen again in a couple of years, maybe half their respective lineups will consists of former academy players? It won’t stop people from calling them plastic, but it’s their chance to build teams around players who came up within the ranks and loves their clubs, not just the salary.

Photo by Jan Boller

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Linus Vedmar

Linus is a 20-year-old Swede who follows all Bundesliga clubs but have a soft spot for FC St. Pauli. You can follow Linus on Twitter @LinusVedmar.

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