The Loss of the Magic Touch – How Germany and the Bundesliga Might Be Heading For a Youth Problem

It took only a couple of weeks in Russia. At the start of the tournament Germany was still being hailed as the country with the best youth academies and reigning world champion, but three matches changed the tune. There have been multiple articles examining the shortcomings of the German national team during the tournament. However, one thing that wasn’t pointed out a lot was the fact that Germany could have seen such a development coming.

Lessons from Brazil

Ever since Germany made a return to its winning ways from the 2006 World Cup and onwards the opponents of the national team positioned themselves deeper and deeper for every tournament that came around. Whilst Germany still could play counter attacking football 6-10 years ago, this wasn’t the case anymore during the tournament in Russia. Hansi Flick noted after the World Cup in Brazil:

“It’s our impression that several players seem to think that the system is going to iron out their mistakes. Their way of thinking boils down to this: If I lose a duel, there’s a teammate behind me who is going to solve that problem.”

Whilst being overly reliant on a system could be harmful defensively, the same way of thinking could also limit a team’s chances of scoring goals according to Flick:

“The players need to develop the self confidence to seek out one against one situations. Because, they do have every possibility to get past the player, because they do have a massive repertoire of tricks up their sleeves and because they possess the speed and the technical ability to do just that. The quality of a team is always dependent upon the individual class of the players.”

Individual class and the absolute desire to think outside of the box may have been lost along the way within the German education system. Peter Hyballa, former U19 coach for Borussia Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen and VfL Wolfsburg seems to think that way:

“I believe we work too much on tactics within the youth system. The basics have to be sexy again.”

Spiegel editor Gerhard Pfeil met a frustrated youth coach at FC Bayern München, who noted that every 14-year-old knew any given tactical system inside out, but none of them could dribble past two opponents or come up with surprising ideas that caught out several opponents at once.

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The drawbacks of the youth academies

Critics like Hyballa seem to think that the German youth system needs another overhaul. In the book he co-authored “Trainer, wann spielen wir?”(translation: Coach, when are we playing?) the 42 year old notes that Germany had massive deficits within tactical areas when the DFB introduced the youth academies. However, now the pendulum had swung into a different direction according to Hyballa. The clubs and the youth academies over-corrected the problem, and now the focus on tactics has come at the expensive of players being able to excel on an individual level.

Lars Mrsoko, a former scout at Bayern München and VfL Wolfsburg, states that German youth academies are too similar to one another:

“The youth academies educate everybody well. However, each academy does the same as the next one, because it is required of them. Often times they do lack their own philosophies, that special touch, their own individual educational character. Because of the requirements during the licensing process and the array of sports scientists without any practical know-how, it has become difficult for the youth academies to further a player’s individual qualities. Because those qualities aren’t wanted or they are difficult to teach in a scientific way. A healthy mix of coaches and sports scientists needs to be brought in, with the addition of all the other stuff that has become common place. We are getting lost in theoretical methods and scientific stats, but we are forgetting the ball at our feet.”

Those players with that certain something are still around in the Bundesliga, but they are getting fewer and fewer according to the critics of how the German youth academies are run at the moment. And the next coaching generation might even make this problem worse according to Peter Hyballa, who told Der Westen:

“The up and coming coaching generation is well educated in terms of the theoretical side of the game. They open their laptop and create lovely tactics. Unfortunately I do see a lot of deficits within their coaching work on the pitch. It’s so bad that Germany actually could face a coaching problem at the end of the day.”

The importance of German youth academies

Even though the criticism of the work done at German youth academies is increasing at the moment, there’s little doubt that the academies have been rather important for the Bundesliga and the national team. The World Cup winners of 2014 were a product of the way the DFB re-thought its strategy after several years of dreadful results (and even worse football). However, any successful formula is going to reach its limit at some point and now the time has come to re-think the formula according to the critics.

There’s little doubt that German football might be at a crossroads right now. The education of young players is going to be important going forward. In addition to re-thinking certain elements, there’s also a need to get back to including the youth academy players to a larger degree in Bundesliga squads again. Julian Nagelsmann noted in Hoffenheim’s club magazine Spielfeld:

“We must return to the path the Bundesliga and the youth academies were on. It’s something we have been starting to neglect a bit. We need to scout earlier and better and we need coaches at clubs who aren’t afraid to use young players. That’s the way the Bundesliga can sustain itself financially. If we try to compete in terms of transfer spending it will be hard to keep up with the rest.”

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It’s telling that the average age of a Bundesliga players have gone up from 23.6 years in the 2013/14 season to 25.3 years in the current season. The top dog in the league Bayern München haven’t really integrated any youth player in their own team since David Alaba came along back in 2010. Six of this young season’s ten oldest starting line ups have been picked by Niko Kovac.

Whether the German national team and German club sides can compete at a top level internationally is going to be dependent upon Bundesliga teams managing to get back to churning out talented players. The last few years have seen a decline in the pace of home grown talent coming through the ranks. Given the fact that Germany’s weaknesses have been exposed at the World Cup it’s going to be interesting to see if the teams of the Bundesliga are going to re-think their educational strategy (and if the DFB is going to allow them to do that).

*The quotes for this article are taken from Dietrich Schulze-Mermeling’s book Der Fall Özil: Über ein Foto, Rassismus und das deutsche WM-Aus if not stated otherwise in the article.

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Niklas Wildhagen

Niklas is a 32-year-old football writer and podcaster who has been following the Bundesliga and German football since the early 90s. You can follow him on Twitter, @normusings, and listen to his opinions on @TalkingFussball.

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