England making strides but dominant Germany still lead the way
England's success at the Under-20 and U17 World Cups suggests plenty is going right in their youth development; Germany, though, are still the success story to aspire to. Mario Gotze's winner in the 2014 World Cup final was the moment a plan set in place over a decade earlier, after Germany's disastrous Euro 2000 exit, came to fruition.
Now Germany are beginning to look over their shoulders at England. "Yes, we are worried because the quality of the players will become better," Olivier Bierhoff, the general manager of the German national team, said ahead of Friday's meeting between the two senior sides.
But can England emulate their old rivals? And what is their plan to do so?
Unity of purpose
At the heart of Germany's post-2000 plan was an agreement across the board that sweeping change was required. That was made simpler by the DFB (Deutscher Fußball-Bund), Germany's equivalent to the English Football Association, being the body that controls German football from top to bottom, including the Bundesliga.
The DFB had enough power to convince its clubs of the wisdom of overhauling the system. Bayern Munich, by far Germany's biggest club, followed the plan and has provided the national team with such gems as Thomas Muller, Tony Kroos and Joshua Kimmich.
Such a top-down structure cannot be found in English football where the Premier League, despite originally being named in 1992 as the FA Premier League, operates as a separate entity to the FA, which remains all-powerful as a result of the billions in TV revenue it pulls in. Its riches attract players from across the world, serving at cross-purposes to aspirations of blooding young, English talent.
The Premier League denies it is stymieing young talent and believes it does plenty to aid English players' development, including introducing a rule that eight homegrown players are required for a team's 25-man squad and the creation of the Premier League U23 competition in 2016.
"When we started out, lots of people would say to us: 'There's no English talent'," Ged Roddy, the Premier League's director of football development, said last year. "And now they say: 'Actually there is English talent, but it needs opportunity'."
But Roddy, the architect of the Elite Player Performance Plan, left the organisation in September as, according to a statement, his role "will no longer be required in the medium to long term" which brought into question the Premier League's commitment to the cause.
Money changes everything
Buying a Premier League club is open to any "fit and proper person" as opposed to Germany's "50+1" rule, where a club's members must hold a majority of its own voting rights, and investors will not gain an overriding influence. In short, German clubs are for the Germans, and that only adds to that unity of purpose.
Foreign owners have little responsibility towards the England national team, which can be an inconvenience when players get injured on, or exhausted by, international duty. While Chelsea and Manchester City, owned by Russian and Arab billionaires, have successful youth teams, both continue to fill their first teams with imported, foreign talent. When money is almost no object, it is the expedient course of action while young players are sent on loan, with only the best -- or lucky -- getting their chance.
One of the leading factors in Germany's reboot was a financial crisis after the 2002 collapse of Kirch, the media corporation which bankrolled the Bundesliga through TV rights. A league previously awash with foreign imports had to cut its cloth accordingly. Homegrown talent became the cheap and easy way forward. Such a collapse in finances seems some way off in England.
A change of style
To become the best team in the world, Germany had to admit the playing style that had won them World Cups and European Championships in the past was outdated, no longer fit for purpose in an era of high pressing and passing football. England admit this too, but repeated failures on the international scene always occur with the same sight of panicked players resorting to the long ball/second ball game they learned as schoolboys.
Changing that appears the unsolvable problem, though the speedy passing game of both the U17 and U20 teams may point to change coming round the corner.
Germany's 2014 team bears little comparison to the era when the Nationalmannschaft played with a sweeper. That previously deliberate style has given way to a cosmopolitan combination of traditional strengths of speed and athleticism with a passing game that initially seemed like a lighter version of Spain. And when that missed the mark as they went out in semifinals of both the 2010 World Cup and 2012 Euros, Joachim Low, whose continuity as national coach has been vital, did not panic and change things up.
The English instinct to rip things up and start again -- England are on their fifth coach since Low took over in 2006 -- needs to be resisted if the team's style is to be modernised.
Keep the process ongoing
The National Football Centre at St George's Park, Burton-On-Trent has been hailed as the crucible of English success at representative level, something Bierhoff acknowledged this week. The Germans, though, are already thinking ahead to their next stage. They are building a new national academy to add to the 52 centres of excellence and 366 regional coaching bases that were founded as part of the post-2000 development plan.
"We want to have a Silicon Valley or Harvard for football where the best people come together and tackle the big issues," said Bierhoff.
Victory against Argentina at the Maracana in 2014 was not the end of the affair, merely part of an ongoing process.
Germany breezed to the European U21 Championships in the summer, and the team that won the Confederations Cup in Russia was a fringe squad of younger players, with stars like Mesut Ozil, Muller and Manuel Neuer resting at home. An awesome depth of talent is being produced, and has produced at senior level.
For English football, Germany remains the peer to aspire to. And there is much ground to catch up on.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.