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Jun 15, 2013

Underperforming Under-21s

Seven weeks ago, I once more played the devil's advocate here by pointing out - or rather, by shouting above the din to drown out the 'We love Germany' chants - that all was not well. "Ironically," I said, "many of the attractive elements which the world has suddenly discovered about Germany have been controversially debated over the course of this season in the country itself." (See: How to ruin a party - April 27, 2013)

I must have shot my entire bolt with that one line, because I more or less repeated the same idea a few days later on the pages of the Guardian and argued that "deep down inside there is the nagging feeling that the best days are already in the past". (There was also a reference to punk and grunge rock that I've since come to feel embarrassed of because Jürgen Klinsmann as Johnny Rotten and Jürgen Klopp as Kurt Cobain are similes I wouldn't want to think through to the end.)

The two examples I used at the time - two features of German football which foreigners now loudly applaud when in truth, excuse the war imagery, they have come under heavy fire during this season - were the competitiveness of the Bundesliga and the fan-friendliness of our game.

Amazingly, no less than three additional features have been either exposed as wrong, have been undermined or were at the very least seriously debated in Germany itself during the seven weeks that have gone by. They are: the financial stability of German clubs, the 50+1 rule (which prohibits foreign investors from buying up our teams) and the quality of the youth set-up.

Let's have a look at what happened in a small two-part series that starts with the most recent debate, namely the one about our talent pool. It was, of course, triggered by the Under-21's showing at the European Championships, which left something to be desired.

Most of the debate didn't concern the actual football, though, or the players who played it but rather the players who did not and the men who were responsible for that. The gist of the argument was that Germany underperformed because, in contrast to most other countries, it decided to not field the best possible team.

André Schürrle, Julian Draxler and Marc-André ter Stegen weren't part of the squad because Joachim Löw had chosen to take them on the USA trip with the senior team. Ilkay Gündogan was allowed to go on holiday and rest because he's clocked up about 60 appearances this season. Finally, Mario Götze and Toni Kroos, both of whom would have been eligible, were injured. That's six strong players, more than half a team.

Yes, Germany may have done better with those players, which is why people are now discussing whether Under-21 coach Rainer Adrion should have been more demanding, whether Löw was right in practically forcing this ill-fated, ill-prepared and ill-timed American sojourn on Draxler and Schürrle and whether we should take tournaments such as an Under-21 European Championship more seriously.

On the other hand, there is absolutely no guarantee that Germany would have done better with those players. Two years ago, we missed out on the finals entirely, because the Czech Republic and, yes, Iceland were too good for us at the qualifying stage. That despite the fact the squad back then included players such as Marcel Schmelzer, Mats Hummels, Holger Badstuber, Thomas Müller, Kevin Grosskreutz plus Götze and Gündogan, who were called up even though they could have still played for the Under-20s and Under-19s, respectively. So it is entirely possible to have a lot of players at your disposal who are good enough to contest the Champions League final just a few years down the road and still cut a bad figure.

In fact, we have a long history of not doing well at these Under-whatever tournaments. Yes, back in 2009 we held three European titles at the same time (at the Under-21, Under-19 and Under-17 level), were rightfully proud of that and considered it a proof of and a reward for having vastly improved the youth set-up.

But there was nothing to write home about in the years before this triumph - and there's been nothing since. "Everywhere abroad, I hear many positive things about our talent development," Oliver Bierhoff said a few days ago. "But it's not as if we dominate everything in youth football. Since the 2008 title, the Under-19s haven't qualified for a single finals." And there have been five of them.

So, to return to a turn of phrase from the beginning, there is the nagging feeling that maybe - just maybe - this great youth set-up isn't quite what it's been made out to be. "We shouldn't make the mistake of conveying that this is a paradise, that top talents will always continue to come up," Bierhoff said. "This doesn't happen automatically."

What he means, of course, is that complacency might have crept in and that we have to work just as hard as before to produce talent. However, there's another way to construe his remark. Maybe - just maybe - it wasn't the great youth set-up that produced all these young talents we're so proud of right now. Maybe we just lucked out?

Yes, I admit that this is probably too heretical a thought. But if you have a look at the graph kicker magazine published on Thursday, which shows what our youth teams have achieved at tournaments over the past dozen years, it strikes you that there are just two really golden years - 2008 and 2009 - awash in a sea of mediocrity.

Could it be that we have been gifted one great generation - let's call it the Özil generation - by whichever force does such things and then fooled ourselves into thinking it was actually the product of a clever, man-made conveyor belt? It certainly wouldn't be the first time that something like that had happened. Think of how the Dutch, the French or the Portuguese suddenly, almost inexplicably, had one crop of outstanding talent and then, equally inexplicably, found it very hard to harvest another one. Who knows, the same could be about to happen to the Spanish, it is still too early to tell.

However, there is one little detail that puts a hole through this theory - but it's a detail that should be a cause for concern all the same.

As kicker rightfully and smartly pointed out, the Under-21's main problem in Israel was not that it was missing yet another offensive midfielder, a Götze, Gündogan, Schürrle, Kroos or a Draxler. It was missing good defenders. And good strikers, as only Kevin Volland gave the impression he could one day play with the very best.

Of course, the same development has been evident for quite some time now with regard to the senior side. We have so many talented goalkeepers that Roman Weidenfeller still hasn't been capped. And we have so many creative midfielders that we are beginning to look like Brazil in 1982. But there are many positions where there is no depth at all.

This, it would seem, proves that our talents have been produced after all, because they all seem to have been taught the same qualities. It is, however, not very good news. Look what happened to Brazil in 1982.

[Next week: finances and ownership.]

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