Loew's young guns champing at the bit


CONVENTIONAL WISDOM has always had it that “you should never write off the Germans,” and yet those who have been brave enough to do it in advance of their last seven major championships have been left feeling pretty smug afterwards. With just two rounds left to go here, however, it looks a riskier business than ever.

The team has rarely been far off the pace set by the best of its rivals at any given time, to be fair, but what we have been seeing in South Africa and now here is the product of a 10-year plan aimed at producing young players equipped to live with their rivals as equals.

At the last two tournaments the Spanish have raised the bar, the result of their own long-term planning, but yesterday Joachim Loew insisted his current squad have nothing to fear from defending champions who made light work of his side two years ago in Durban.

“We wanted to show other nations that we were on the same level in the way that we play football and I think we have been successful in that,” he said.

“We don’t need to hide from anyone now,” he added without ever actually mentioning the world champions by name. “And we don’t have to react to the way other teams play anymore, we can play our own game.”

What might be considered “Germany’s game” however, has been dramatically reordered so as to maintain the nation’s place towards the very top of the international elite. As pace and technique have come to completely eclipse patience and strength as key assets at the highest level, so Loew has overseen the final stage of a transformation of a side that is now younger, faster and more offensive, or swiftly counter-attacking, than almost any of its rivals.

At the World Cup the average age of his squad was just 25 and many observers saw it as a spectacular new group that would mature together into a major new force. Here, it’s actually younger still at 24 (their youngest squad since 1934) and almost a third of the group from two years ago have been discarded; with not just the older players being shown the door.

The likes of Serdar Tasci, Dennis Aogo and Chelsea’s recent recruit Marko Marin are notionally still far short of their career peak but they, and others, have failed to maintain their earlier upward momentum and Loew has simply dipped into his apparently bottomless pool of talent to fish out exciting replacements of the quality of Borussia Dortmund’s Mats Hummels, Andre Schurrle of Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Monchengladbach’s Marco Reus – all of whom are 23 or under.

That such an array of stunning young talent is apparently so readily available to the coach on tap is no accident. It is a decade now since the German federation, the DFB, embarked on its Elite Talent Promotion Programme.

The way in which youngsters are taught to play the game has been completely rethought and, under the supervision of its sports director, Matthias Sammer, the new system has backed by huge investment.

The DFB enjoys, of course, a pretty enviable starting point with some 6.7 million affiliated players but it has recruited more than 20,000 schoolteachers to help equip kids with the basics of the game. Around 1,200 highly qualified coaches take it from there, primarily, and almost 400 regional training centres where activities are overseen by 29 full-time coordinators. Technique is at the heart of everything, with strength and power only becoming a priority when the players hit 20 and professional first team football beckons.

The investment runs well into tens of millions of euro and the process is completed by a mixture of specially designated elite football schools and the youth academies run by the country’s biggest clubs. In the 2006/07 season alone, the latter spent €61.6 million on their youth development programmes.

National leagues have been developed at various youth levels and the standards of organisation and support provided to every national team is the same as for the senior team.

“In the clubs, they’ve done a lot of work in the youth academies,” acknowledged the senior team’s coach last night. “They are a lot better than they were 10 years ago. Back then it was all conditioning and strength. Now it’s more technical and we look to impose the culture of the team on the players. We look for players who can play the way we want the team to play.”

The results have been quite astounding. In 2009, after almost two decades without a continental title at underage level, the Germans completed a hat-trick of victories and became the first nation to hold the Under-21, under-19 and under-17 trophies at the one time. Even more remarkable, though, is the speed with which those players have been bumped up to senior level.

Experience no longer trumps either the superior technical expertise of the younger generation nor the pace they possess and which is now seen as such a central requirement of playing at this level.

“I’m not surprised by anything that has happened,” says Loew rather matter-of-factly. “For us, 2009 was all part of the plan and we knew then that we had an excellent new generation of players coming through.

“We couldn’t wait then, we had to changes things and we did for the World Cup. Since then we have made more changes and that is part of the plan too. It is good for the group, adds to the sense of competition and makes us better. After 2012,” says the coach coolly, “that will continue.”

The new(er) generation

Lars Bender

(23) Midfielder Bayer Leverkusen

Composed and highly capable young right-side/central midfielder who underlined his versatility and ability by starting at right back against Denmark and scoring the winning goal.

Andre Schurrle

(21) Midfielder Bayer Leverkusen

There is a theory that young players take about 15 games to get fully to grips with the senior international game but Schurrle, who play out wide or up front, has scored seven goals in his first 16 games.

Mats Hummels

(23) Defender Borussia Dortmund

One of the stars of the show for the team so far, Hummels was let go by Bayern Munich as a youth but now looks close to being the complete centre back with pace, power, timing and good control.

Marco Reus

(23) Midfielder Borussia Monchengladbach

Another exciting young winger, who will start next season back at Borussia Dortmund, who previously let him go. Looked at home on his tournament debut against Greece, scored side’s fourth.

Ilkay Gundogan

(21) Midfielder Borussia Dortmund

Young play- making midfielder whose meteoric rise over the last few years at Nuremburg and then Dortmund, where he was title winner last season, has started to be recognised at senior international level.

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