Young Lions in Germany: the Bundesliga’s development of English talent

The Bundesliga is known for brimming with young talent, exported to the Premier League, but traffic is beginning to move in another direction too. 

That the Bundesliga is a brilliant league for young talent is well known. It is, of course, one of the well known narratives surrounding the league. Of the abject display of the German national team at Euro 2000 inspiring a new, well-funded academy system; of clear pathways to first team football for those academy-reared youngsters being established; and, of course, of international success at both senior and youth level.

Much is also made of the Bundesliga’s model of turning this initial investment in youth into tangible profit. Over the past few summers, Premier League clubs alone have paid over £400m on Bundesliga talent, much of it home-grown, with that figure expected to rise as the transfer window rolls on into August. Interestingly, traffic is also beginning to move in another direction, however.

The winds of change

West Ham United defender Reece Oxford made headlines last month after finalising a loan move to Borussia Mönchengladbach. This month former Arsenal youngster Kaylen Hinds linked up with his former youth coach Andries Jonker at Wolfsburg.

English fans can perhaps be forgiven for questioning their place in the world in a positive manner for once. Summer triumphs for the England international youth set-up – with a spectacular U20 World Cup win, a solid run to the Under-21 European Championship semi-final, and strong showings at both U19 and U17 level – have highlighted that English football is beset with young talent.

Pathways to regular senior football, though, remain slim.

Englishmen in Germany: A brief history

Think of English players in the Bundesliga and you are quite likely to turn your thoughts back to the 1980s, with the likes of internationals Kevin Keegan and Tony Woodcock turning out in Germany’s top flight. Perhaps you might also think about Bayern youth graduate Owen Hargreaves, who turned out for England having been taught the game in Germany.

Former England manager Steve McLaren even turned out for a brief while as coach of VfL Wolfsburg – before, after wildly underachieving, receiving the boot. The point is, though, that these examples have historically been few and far between.

It is perhaps unsurprising that, since Michael Mancienne’s underwhelming spell at Hamburg towards the start of the decade came to an end, an Englishman has not turned out for a Bundesliga club. That is, if you ignore London-born Michael Hector, who turns out internationally for Jamaica. Regardless, change is in store in the year ahead, with a raft of talent ready to make their Bundesliga bows.

A youthful connection 

Given the relative upheaval in Borussia Mönchengladbach’s defence this summer – out go Andreas Christensen and youngster Marvin Schulz – it seems fair to assume that Reece Oxford will get a chance to stake a claim for a first team place. His loan move is brave, in that, having already appeared for West Ham in the Premier League, several “safer” moves within England were available to him.

Oxford joins fellow youngster Mandela Egbo on Niederrhein. Egbo, a right-sided player, moved to the club’s academy in 2015 from Crystal Palace, and has impressed for the club’s second string. Still just nineteen, he can look at senior players such as Tony Jantschke, Patrick Herrmann, and the recently departed pair of Mo Dahoud and Julian Korb – the latter of whom played in his position – for encouragement.

Egbo’s colleague at international youth level, the centre back Danny Collinge, made the jump from MK Dons to VfB Stuttgart the year before and has, by all accounts, impressed within Stuttgart’s famous academy. Both have stuck out the difficult initial period in Germany admirably – no mean feat, after former Tranmere youngster Dale Jennings’ switch to Bayern a few years ago led to the winger feeling homesick and having to go home to rebuild his career. If they continue their respective trajectories, we could well see them gracing the pitches of Germany’s famous stadiums week-in, week-out.

Kaylen Hinds, one suspects, may be fast-tracked to the first team squad at Wolfsburg. Jonker rated him as one of Arsenal’s hottest prospects and, in a summer of rebuilding after their close scrape with the drop, should realistically be looking to fresh blood while aiming for better things this summer. 

Another path

And yet this has not been the only path to regular football by a young English player. Forward Osayamen Osawe, born in Nigeria but raised in Manchester, has also seen his career improved by the German league system. Moving to 3. Liga side Halle in 2014 from the English non-league, the youngster quickly established himself as a fan favourite and even earned a move to a bigger German club last year.

Now plying his trade at Kaiserslautern, Osawe’s career path is certainly a message to a number of English lower league players; looking abroad is still worth considering.

Borrowed time 

These are all admirable examples, testament to a profound drive to succeed which means leaving what must at times be a fairly comfortable life as a younger player in England. This, of course, extends to players of all nationalities in positions where access to first team football is limited.

German clubs have benefitted from a number of loans of high profile players not quite making the grade in their own stomping ground. The aforementioned Michael Hector of Chelsea played much of the season in defence with Jesus Vallejo of Real Madrid together as part of Eintracht Frankfurt’s back line; both helped the Diva from the Main to a drastically improved final position in the Bundesliga and a DFB-Pokal final.

Mönchengladbach have benefitted similarly from such a policy in different ways; an initial loan of Thorgan Hazard from Chelsea put them in pole position to sign the Belgian properly when they liked what they saw. Later, a loan of Andreas Christensen from the same club proved inspired, with the young Dane one of the club’s better performers in his two years at Borussia-Park.

Such deals benefit all parties involved, allowing a young talented player to gain playing time, help improve a team in the short term, and hopefully present their parent club with a fully-formed player upon their return. With large clubs across Europe, but in particularly in the Premier League, stockpiling talent, it seems fair to assume this trend is only set to continue.

In fact, some day in the not-too-distant-future, we might even see a raft of English professionals taking the Bundesliga by storm.