An inside look at youth academies in Germany

Starting today, we're going to be re-publishing something from the old Scouted Football website every Thursday as part of our #TBT series. First up is Jack Grimse's Bundesliga Academy piece from March 2015.

Like Spain’s three successive major tournament victories, a lot of the credit for Germany’s 2014 World Cup triumph gets chalked up to having great youth academies. And rightly so, as Die Nationalmannschaft reaped the rewards of the youth development program that the DFB (German FA) decided was necessary a decade and a half ago. Since then, it’s been an enormous turnaround, and the focus on youth has become an integral building block for clubs.

“It’s very important, because we had a kind of crisis in 2000 when we played the Euros in Holland; going out, going home very early. So then we sat together with the German FA, and that was the start of this youth program, which was very successful in the past 15 years,” said Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, chairman of Bayern Munich.

Germany had finished bottom of their group with just one point and one goal scored. Both came in a draw with Romania. Another low in the tournament was the first loss to England in 34 years. Now, English clubs look to their Bundesliga counterparts for an example to model their academies from.

Every team in the top two divisions is required to have an academy. In addition to the benefits the national team sees, developing players in house is much cheaper for clubs.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of visiting three Bundesliga teams. Along with attending a match at each of their stadiums, I got some valuable insight into their youth setups. Getting a glimpse into the development at Hamburger SV, VfB Stuttgart and FC Bayern Munich was an incredible experience.

 VfB youth teams play in the shadow of the Mercedez-Benz Arena.

VfB youth teams play in the shadow of the Mercedez-Benz Arena.

Even though kids join from a young age, it’s clear that clubs focus on fun and learning the game in addition to player development. While football is obviously the focus, children learn how to behave and interact socially as well.

“We start with the idea of playing three against three at the youngest age. At the grassroots level, they play with four goals -two to attack and two to defend- on a small pitch. 3v3 has a lot of advantages, for example the young kids have a lot more ball contact and success, and score a lot of goals,” said Bernhard Peters, Director of Sport at Hamburg.

Throughout their development at Hamburg, kids gradually work their way up from three-on-three games on smaller pitches up to 11v11 on full-size playing fields. Steadily moving up allows youngsters to focus on fundamentals, rather than fitness.

 Stuttgart may not have the famed  Footbonaut  but their players still develop their ball control skills in a FIFA minigame-like environment.

Stuttgart may not have the famed Footbonaut but their players still develop their ball control skills in a FIFA minigame-like environment.

 At Stuttgart, players can improve their ball control by playing on a tennis-like court, with a low net in the middle of an artificial pitch. On the tour of the facility, the club representative explained that it’s only for fun though, not mandatory. However, he also said that parents of the players complain from time to time when their kids are late to leave the training complex, usually because they’re staying late playing on the court.

“You can only learn playing by playing, not by exercising and instruction,” said Peters.  Even though Hamburg and Stuttgart are two different clubs, it’s a similar mentality shared by many teams in Germany.

Stuttgart’s youth development center is new this year, and Hamburg are following suit in building a new complex in view of their stadium. With plans to begin construction in November or December, all levels of HSV -from U11 up to the senior side- will train in the same area. Peters says this will be an improvement on the current system, and the style of play should translate better from the top down.

Right now, the youth academy is about 20 kilometers away from the stadium and pitches that the senior and Under-23 team trains at. When it’s completed in 2017, it will be a valuable tool for the club in terms of both training current players and recruiting prospective ones.

In addition to the convenience factor, having the stadium within view of the training ground serves as good motivation. When the youngsters see where the first team plays, it helps them visualise their goal.

Staying focused is important, especially with the full schedule that players go through on a daily basis. It’s not exactly the same at every club, but Peters explained what it’s like at HSV.

“They start with breakfast, then head off to school. Three times a week they have individual training in the morning at school, and then they come back to boarding house for lunch/homework. After that, it’s an individual session at the gym and all the other individual things in football, like technique. At 6 pm the team training is starting, and dinner is after at 8:30.”

It’s a grueling journey to the top, but clubs have many measures in place to try to ensure success. In Hamburg, the boarding house has space for 20 players. There’s only room for 14 at Bayern, but at both players have access to tutors for help with their schoolwork. At the Säbner Straße complex in Munich, and in Stuttgart, there is also a game room where players can relax and take their mind off the game. Not that they always want to, though, with games like FIFA and Tischfußball (table football (UK), or Foosball as it’s known in America) available.

 It's not all fun and games -- youngsters must learn the tactics employed by the first team so they can integrate seamlessly.

It's not all fun and games -- youngsters must learn the tactics employed by the first team so they can integrate seamlessly.

United States U-23 international Jerome Kiesewetter made the switch to Stuttgart in 2012 from Hertha Berlin. He says part of his decision was based on the facilities at the Swabian club.

“We have great training camps and everything here. We have a good opportunity to get yourself in a better situation,” said Kiesewetter.

Stuttgart’s academy boasts graduates like Mario Gomez and Sami Khedira, and names of the graduates are painted on a wall at the youth development centre. Even though this season has been tough for the three-time Bundesliga champions, the future looks bright.

 There's some serious hardware on display at the VfB Stuttgart academy.

There's some serious hardware on display at the VfB Stuttgart academy.

With the success both domestically and in continental competitions, Bayern’s academy has gotten a lot of praise lately, and rightly so. While they can afford to spend more in the market than any of their Bundesliga rivals, the core of their squad was developed internally.

“It’s very important for us. Because if you have a look at our squad, you can start with the guys like (Bastian) Schweinsteiger, (Philipp) Lahm, (Holger) Badstuber, (Thomas) Müller, (David) Alaba. We have many players which are the outcome or result of this youth team development in the past 10-15 years,” said Rummenigge.

Even if the club ends up selling a former youth product, it can be very profitable. The first notable example at Bayern was Owen Hargreaves, who joined the club as a sixteen-year-old. Ten years later, he was sold to Manchester United for £17 million.

To some, youth development may seem like an extra benefit. In Germany though, it’s the lifeblood of the club. Without billionaire sugar daddies like at Manchester City or PSG, growing players is vastly cheaper than buying them. Plus, what’s better than a local kid up coming through the ranks and starring for the first team?