On a spreadsheet full of facts and figures about some of England and Germany’s brightest talent, it feels rather apt that the outfield player in Stefan Kuntz’s under-21 squad who has completed fewer minutes than anyone else this season is with a Premier League club. Abdelhamid Sabiri’s lack of time on the pitch with Huddersfield fits the story that Germany, not England, is the place to be for those trying to find their way in a game that is running out of pathways.
One of the headline statistics relating to Tuesday under-21 friendly at Bournemouth is that the 24 players named in the original Germany squad have started 668 Bundesliga games, which is more than twice as many as their 26 English counterparts have racked up in the Premier League.
At a time when England’s national teams are in rude health, the issue is not so much whether there is the ability within the country’s younger age groups but more where is the best place for them to develop at club level. Jadon Sancho, Borussia Dortmund’s teenage winger, has been portrayed as a trailblazer in that sense and it is easy to see why.
The former Manchester City youngster has played 2,316 minutes for Dortmund this season as an 18-year-old. To put that figure in perspective, it is more than City’s Phil Foden, Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi and Tottenham Hotspur’s Kyle Walker-Peters have managed put together.
Sancho is a supremely gifted footballer, yet it is hard to believe he would have played anything like that amount of football if he was still with City, or turning out for Chelsea or Spurs. The bar is set much higher in England in terms of the standard – something that few in Germany would disagree with, especially on the back of the latest Champions League results. Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham eliminated Schalke, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund with a combined record that read: P6 W5 D1 L0 F17 A3.
“We put in some bad performances against the English clubs but the Bundesliga has quality,” said Oliver Bierhoff, the national team sporting director and former Germany international, this month. “We’re behind the English league with the opportunity to improve. It will start to look more positive short- to mid-term.”
Maybe it already looks positive to the next generation. Arsenal’s Reiss Nelson, who will almost certainly be a member of the England Under-21 squad competing in the European Championship finals this summer, has followed Sancho to Germany by spending a season on loan at Hoffenheim. Hudson-Odoi would have done the same if Chelsea had been willing to sell him to Bayern Munich in January. Top-flight playing time – something that younger players are increasingly preoccupied with these days (Carabao Cup minutes just don’t cut it) – is the driver.
Looking at the broader picture, England’s Under-21 players – and this is the initial squad Aidy Boothroyd named this month – have played a total of 36,737 league minutes this season, yet more than half of those were accumulated in the Championship and in the majority of cases via the loan system – something that is used far less in Germany, partly because it is easier to break through in the Bundesliga but also because of the chasm in quality between their top two tiers.
The Premier League total for the season stands at 15,881 minutes, which is more than 3,000 less than the Bundesliga equivalent for Germany’s Under-21s (who also have two fewer players in their squad). Leicester’s Demarai Gray and James Maddison, Fulham’s Ryan Sessegnon and Crystal Palace’s Aaron Wan-Bissaka account for more than 50% of England’s total.
All of this feels like familiar territory for Boothroyd. “If you looked at the last European Championship in Poland, you’ll see that we were on 19,000 minutes compared to the Spanish and Italians who were up near 41,000-42,000 minutes in their top league,” says England’s Under-21 manager. “It is difficult. I would like them all to be playing regularly. We’ve got some that do, some that don’t. Then we’ve got to decide: is it better for them to be playing in the Championship [on loan] or training with Premier League clubs?”
It is an interesting question. Some Premier League managers are reluctant to allow their better younger players to go out on loan, even if they rarely play, because they want to oversee their development. Walker-Peters at Spurs is a case in point. Mauricio Pochettino, the Spurs manager, clearly rates Walker-Peters but the right-back, who turns 22 next month, has made only seven league appearances in his career (Sessegnon, who is three years younger, has already played 103).
What is clear more generally is that the short-term world of football management rarely chimes with the long-term plans for a young player’s career, and that leads to some bizarre situations. At one Premier League club, some under-21 players who would have no shortage of suitors at Championship level are prevented from going out on loan because the manager, apparently, regards them highly. Not highly enough to give them many opportunities, however. Instead, they are regularly used as “substitutes” in training, playing head tennis on the sideline until they are called on to step in to make a particular drill or practice match work. They are, quite literally, making up the numbers.
While that is certainly not the case with Foden at City, the 18-year-old is an intriguing case. Two months younger than Sancho, his former City teammate, Foden has played only 96 minutes of league football this season across 10 substitute appearances. Domestic cup appearances and, to a lesser extent, Champions League cameos take him up to 802 minutes, or the equivalent of nine full matches.
Asked about the extent to which game-time at club level influences his selection, Boothroyd cited Foden without being prompted and said that the teenager has to be seen as an exception. “It isn’t an exact science because I look at a Phil Foden and think he’s training with the best players in the world and arguably the best coach in the world. That isn’t going to do him any harm, is it?
“He might not be getting the game time but it’s up to us to supplement that by giving him that [for England] because he’s such a special player. But as you saw on Thursday night [against Poland], he started to get past 60-70 minutes and he was treading treacle a little bit, as were one or two others.”
Doors undoubtedly open more easily in the Bundesliga, but at the same time Germany are envious of England’s talent pool. Kai Havertz, Bayer Leverkusen’s outstanding 19-year-old midfielder, is viewed as a wonderful prospect but England have three potentially world-class teenagers on their hands in Foden, Sancho and Hudson-Odoi. Where that trio and the English youngsters coming up behind them play their club football over the coming years will be fascinating to see.