Breaking the grass ceiling: why the Bundesliga is the go-to league for the UK's frustrated youngsters
The Beatles honed their stagecraft and global hits on the streets and stages of Hamburg, where two-time Ballon d'Or winner Kevin Keegan would later grace the pitch. Now, there is a new British invasion with some of the country's brightest talents opting for the Bundesliga as the best stage upon which they can develop.
With the latest flurry of arrivals in the summer transfer window, bundesliga.com looks at why the Bundesliga is becoming the destination of choice for British youngsters seeking to take their fledgling careers to the next level.
The grass ceiling
The English Premier League has gained a global reputation for excitement, passion and being chock-full of high-profile footballers. For a fan, it might seem heavenly, but looking at the league from a young British player's perspective, the prospects are hellish.
Around 60 per cent of Premier League players are foreign-born. And the bigger the club, the more hazardous the route into the first team. A CIES Football Observatory study showed that Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea respectively gave just 23, 17 and 16 per cent of minutes to homegrown players in 2016/17. By 2018/19, English players accounted for just 35.2 per cent of all minutes played in the Premier League and contributed 30.7 per cent of goals – the lowest figures of the past decade.
In the Bundesliga, just under half of players (49 per cent) come from outside Germany, giving youngsters a chance to climb through the ranks and not worry about the 'grass' ceiling that prevents their British counterparts playing on the very biggest stages.
The contrast at the 2017 UEFA U21 Euro, for example, was stark: the England squad totalled just over 200 Premier League appearances between them; Germany, who won the tournament despite having many first-choice players with the senior squad at the FIFA Confederations Cup, had a collective tally in excess of 1,000 Bundesliga games.
Sancho, the shining example
This much clearer pathway to the first team has attracted a host of talented young British players to the Bundesliga. The best current example is Jadon Sancho, who has emerged as one of the biggest stars of his generation since trading Manchester City for Borussia Dortmund in summer 2017.
Watch: All of Sancho's goals and assists in 2019/20
Sancho was already considered one of the German top flight's hottest prospects after an impressive 2018/19, which saw him notch 12 goals and a league-high 14 assists as BVB narrowly missed out on a first Bundesliga title since 2012.
Although Dortmund were unable to keep pace with Bayern Munich at the business end of 2019/20, the 20-year-old Englishman scaled even greater heights as they once again came in second. Racking up 17 goals and 16 assists, he was by far the most lethal weapon in BVB's attacking arsenal, with his pace, trickery, laser-like passing abilities and ice-cool finishing setting him on the path to becoming a genuinely world-class winger.
"Honestly, them giving me opportunities at such a young age, I just have to thank the club and all my family that have been behind me from the start," Sancho told bundesliga.com.
Despite his tender years, Sancho is ranked as the Bundesliga's most valuable player by specialist website TransferMarkt, ahead of Bayer Leverkusen whizzkid Kai Havertz and new Bayern signing Leroy Sane. His success has opened the doors to the senior England setup (he has 11 caps and 2 goals) and encouraged fellow British youngsters to follow in his footsteps.
Bellingham, from Birmingham to BVB
One of the latest teenagers to take the plunge and head to Germany is Jude Bellingham, who teamed up with Sancho at Dortmund this summer. The 17-year-old has taken a slightly different route, emerging as a key player for Birmingham City in England's highly competitive second tier last term. Despite the interest of several high-profile suitors from the Premier League, Bellingham chose to commit his future to BVB – a club that is renowned for polishing up rough diamonds in a league that always gives youth a chance.
"There's no better club in the world at promoting young talents and taking them to the next step of their careers," the England U17 midfielder – who has been likened to former Liverpool and England captain Steven Gerrard – said on Dortmund's website. "I would like to continue my development here and contribute with titles and victories."
From loanees to Bundesliga regulars
It was that same desire for success that brought 22-year-old Londoner Ademola Lookman from Everton to RB Leipzig in January 2018, originally on a six-month loan deal.
"I wanted a new challenge, a new league," Lookman explained after arriving in Saxony. "The Bundesliga has a great reputation in England. Top stadiums with good, physically strong and disciplined players, and games played at a high level."
Lookman certainly didn't look out of place as he scored a late winner on his Bundesliga debut against Borussia Mönchengladbach. The wily winger went on to register five goals and three assists in just 11 league outings are Leipzig secured European football, and his return was so impressive that Leipzig signed him on a permanent contract in summer 2019.
Reece Oxford is another English youngster who was on loan from a Premier League club when he first dipped his toe in the Bundesliga talent pool. After two stints with Gladbach and another with Augsburg, the 21-year-old left West Ham for Augsburg in summer 2019, and helped Die Fuggerstädter avoid relegation last season.
"The Bundesliga's a great league, I realised that with Gladbach," Oxford explained. "That's why I'm happy to be with Augsburg now, so I can play more in the Bundesliga."
Non-Brits getting in on the act
Even some of the Premier League's foreign talents are turning their back on the English top flight. Highly rated Dutch winger Tahith Chong has just joined Werder Bremen on a season-long loan, with parent club Manchester United acknowledging on their website that the 20-year-old "is set to gain valuable first-team experience" in the Bundesliga.
Kevin Danso, an Austria international who was born to Ghanaian parents and grew up in Milton Keynes, joined the Augsburg youth academy as a teenager on his way to becoming a first-team regular. His improvement was such that former Leipzig manager Ralph Hasenhüttl brought him to Southampton on a loan spell in 2019/20, but the 21-year-old was given limited opportunities, and will be returning to Germany in 2020/21 with Fortuna Düsseldorf.
"I think that's the problem with players my age today, especially in England. We get too comfortable, too quickly," Danso once told Sky Sports. "I don't think many of us realise how big an opportunity this is. Once you've proven you can do it in the Bundesliga, the club will understand and they will give you the time you need at first-team level."
Reaping the rewards
Some players have already come and gone, and are now reaping the benefits of their time in Germany. Consider Ryan Kent, who spent part of the 2017/18 season on loan at Freiburg. Since returning to the UK, the 23-year-old winger has become a reliable source of goals for Scottish giants Rangers, plundering 16 goals and setting up 13 more in 80 appearances. Even if he only made a handful of senior appearances for Freiburg, the experience was clearly an educational and enriching one for the Oldham native – and good news for his current club.
"One thing is very different," the former Liverpool man said of training in the Black Forest. "We wear shinpads here in training – nobody does that in England! You only wear socks. That was a bit of a culture shock for me at the start. But the first time I trained with them on, I understood why. The intensity at Freiburg is very high. Here, everyone gives 100 per cent in training and through that, you get a good feeling in matches."
Following their own loan spells, Sancho's good friend Reiss Nelson (Hoffenheim), Emile Smith Rowe (RB Leipzig) and Jonjoe Kenny (Schalke) are also looking to make their Bundesliga experience count as they try to push through the ranks at Arsenal and Everton.
Others appear to be in it for the long haul. Wales international Rabbi Matondo joined Schalke outright from Manchester City in January 2019, signing a four-and-a-half-year deal with the Royal Blues. The 19-year-old made 20 league appearances in 2019/20, netting his first Bundesliga goals against Leipzig and Wolfsburg.
"The Bundesliga's a fantastic league," Matondo said. "Schalke is the right decision for my future as a footballer. Guys like Mesut Özil, Ivan Rakitic and Leroy Sane made huge strides in their career here."
That bit of name-dropping would make a marketing manager drool, yet the Bundesliga's success speaks for itself. While parent clubs may hope the youngsters they loan out will return ready for the rigours of the Premier League, they run the risk of them realising they prefer playing regularly in the Bundesliga too much to go back. Even an established star like Sane has come to realise that he would rather ply his trade with Germany's most decorated club, Bayern, than keep working under one of the game's most respected coaches, Pep Guardiola, at Man City.
The stars of tomorrow
Finally, there are the players looking to make the most of German coaching expertise even at youth level, by joining the Bundesliga's highly rated academies.
Bayern know a thing or two about recognising young talent – just ask Alphonso Davies – and accordingly snapped up promising Chelsea duo Bright Arrey-Mbi and Jamal Musiala last summer. Both players have just been promoted from the U19s to the reserves, and were added to Bayern's UEFA Champions League squad ahead of the Final Eight in Lisbon. Meanwhile, Scotland U17 centre-back Liam Morrison has been steadily making a name for himself with the club's U17s, and was just pushed up to the U19s for the coming season.
While the Bundesliga equals and often surpasses the Premier League for goals, excitement, passion and huge crowds, what sets it apart for young players is that they get to be involved. They experience what it is like to be in the big boys' playground by being on the swings and roundabouts with them, rather than being told to watch from the soft play area. Just ask Sancho, Bellingham, Lookman and Co. what they prefer, and the answer would be unequivocal. The future's bright – the future's Bundesliga.
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