Grit, determination and a preference for playing route-one football have traditionally been the characteristics associated with English players, but as the likes of Jadon Sancho, Kevin Keegan and Jude Bellingham have shown in the Bundesliga over the years, they also offer no little guile, poise and skill.
Ahead of Germany’s UEFA Nations League meeting with the Three Lions, bundesliga.com looks at the five best Englishmen to have graced Bundesliga pitches…
Appearances: 90 (32 goals)
Club: Hamburg (1977 – 1980)
Honours: Bundesliga (1978/79), Ballon d’Or (1978, 1979)
Sancho may have been the most famous Engländer in Germany during his spell in Dortmund (more on that later), but Keegan was actually the first of his countrymen to lace his boots in the Bundesliga.
Hamburg pulled off quite the coup when they signed the prolific striker in 1977, Keegan arriving after winning three English First Division titles, the FA Cup, two UEFA Cups and, ultimately, the European Cup in six seasons at Liverpool.
Still, despite his impressive trophy collection and even more intimidating reputation, HSV and Keegan struggled initially, both needing time to adapt. The England captain showed his true colours in the second half of the season, however, and while the team only managed to finish 10th, he earned the Ballon d’Or as the world’s best player.
Watch: From Keegan to Sancho: the Englishmen in the Bundesliga
The following season was a much better one collectively, with Keegan helping HSV lift their fourth German league title, and first in the Bundesliga era, by contributing 11 goals in the final 12 games of the season. Not only that, but he also defended his throne as the world's number one footballer with a second successive Ballon d'Or.
His third and last term in Hamburg ended in the bitterest of disappointments, though, as Hamburg narrowly missed out on winning both the Bundesliga and European Cup within the space of a week. Keegan returned to England after that, but still looks back on his time in Germany fondly: "I enjoyed playing in the Bundesliga, the football. I learned a lot. Without doubt they were my three best years of playing football."
Appearances: 145 (five goals)
Club: Bayern Munich (1997 – 2007)
Honours: Bundesliga (2000/01, 2002/03, 2004/05, 2005/06), DFB Cup (2003/03, 2004/05, 2005/06), UEFA Champions League (2000/01)
The same is true of Hargreaves, who enjoyed a silverware-laden time in Munich. The most decorated Brit ever in Bundesliga terms, the midfielder joined Bayern's youth academy at the tender age of 16.
The Calgary-born youngster gradually worked his way into the first team and won a Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League double in his debut season with the senior pros in 2000/01, before becoming a regular fixture in the side for years to come.
Hargreaves lifted a further three Bundesliga titles and a trio of DFB Cups in his time in Germany, during which he amassed 145 Bundesliga appearances, and made his debut for the Three Lions in 2001. He was named England’s Player of the Year in 2006, but never fully recovered from a leg break suffered that same year. After stop-start spells with Manchester United and Man City, chronic injury forced him to retire in 2012.
The increasing numbers of British players in the Bundesliga in recent years can largely be attributed to Sancho. After growing frustrated in the Man City academy, where he saw limited first-team opportunities, Sancho joined Dortmund at the tender age of just 17 in 2017.
The London native scored one goal in 12 Bundesliga appearances in his maiden season as a pro, before exploding onto the scene a year later. The attacking midfielder registered one goal and six assists in the first seven games of the 2018/19 campaign, earning himself a first senior cap for England, and ended the season with 12 league goals and as many assists.
“It’s crazy what’s happened,” he told bundesliga.com. “I just kept on believing and working hard and I got the opportunity to play for this great club. I’m just happy with the way it’s gone. For me it’s just about competing with myself. That’s what makes me want to win and do well for the team and do the things I do on the pitch.”
Sancho proved he was no one-season wonder in 2019/20 and before that campaign was interrupted in March, he had supplied 14 goals and 15 assists in 23 Bundesliga appearances - the first player across Europe's top five leagues to reach double figures on both counts.
The high point of his BVB career – aside from the showreel of flicks, tricks, dribbles, goals, assists and general mischief-making – was helping Dortmund win the DFB Cup in 2021, the England international hitting a brace in the 4-1 triumph over RB Leipzig in the final.
Watch: The best of Sancho in the Bundesliga
As a defender, there is less fanfare about Oxford as his performances can’t be measured in goals and assists, but that should not detract from the fact that the London native is a seriously accomplished centre-back. With 81 Bundesliga appearances (and counting) to his name already, he is fifth in the all-time list of English players in Germany’s top flight.
Oxford first arrived on Bundesliga shores on loan at Borussia Mönchengladbach from West Ham in 2017, in the first of two temporary stints at the club. He made eight competitive appearances for the Foals, showcasing his versatility at right-back, centre-half and in defensive midfield, before finding his true calling at the heart of the defence with Augsburg.
Since moving to the Bavarian outfit in January 2019, initially on loan, he has turned out close to 70 times in all competitions, and was rewarded with a shiny new four-year contract at the club in October 2021.
"Reece has developed into an absolutely key player for us," said Augsburg's sporting director Stefan Reuter. "Not only is he very important for our game defensively, but he is also extremely dangerous from set pieces."
Silverware may be hard to come by at Augsburg, who are more accustomed to fighting relegation than for a top-six finish, but with the 23-year-old in their ranks, their chances are far greater than they would be without him.
A pro at 16. Dortmund first-team regular at 17. England international at 18. At this rate, Bellingham will be walking on the moon by the time he’s 25, such has been his meteoric rise in the game.
A box-to-box midfielder of old, the Birmingham-born teenager can do it all. A willing runner who never shirks a tackle, Bellingham has the pace and stamina to help out in the final third too, often chipping in with goals and assists.
“Jude Bellingham’s development doesn’t surprise anyone here,” said Dortmund head coach Edin Terzic of his young charge in 2021. “We see how he trains and works. He’s a huge talent and a fantastic player, but he’s still very young. We’re giving him all the support he needs and are trying to develop him as well as possible.”
Watch: Best of Bellingham
They are certainly doing that. Bellingham helped Dortmund to the DFB Cup title in 2020/21, and so good were his performances that season that more experienced midfielders such as Axel Witsel and Mo Dahoud were forced to the bench, while Thomas Delaney left the club altogether in search of more regular playing time.
The Dortmund No.22 ended the season with a place in England’s UEFA Euro 2020 squad, and continued those displays into the 2021/22 campaign. He started 32 of BVB’s 34 league outings, going the full distance in 27 of them, while he also chipped in with three goals and eight assists. If this is what he can do while still a relative rookie, just imagine how good he’ll be in his prime!
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