Unbeaten since October 2017 and eyeing a title defence at EURO 2019, there is a reason Germany’s Under-21s are considered one of the most exciting sides in their age bracket.
The Bundesliga has proven a hotbed of producing rising stars for several years now. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that Germany’s youth sides are benefitting from a trickle-down effect of talent.
Boasting an in-sync blend of untapped potential, top-flight experience and players on the cusp of a senior call-up, Stefan Kuntz’s side picked up seven wins from a possible eight in 2018.
The 0-0 draw with Kosovo in March proved the only blip in an otherwise flawless calendar year that saw them score 21 times, whilst conceding just twice. In the eyes of Kuntz, the reason behind the unprecedented run of form stems from “the players getting 30 games under the belt at a high level - you can’t replicate that type of experience”.
“It is our responsibility to prepare and form our players into ones capable of making the step up to the national team,” added the 56-year-old, who himself earned 25 caps for Germany during his playing career.
With the summer’s showpiece event fast-approaching, Kuntz and Co. will be looking to maintain their hard-earned momentum in 2019, which could be a pivotal year for the Germany set-up.
Germany head coach Joachim Löw has said that “2019 will be the year of new beginnings” for the national team. Those comments will no doubt have peaked the interest of players hoping to fashion themselves an outside chance of featuring for the senior side at EURO 2020 with their performances in Italy this summer.
With Lukas Klostermann and Maximilian Eggestein already being linked with a Die Mannschaft cap, playing an integral role in the U21s title defence could be the final line on their curriculum vitae to convince Löw of their qualities.
But which players are ready and capable of following in the footsteps of Thilo Kehrer or Serge Gnabry - the two title winners from 2017 who have since gone on to earn senior caps?
The likes of Kai Havertz, Julian Brandt and Leroy Sane aren’t at Kuntz’s disposal. Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be a stretch to name a starting line-up consisting of 11 fully-fledged Bundesliga players.
After a generation of keepers which produced Manuel Neuer and Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Germany have been short of a standout third option. Alexander Nübel could be the perfect foil if he maintains his current trajectory.
The 21-year-old has taken Ralf Fährmann's place as the No.1 at Schalke and acquitted himself well in one of the Royal Blues’ most turbulent seasons in Bundesliga history. His record of five clean sheets in nine appearances at U21 level is just one of many reasons he’s being touted as Neuer’s long-term successor.
Watch: Klostermann scored a thunderbolt for Leipzig against Werder Bremen in December!
While Kuntz successfully experimented with a three-man backline in the 3-0 win over the Netherlands, four at the back is his preferred option. Captain Klostermann, Waldemar Anton, Timo Baumgartl and Maximilian Mittelstädt can call upon the combined experience of 232 Bundesliga appearances.
Like Nübel, Hannover’s Anton has been a shining light in a disappointing season for the relegation-threatened side. He is one of four remaining members of the 2017 U21 European champions set to play a part in the title defence and ranks third amongst Bundesliga defenders in challenges won this season.
Klostermann’s performances for Leipzig have caught the eye this season and with Joshua Kimmich looking to push into midfield for the senior side, the right-back slot is up for grabs. However, he need just ask Sami Khedira what captaining Germany to an U21 title can do for a career.
“Of course you wish to be involved one day, without a doubt. That’s only possible if you produce the required level of performances at club level and with the U21s,” Klostermann told SID. “That’s what I’m looking to do in the hopes of being called up to the senior side.”
Watch: Eggestein's stunning solo effort won the January Goal of the Month!
A midfield trio of Eggestein, Florian Neuhaus and Mahmoud Dahoud would be the envy of several Bundesliga sides currently in the bottom half of the table and we haven’t even mentioned Arne Maier and Suat Serdar waiting in the wings.
Bremen’s Eggestein, in particular, has already received praise from Löw himself. “We’ve watched him a few times this year,” admitted the 59-year-old back in November. “For his age, he has a composed, calm and good style of play. If we have the feeling that the right time has arrived, we’ll see him in the national team.”
The opportunity to gain invaluable tournament experience could stand the 22-year-old in good stead, something fellow midfielder Dahoud will have in the back of his mind as he eyes back-to-back titles.
“The 2017 Euros were an incredible experience which progressed my development - I’ll never forget the title celebrations,” said the Dortmund youngster, who is eligible to feature in Italy courtesy of being born on the cut off date: January 1 1996.
When the senior side’s frontline consists of Reus, Werner and Sane, it would be easy to shirk at the U21s options up front. However, while Levin Öztunali and Gian-Luca Waldschmidt boast a wealth of Bundesliga experience, Cedric Teuchert’s goal scoring record at this level is nothing short of exceptional.
Teuchert is yet to score in eight appearances for Schalke since joining in the summer, but has netted eight goals in as many games for the U21s including a hat-trick in a 6-0 drubbing of the Republic of Ireland. He may not be as established as his predecessor Davie Selke, but the 22-year-old has proven his goalscoring instincts. He may also now face healthy competition from Johannes Eggestein, the younger brother of the aforementioned Maximilian.
On March 26, Germany’s U21s face a true test of their title-winning credentials against their English counterparts who are also considered amongst the favourites to claim the EURO 2019 title.
While there will be familiar faces in the likes of Hoffenheim’s Reiss Nelson and former Leipzig-loanee Ademola Lookman, Germany believe unparalleled top-tier experience will lay the foundation for success at the Vitality Stadium in Bournemouth and in Italy this summer.