Germany's youth revolution

Boundless future…Thomas Mueller (right) celebrates his goal against England with team-mate Sami Khedira. Mueller, at 20, possesses awareness and intelligence beyond his years, which makes him a manager's dream.-AP Boundless future…Thomas Mueller (right) celebrates his goal against England with team-mate Sami Khedira. Mueller, at 20, possesses awareness and intelligence beyond his years, which makes him a manager's dream.

The German FA's youth development programme is one of the best in the world, as proved by the fact that the country is the reigning European champion at the under-17, under-19 and under-21 levels. And thus, every player on the pitch displayed outstanding technique and composure. Having grown up accustomed to playing under a variety of tactical systems, the players revelled even in unfamiliar roles, writes Karthik Krishnaswamy.

German football has for long borne the reputation of mechanical success, of 11 muscular, disciplined players wearing down opponent after opponent on their way to yet another major final. “Football is a simple game,” said England striker Gary Lineker after his team's semifinal defeat to Germany in Italia '90. “Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win.”

The megastars of German football history do little to repudiate the stereotype of ruthless efficiency. Carlos Caetano Bledorn Verri and Lothar Matthaus were both uncompromising, tough-tackling midfielders. The former is a Brazilian better known by his nickname Dunga, which is Portuguese for Dopey, one of the seven dwarves in the Disney retelling of the Grimm Brothers' fairytale. Matthaus's nickname, on the other hand, is ‘Der Terminator.' Similarly, Franz Beckenbauer was ‘Der Kaiser' and Gerd Mueller ‘Der Bomber'.

There is hope, however, that the world could yet take its blinkers off and view German football in a new light, thanks to the eye-catching deeds of Joachim Loew's youthful, multicultural unit in South Africa.

With an average age of 24.9, Germany has one of the youngest squads in this World Cup, behind only Ghana and North Korea. The squad boasts six players from the team that won the European under-21 championship last year — goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, defenders Jerome Boateng and Dennis Aogo, midfielders Sami Khedira and Mesut Ozil and winger Marko Marin. Of those, Neuer, Boateng, Khedira and Ozil have matured into regular starters in an incredibly short span.

Even more remarkably, Loew went ahead and selected Thomas Mueller and Holger Badstuber, both of whom have played only one full season in Bayern Munich's first team. When Loew took Germany to a runner-up finish in Euro 2008, these two were playing for Bayern's reserves in the third tier of German football.

Only six of the starting XI from the Euro 2008 final took the field against England in Bloemfontein. The other five — Neuer, Boateng, Khedira, Ozil and Mueller — had between them made only 40 international appearances before the pre-quarterfinal.

Loew's youth revolution wasn't planned in the least. It came about primarily due to a series of injuries that ruled down experienced players like goalkeeper Rene Adler, defender Heiko Westermann and midfielders Michael Ballack and Simon Rolfes. In the face of crisis, Loew opted for youth over older names like Torsten Frings and Thomas Hitzlsperger.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that the inexperienced players who came in settled in so comfortably. The German FA's youth development programme is one of the best in the world, as proved by the fact that the country is the reigning European champion at the under-17, under-19 and under-21 levels.

And thus, every player on the pitch displayed outstanding technique and composure on the ball. Having grown up accustomed to playing under a variety of tactical systems, the German players revelled even in unfamiliar roles. Lukas Podolski and Thomas Mueller play as strikers in the Bundesliga, but on the wings for the national team. Bastian Schweinsteiger, who at 25 is a veteran closing in on 80 caps, dictated the tempo of play from deep in the centre of midfield, a position the former winger has occupied for only one season at Bayern Munich, under the instructions of coach Louis van Gaal. At Werder Bremen, Mesut Ozil has played on both wings and as an advanced playmaker.

And how well they combined against England, dismantling a creaking defence with flair and wit. The second goal was a thing of beauty, blending individual technique and intuitive off-the-ball movement. First, Miroslav Klose's flick took out both centre backs, and the ball went to Mueller, whose run drew the right back across the pitch and away from Podolski on the other flank. What came after was simplicity itself — Mueller clipped the ball across to Podolski with his first touch, leaving him one-on-one with the keeper.

But often, it's the simple things that elude the inexperienced. Mueller, at 20, possesses awareness and intelligence beyond his years, which makes him a manager's dream. Anyone who watched Bayern's run to the Champions League final would already know this from his exploits as an unselfish second striker tasked with the unrewarding defensive duty of closing down the opposition's defensive midfielders.

How different this German team is from the England outfit it defeated. Steven Gerrard is an elemental, explosive match-winner on his day, but the Liverpool skipper has time and again displayed a lack of positional discipline, forever straying infield from his left-wing position and an impatience in possession, constantly attempting ambitious crossfield passes or long-range shots from unfavourable angles.

That he and Frank Lampard cannot play together in central midfield is universally known, but they only need to look at Schweinsteiger and Khedira — neither of whom is a natural defensive midfielder — to see that they could have worked out an understanding had they sought, in all their years at the international level, to tailor their play to their team's requirements.

And so, one (ill-fated) Golden Generation has quite likely exited its last international tournament while another has emerged. England (and also France and Italy) should look to Germany's example and invest heavily in youth football so that the generation that follows Lampard, Gerrard and Terry is smarter and more flexible.

Tougher opposition awaits the Germans, but defeat, were it to befall them, should not dishearten the Ozils and Muellers. For them the future is boundless.