DORTMUND, Germany — At first glance, it is easy to pinpoint the start of the Bundesliga’s love affair with young English players. The opening scene of a story that has swept a host of England’s brightest prospects out of the Premier League’s overstuffed academies and into top-flight German soccer is set at a specific time — the first few days of October 2016 — and in a specific place: Pula, Croatia.
That week, England’s under-17 team took part in the Croatian Cup, a youth invitational that also featured teams from Germany, Greece and the host nation. England won it, and in some style, rounding off the competition with an 8-1 rout of Germany.
Even before that, though, the amount of talent on display had turned heads. Several scouts from Bundesliga clubs had been in attendance at Pula’s Aldo Drosina Stadium for England’s first game, a 5-0 win against Croatia.
Though many of the English players involved would go on to win the under-17 World Cup a little more than a year later, one, in particular, stood out. A scout, present that day, remembers being taken aback by the player’s appetite. Even with England comfortably ahead, he said, he kept running, kept trying to score goals.
The scout flagged the player, Jadon Sancho, to his superiors, but to no avail. Less than a year later, Sancho was on his way to Germany, but to sign with Borussia Dortmund, another of the clubs that had watched him that day. Within a few months, he was a regular on Dortmund’s first team, a senior England international and one of the most coveted players in Europe.
He was also a trendsetter. After Sancho, a flood of young British players have landed in the Bundesliga: Arsenal’s Emile Smith Rowe — another veteran of that Croatian trip — and Reiss Nelson, on loan at RB Leipzig and TSG Hoffenheim; representatives at Augsburg and Borussia Mönchengladbach and Schalke.
In January, Bayern Munich was so determined to sign Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi — another who featured in Croatia — that it offered 40 million euros (about $45 million) for a teenager who had made only a handful of senior appearances. Sancho’s effect, the legacy of that day in Pula, has been powerful.
It is a compelling story, but not necessarily an accurate one. Sancho has been presented as the trigger for German clubs’ fascination with young English talent, but, in reality, he was the end result: a consequence, rather than a cause, of a trend that dates way beyond 2016, one that explains why, exactly, all of those Bundesliga scouts were watching that under-17 game in Pula.
“About 10 years ago, we decided that young players had to be our focus as a club,” said Max Eberl, Mönchengladbach’s sporting director. “We had no financial potential to do anything else. We had to create money and value a different way.”
That meant keeping tabs on the best young talent not just in Germany, but across Europe. Mönchengladbach’s scouts started watching national youth teams, a shortcut to establishing which players were regarded as the best in their homelands, and a chance to compare them directly with the talent on the rise in Germany.
The initial emphasis, Eberl explained, was on France, Belgium and Holland — traditionally fertile breeding grounds — as well as markets like Denmark, where his club had strong links. England “was not a market we had focused on,” he said, but it did not take long to realize that there were a “lot of top players” in England’s age-group teams.
Eberl dispatched scouts not to watch the Premier League, but to games between clubs’ under-18 and under-23 teams. “At the time, English clubs bought players but did not care about their academies,” he said. “The players they were developing — 30 or 40 guys, really good, really well prepared — had no chance.”
Around the same time, Dortmund came to the same realization. “Five or 10 years ago, we had the feeling that the education and development of youth players in England is quite good,” Michael Zorc, the club’s technical director, said. “The teams don’t only spend money on transfers and salaries, but on infrastructure. When you see these academies, you cannot compare the standard with Germany. It is much, much higher.”
Most important, these state-of-the-art facilities were churning out players with the skill sets Bundesliga clubs needed. “England had so many creative players,” Nils Schmadtke, formerly the head scout at Cologne, said. “Kids like Sancho: good at penetrating the sidelines, not afraid in one against ones, good technique, fast.”
Just as significant as discovering this steady supply of talent in England, though, was the increasing demand in Germany.
Youth is the Bundesliga’s calling card. Germany’s top division prides itself on its clubs’ willingness to give players an opportunity — a report compiled in February found that it is the youngest of Europe’s major leagues — regardless of age or experience. It sees and sells itself, according to one recent mailing, as a “talent factory.”
Increasingly, though, there are concerns that less and less of that talent is emerging locally, at a time when German soccer — both at the international level and within the Bundesliga — is in need of renewal.
The generation that won the 2014 World Cup failed miserably in Russia last summer, a disappointment compounded by relegation from its group in the inaugural Nations League last year. Joachim Löw, the national team coach, has vowed to transform the side, informing several stalwarts — Mats Hummels, Thomas Müller and Jérôme Boateng — that they will no longer be considered for selection.
For the first time in more than a decade, the Bundesliga will not be represented in the Champions League quarterfinals. Bayern Munich is already planning for a substantial overhaul of its squad at the end of the season.
It is telling that Hudson-Odoi, a young English winger, is at the forefront of its thinking: Zorc admitted last month that at the under-17 and under-19 levels, England had “overtaken” Germany. Schmadtke said that he believed the “individual skills” he saw from young English players — as well as on scouting trips to France — stood out because they are now so rare in his homeland. For Bayern, as for the national team, the pipeline of German talent has dried up.
Eberl, for one, believes that Germany has “made mistakes” in developing its young players. Clubs, he said, have fallen into the trap of trying to produce winning youth teams, rather than concentrating on individuals. Schmadtke feels German teenagers suffer because they are exposed too quickly to senior soccer, playing for so-called B teams in regional leagues, rather than in youth-specific competitions, as they do in England.
Both are confident that it is a hiatus, rather than a full stop. “We will have players in the future, but it will take time,” Eberl said. In the meantime, German clubs will continue to flock to England, hoping to find yet more players to follow the path Sancho has plotted. It is a result not of a love affair, but of the simple economics of supply and demand.