When people think of German youth academies, they instantly think of those at Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. Granted, they may have produced current international players such as Mario Götze and Thomas Müller, but it’s Schalke who are often overlooked as one of the best for providing the German national team with players.
Manuel Neuer, Benedikt Höwedes, Julian Draxler and Mesut Ozil all came through the obscure Knappenschmiede (youth academy), whilst the quartet helped Joachim Löw guide Germany to their first ever World Cup triumph in 24 years.
Countless stars have passed through the Royal Blues’ Knappenschmiede – if you’re German that is – that includes current crop of players such as Max Meyer and Ralf Fährmann, whilst prodigy Leroy Sané recently joined Pep Guardiola’s revolution at Manchester City after impressing in the Champions League.
But just where did it all start for Schalke, and what’s their idea behind it all? Considering it’s far different from many renowned academies.
Youth teams have always been a key ingredient to teams in Germany. Be it at Borussia Mönchengladach with Marc-Andre ter Stegen or 1860 München with Lars Bender, Julian Weigl and Kevin Volland – who have both recently featured for the Germany national side.
Firstly, former Academy Chief Bodo Menze told UEFA.com in an interview that “the development of talent has always been an integral part of the club,” which sees the Bundesliga side boast one of the youngest average ages in the league.
Schalke’s Knappenschmiede proved to be so successful, that in 2014, former sporting director Horst Heldt revealed the representatives from Bayern Munich asked just how they do it after rebuilding their youth academy from scratch.
“We hired more fulltime coaches and more scouts for the academy. We even have fulltime assistant coaches for our youth teams now. Such a standard isn’t even available everywhere in the DFB,” said Heldt. “It is no coincidence that we were in the U19 final of the German championship last year (2013) and that we won it the year before.”
Under tutelage of the staff at the Knappenschmiede, the youth players’ – from U17s to U23s – first “professional” contact will be with a football, prior to anything else. Coaches at the club state that any player must enjoy their time on the pitch and so they regularly impose a technical style of play to their training sessions.
Ball control and basic techniques are first taught amongst the youngsters whilst they are also taught self-responsibility, self-confidence and team spirit – also receive high school education.
Individual strengths and weaknesses are closely monitored before players progress to the next stage which involves a great deal of fitness, in order to ensure they can give their all for 90 minutes.
The jump from U15 Regional League West to the U17 Bundesliga West is a huge leap for any athlete. Instead of technical, coaches now focus on the tactical aspect of football with the U17 players before progressing.
An area that German football does well is their U23 teams. This represents the final stage of training – which is also known as the “transition region” – whilst they’re allowed to gain experience in league format, where they come up against other semi-professional teams.
The opportunity to play in the U23 side allows players to prepare themselves at a professional level should they be called up to train with the first team, as players such as Sané– who duly impressed – have done in the past.
“Our objective has always been to bring through one or two players from each age group into the Bundesliga,” Menze explained. “We have teams from Under-9 to Under-23 and we select every team according to performance. The most important factors are to be fast, be good decision makers with technical skills and tactical skills but also with strong character and an identity with the club. That has continued with Draxler, Höwedes [and] Matip.”
From a young age, the Knappenschmiede ethos is etched into their minds, whilst the philosophies of the club are taught from the youngest age group, up until the U23 squad.
Not every footballer that comes through the youth academy is successful at the club. Kaan Ayhan – who made 30 league appearances for Schalke – failed to keep his place in the first team, which saw him loaned out to Eintracht Frankfurt, before signing for Fortuna Düsseldorf on a permanent basis.
In recent history, it’s Sané who has gained all the plaudits during his time at Schalke, in which he helped the club to a fifth place finish in the 2015/16 campaign, thus becoming a key member of a youthful setup last campaign.
Sane joined Schalke as an eight-year-old after a brief spell at neighbouring Bayer Leverkusen. Winning the U19 German championship, Sane earned his first professional contract with the Royal Blues.
His masterful displays in the league and Champions League – noticeably against Real Madrid –came with attention from Europe’s elite, which included Arsenal, Real Madrid and Liverpool. It was however Pep Guardiola who persuaded the youngster to join him at Manchester City in a £37 million fee.
Schalke’s golden generation, so to speak, might be over for the time being, with Max Meyer being their only notable youth player – that came through their system – to cement a place in the starting XI.
However, there’s plenty to come from Knappenschmiede. Schalke U17s – under the tutelage of Stephan Schmidt – currently sit top of the B-Junioren Bundesliga West table, six points ahead of their rivals, Borussia Dortmund.
With a plethora of talent on their books, Schalke already have eight players signed to contracts in their U17 squad. Ahmed Kutucu is certainly one player people need to keep an eye on. After 10 games for the U17 side, the German born forward has scored six goals, whilst he has also assisted six.
The technical ability that coaches at Schalke strive upon is certainly evident at this level. Okan Yilmaz – again another prodigy – has scored four goals in eight games whilst on a whole, Schalke U17s have found the net 27 times in 10 matches, winning eight, losing just one.
It’s clear that Schalke do boast one of the most impressive youth academies in European football. Perhaps even the world. Underappreciated by many outside of Germany, it’s evident that Bayern Munich want to replicate what their Bundesliga counterparts are doing at youth level.
For Schalke, there’s a sense of togetherness for anyone who comes through the Knappenschmiede. A close-knit group of players, management and coaches at Schalke really do believe in youth development, whilst they’re extremely motivated to providing the first team with as many stars as possible.
About the author- Daniel Pinder
Daniel is a yorkshire based sports journalist that specialise in German football. Having fallen in love with the country during the 2006 World cup thanks to the trio of Michael Ballack, Miroslav Klose and Bastian Schweinsteiger, he has visited six times in the past two seasons to watch Cologne. Daniel has also had work published on FourFourTwo, Deutsche Welle, Goal and Gazzetta World, whilst he aims to bring news and analysis from Germany to an English audience.