Jadon Sancho, Reiss Nelson and now Rabbi Matondo: Britain's finest fledgling talents are flocking to the Bundesliga. - DFL
Jadon Sancho, Reiss Nelson and now Rabbi Matondo: Britain's finest fledgling talents are flocking to the Bundesliga. - DFL
bundesliga

Breaking the grass ceiling: why the Bundesliga is the go-to league for the UK's frustrated youngsters

The Beatles honed their stagecraft and global hits on the streets and stages of Hamburg, where two-time Ballon d'Or winner Kevin Keegan would later grace the pitch. Now, there is a new British invasion with some of the country's brightest talents opting for the Bundesliga as the best stage upon which they can develop.

With the latest flurry of arrivals in the winter transfer window, bundesliga.com looks at why the Bundesliga is becoming the destination of choice for British youngsters seeking to take their fledgling careers to the next level.

The grass ceiling

The English Premier League has gained a global reputation for excitement, passion and being chock-full high-profile footballers. For a fan, it might seem heavenly, but looking at the league from a young British player's perspective, the prospects are hellish.

Nearly 70 per cent of Premier League players are foreign-born. The bigger the club, the more hazardous the route to the first team is. A CIES Football Observatory study showed Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea, for example, respectively gave just 23, 17 and 16 per cent of minutes to homegrown players in 2016/17.

Arsenal-owned Leipzig midfielder Emile Smith Rowe is the latest English youngster to turn his luck on the English Premier League in favour of first-team football in the Bundesliga. - 2018 Getty Images

In the Bundesliga, just under half the players (49 per cent) come from outside Germany, giving youngsters a chance to climb through the ranks and not worry about the glass ceiling that prevents their British counterparts playing on the very biggest stages. The contrast at the 2017 UEFA U21 Euro, for example, was stark: the England squad totalled just over 200 Premier League appearances between them; Germany, who won the tournament despite having many first-choice players with the senior squad at the FIFA Confederations Cup, had a collective tally in excess of 1,000 Bundesliga games.

Sancho, the shining example

This much clearer pathway to the first team has attracted a host of talented young English players to the Bundesliga. Perhaps the best current example is Jadon Sancho, who has emerged as one of the hottest prospects of his generation since trading Manchester City for Borussia Dortmund in summer 2017. Sancho showed flashes of his potential in a promising first season before stepping things up a gear in 2018/19, and heading into February, with Dortmund sitting seven points clear of Bayern Munich at the top of the table, 18-year-old wonderkid's six goals and a league-high nine assists are helping fuel a title tilt.

Watch: Jadon Sancho on his Bundesliga hopes and dreams

"Honestly, them giving me opportunities at such a young age, I just have to thank the club and all my family that have been behind me from the start," Sancho told bundesliga.com earlier this term. Despite his tender years, Sancho is now ranked as the Bundesliga's joint-most valuable player by specialist website TransferMarkt, along with Bayern goal machine Robert Lewandowski. His success has opened the doors to the senior England setup and encouraged fellow British youngsters to follow in his footsteps, starting with his best mate Reiss Nelson.

The two teenagers have known each other since childhood, and Nelson naturally consulted Sancho before joining Hoffenheim on loan from boyhood club Arsenal in August 2018. "[Jadon] said there were a lot of opportunities for me [in the Bundesliga]," Nelson, now 19, told the Daily Mail. We've got a lot of similarities so he said I should go over there, and that's how I can show my brilliance."

Arsenal loanee Reiss Nelson made a flying start to his Bundesliga career with Hoffenheim. - © 2018 Getty Images

Comings and goings

Ademola Lookman tread the same path, and enjoyed a sensational second half of 2017/18 with RB Leipzig. "I wanted a new challenge, a new league," Lookman explained after pushing through the loan move he wanted from Everton in January 2018. "The Bundesliga has a great reputation in England. Top stadiums with good, physically strong and disciplined players, and games played at a high level."

The 21-year-old winger scored a late winner on his Leipzig debut against Borussia Mönchengladbach and went on to register five goals and three assists in just 11 Bundesliga outings as Leipzig secured sixth place and a UEFA Europa League berth. Everton were so impressed, they welcomed him back with open arms in the summer.

Meanwhile, West Ham's Reece Oxford has just returned for his third loan stint in the Bundesliga after two separate spells with Gladbach in 2017/18. The England U20 centre-back, who hadn't made a single senior appearance for the Hammers this season, will be hoping for regular first-team football at Augsburg. "The Bundesliga's a great league, I realised that with Gladbach," the 20-year-old explained. "That's why I'm happy to be with Augsburg now, so I can play more in the Bundesliga."

"On your bike, son!" Reece Oxford (l.) has joined former MK Dons youth player Kevin Danso (r.) at Augsburg. - imago/Krieger

The Great British take-off

The inspirational stories of Sancho, Nelson, Lookman and Co. have certainly struck a chord on the British Isles, not just among talented, young British prospects who see the hurdles towards a regular game in England insurmountable. Kevin Danso, an Austrian international who came through the youth system at Milton Keynes Dons, has become a first-team regular with Augsburg since taking the leap, despite being only 19.

"I think that's the problem with players my age today, especially in England. We get too comfortable, too quickly," Danso told Sky Sports recently. "I don't think many of us realise how big an opportunity this is. Once you've proven you can do it in the Bundesliga, the club will understand and they will give you the time you need at first-team level."

The attraction is understandably obvious, and a wave of talented youngsters are now performing their own Brexit and embracing the opportunities on offer in Germany. Keanen Bennetts signed a four-year contract with Gladbach in the summer after rising the ranks at Tottenham, but then hitting that conjectural ceiling. "It's a dream come true for young players to get a chance like this," Bennetts said. "When a team comes along and shows so much faith in you, you have to say 'yes'."

Joining the flock

In January, a further two rising stars were recruited: Welsh forward Rabbi Matondo, who joined Schalke on a four-and-a-half-year deal from Man City, and England's U17 World Cup winner Emile Smith Rowe, who has followed in Lookman's footsteps by joining Leipzig on loan from Arsenal.

Rabbi Matondo made his Bundesliga debut 48 hours after joining Schalke from Manchester City. - imago/RHR-Foto

"The Bundesliga's a fantastic league," Matondo said. "Schalke is the right decision for my future as a footballer. Guys like Mesut Özil, Ivan Rakitic and Leroy Sane made huge strides in their career here."

That bit of name-dropping would make a marketing manager drool, yet the Bundesliga's success speaks for itself. While parent clubs may hope the youngsters they loan out will return ready for the rigours of the Premier League, they run the risk of them realising they prefer playing regularly in the Bundesliga too much to go back.

Hamburg's 22-year-old Scottish defender David Bates has also got the bug over in Bundesliga 2. "I've become a better footballer here," he told the Bild newspaper. "I became a national team player thanks to playing in Hamburg, and I'm so grateful to HSV for that!"

Then there are the likes of Mandela Egbo, a 21-year-old right-back who joined Gladbach from Crystal Palace in 2015 and continues to make progress with the club's reserves. Having trained regularly with the first-team squad, Egbo made his senior debut against Hannover last season, after three years with the club. Proof that with patience, development and ambition, a chance in the Bundesliga will come.

While the Bundesliga can match or in many cases better the Premier League for goals, excitement, passion and huge crowds what sets it apart for young players is that they get to be involved; they experience what it is like to be in the big boys' playground by being on the swings and roundabouts with them, rather than being told to watch from the soft play area. Just ask Sancho, Nelson, Matondo and Co. what they prefer and the answer would be unequivocal.