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Insight

Stepping up

The likes of Erling Haaland and Karim Adeyemi may have taken the Champions League by storm in recent years, but the transition is not always so smooth. So how do you know when a starlet is ready to fly? Simon Hart investigates

As the old head in the youngest squad to compete in this season’s Champions League knockout rounds, Salzburg defender Andreas Ulmer is better placed than most to assess the challenge faced by youthful prospects when stepping up to the senior realm. “I think the pace of the game, the tackles, the way you go into challenges – there is certainly a big difference,” says the 36-year-old.

A difference, maybe, but not enough to daunt talented tyros like Karim Adeyemi, 20, and Noah Okafor, 21 – the Austrian champions’ front line for their round of 16 opener against Bayern München. And just to underline the point, when Okafor left the field early with an injury, on came another 20-year-old in Chikwubuike Adamu, who duly scored his first goal in the competition.

At Salzburg they are used to feats of precocity, this being the club where Erling Haaland bounded onto the Champions League stage with a hat-trick on his competition debut at the age of 19 (against Genk three years ago). The next question for Ulmer, then, is how can he tell when a youngster is ready to take that step? “You can see it, definitely, in a player’s talent, in how he behaves in the dressing room and on the pitch, in how he moves on the pitch,” he replies. “Some young players need more time than others to develop.”

Not Haaland, whose hat-trick inside the first 45 minutes against Genk was the most remarkable group stage debut by any teenager since Wayne Rooney’s treble for Manchester United versus Fenerbahçe in 2004. Looking back on his 18-year-old self in a recent documentary, the now 36-year-old Rooney said, “I remember thinking, ‘I’m the best player in the world.’” Like Haaland, Rooney was then a fearless force of nature, a raging bull calf who rattled defenders and shattered records. 

“It isn’t a question of when – you don’t know when till the moment comes”

Yet, as Ulmer has observed, every young footballer develops at a different rate. For some it takes more time for the various pieces of the jigsaw – emotional, physical, technical, tactical – to come together. A case in point is Andrés Iniesta, four times a Champions League winner with Barcelona and scorer of Spain’s winning goal in the 2010 World Cup final. On the international stage he rose through the ranks with Fernando Torres, the duo playing at every youth level from under-15 upwards. Yet while El Niño was a regular in Atlético de Madrid’s first team from the age of 17, Iniesta – smaller and slighter – had to wait while his body caught up with his brain. He was 20 when he first reached double figures for Liga starts in a season with Barcelona.

“It was a case of having patience with his physical growth, because mentally he was ready from when he was very little – very mature and very responsible,” remembers Ginés Meléndez, who oversaw the production line of young players for the Royal Spanish Football Federation for more than a decade. “Physically he was very young but mentally he knew everything and was very emotionally balanced.” Meléndez worked closely with Iniesta in Spain’s under-age teams and his  last point is fundamental: “You can’t get too emotional when winning or losing. Your emotional balance is very important when taking the step up.” 

And how can a coach help in this respect? “A coach should ensure the player’s personal growth is tied to their football development, especially as regards the development of their emotional capabilities and psychological balance,” says Meléndez. “Helping them in their personal development is so crucial at this age. The most important thing you can do is help with their personal maturing, away from external elements that can negatively influence their footballing development. You have to help them grow properly as people.” 

Support structures

On the question of personal development, Champions Journal columnist Jürgen Klinsmann believes a young prospect today has more resources to call on than ever before. Drawing on his coaching experience in both Europe and the United States, where he was national-team manager from 2011 to 2016, Klinsmann discerns a greater maturity in young players owing to the support networks in place. “These days, young players are so mature already,” he says. “They’re far better prepared to become professionals than we were 30 years ago. In my time, you were more all over the place and you had to figure things out yourself. Sometimes you did it OK, sometimes not. Nowadays, they have agents who tell them what’s right and what’s wrong off the field. They have specialist coaches, not only the head coach and assistant coaches, telling them technical things. They work on their weaknesses after training, then they learn how to recover faster – because recovery is one of the key things in the professional game. 

Thilo Kehrer benefited from a Youth League education (above), Andrés Iniesta took his time breaking through at Barça (top right), Sudden impact: Erling Haaland (right)

“The way they enter the professional world, mentally and physically, shows you what the clubs’ academies are working on day in, day out. They prepare them to come into the senior team with confidence and the fitness to play the physical game already. And, psychologically they are so prepared – they have no fear. It’s really fascinating. Haaland doesn’t have any fear. Serge Gnabry has no fear. Leroy Sané: no fear. The same for all these youngsters breaking through.”

Back in Salzburg, Ulmer concurs. “The opportunities young players have to train now are so much better compared to our day, when we were young players. I think it’s different times now. Now, the focus is more on younger players.” Not least at his own club. “I think young players really get the chance to play games here. As they always say, it’s important for the development of young players that they get as many minutes on the pitch as possible. Here at Salzburg, they can do that at quite a high level.”

Continuity is an important factor and, at Salzburg, it helps that their feeder team, Liefering, play exactly the same way in the Austrian second tier as the seniors do in the first. Matthias Jaissle, Salzburg’s 33-year-old head coach (see page 30), had a spell in charge at Liefering last season, having previously coached Salzburg’s U19s in the UEFA Youth League in 2019/20. And the proof is in the pudding: five of the players involved against Bayern this season served under him during that Youth League campaign.

Testing ground

It is not just for Salzburg that the Youth League is proving a helpful staging post. Its group stage has an identical calendar to the Champions League, meaning that each participant club has an U19 squad travelling along with the senior party to away fixtures, the juniors playing in the afternoon ahead of the main event. In this way, young players get a taste of the different rhythms and requirements of international club football, both on and off the pitch.

Thilo Kehrer, the Paris Saint-Germain defender, is one of a sizeable number of Youth League graduates now playing Champions League football. He remains grateful for his experience of three seasons in the former competition with Schalke between 2013 and 2015. In the first of those campaigns he helped a Schalke side (also including Sané) to overcome Chelsea in the quarter-finals, before a semi-final loss to Barcelona. He made his last appearance in the competition in October 2015. By November 2016, aged 20, he was a starter for the Königsblauen in the Europa League.

“It’s a great opportunity,” says Kehrer of his grounding in the Youth League. “I remember I came up against the likes of Adama Traoré and Munir El Haddadi. At Schalke we faced Chelsea, Barcelona, Manchester City, Real Madrid… teams from top-quality European leagues.”

As for the step up he then took to the men’s game, Kehrer offers the following observation: “The most challenging part was mainly having confidence in yourself, as well as earning the coach’s and club’s trust. It’s true that [the Bundesliga] is a very physical league, but it’s also a very tactical and disciplined league. It’s not like at the academy, where you can make mistakes. Instead, you concede a goal – and conceding a goal might lead to a defeat. [And there are] huge amounts of money around clubs, along with a great deal of responsibility.”

He goes on to use the same word that Meléndez highlighted earlier: balance. For Kehrer, it was important to find “the right balance between being concentrated and focused but not losing the joy and courage to try to do things as well”.

“A coach should ensure a player’s personal growth is tied to their football development”

A conversation with Kehrer also highlights the importance of young players taking the opportunity to test themselves. In his case, he left Stuttgart to join Schalke when he was in his mid-teens. “I’m convinced that you shouldn’t stay in your comfort zone,” he says of that decision. “In order to progress and make an impact, you need to go out of your comfort zone and look for challenges.”

Spanish steps

Being challenged is fundamental – and the view of one of Spain’s leading football commentators, Álvaro Benito, is that young players are often not challenged enough in their domestic junior competitions – hence the Youth League’s value. Now working as an analyst for television network Movistar, Benito was a coach in Real Madrid’s youth ranks from 2015 until 2019 and has previously used the term “false football” to describe how Madrid’s junior sides would roll over many of their local rivals in Spain’s regional competitions. 

“In Madrid, we won almost every game easily and that’s not how you improve,” he says. “It’s not real football.” His view is that players only get fully tested on graduating to Real Madrid Castilla – the club’s B team, who play in the third tier of the senior pyramid. As a result, “the maturing comes later and the jump to the senior team is too big”. Over in England, similar observations are often made about the Premier League 2 competition for U23 sides.

This brings us back to the question of how to know when a player is ready. Sometimes it can be fate that opens a door, such as an injury or suspension, and then it is a case of sink or swim. Fran González, the former Spain and Deportivo La Coruña forward who is now in charge of the Deportivo academy, says, “It isn’t a question of when – you don’t know when till the moment comes.” And that moment differs according to the individual. “There are lads who manage it at 17, others at 19, others at 20. It depends on how they mature. It is very important to be physically well, mentally well and also to have the technical gifts to get there.” 

Fran himself has seen the impact of the Youth League close up this season. Deportivo’s first team may be battling to climb out of Spain’s third division, but their youngsters stirred memories of his own playing days – when Champions League nights were common in Galicia – by winning ties against Pogoń Szczecin and Maccabi Haifa in the domestic champions’ path. Indeed, against Pogoń they produced an homage to Deportivo’s famous comeback against AC Milan in the 2003/04 Champions League: a similar turnaround resulted in them overcoming a 3-0 first-leg loss with a 4-0 triumph at El Riazor. 

Echoing Benito’s point about the prevalence of regional football for juniors in Spain – at least until the final stages of the national championship – Fran says the Youth League has meant “playing the best squads in Europe – better, stronger, quicker teams, and better prepared in all senses. This is what the Youth League gives you: a fantastic experience, a great competition that brings a certain pressure.”

For Deportivo’s youngsters, that included the “incredible excitement” of playing in front of 20,115 home fans when they tackled Dynamo Kyiv for a place in the round of 16 on 9 February. Two of the starting XI that day had already broken into the club’s first team in Yeremay ‘Peke’ Hernández and Noel López. There is the hope more will follow; in the meantime they have already tasted something special, despite a penalty shoot-out defeat against the Ukrainian side. 

“Very few times do you get to feel that kind of emotion as a young player,” says Fran. “It comes later when you are a professional. As a 17, 18-year-old, it is a unique experience to live.” Unless, that is, your name is Haaland or Rooney. 

As the old head in the youngest squad to compete in this season’s Champions League knockout rounds, Salzburg defender Andreas Ulmer is better placed than most to assess the challenge faced by youthful prospects when stepping up to the senior realm. “I think the pace of the game, the tackles, the way you go into challenges – there is certainly a big difference,” says the 36-year-old.

A difference, maybe, but not enough to daunt talented tyros like Karim Adeyemi, 20, and Noah Okafor, 21 – the Austrian champions’ front line for their round of 16 opener against Bayern München. And just to underline the point, when Okafor left the field early with an injury, on came another 20-year-old in Chikwubuike Adamu, who duly scored his first goal in the competition.

At Salzburg they are used to feats of precocity, this being the club where Erling Haaland bounded onto the Champions League stage with a hat-trick on his competition debut at the age of 19 (against Genk three years ago). The next question for Ulmer, then, is how can he tell when a youngster is ready to take that step? “You can see it, definitely, in a player’s talent, in how he behaves in the dressing room and on the pitch, in how he moves on the pitch,” he replies. “Some young players need more time than others to develop.”

Not Haaland, whose hat-trick inside the first 45 minutes against Genk was the most remarkable group stage debut by any teenager since Wayne Rooney’s treble for Manchester United versus Fenerbahçe in 2004. Looking back on his 18-year-old self in a recent documentary, the now 36-year-old Rooney said, “I remember thinking, ‘I’m the best player in the world.’” Like Haaland, Rooney was then a fearless force of nature, a raging bull calf who rattled defenders and shattered records. 

“It isn’t a question of when – you don’t know when till the moment comes”

Yet, as Ulmer has observed, every young footballer develops at a different rate. For some it takes more time for the various pieces of the jigsaw – emotional, physical, technical, tactical – to come together. A case in point is Andrés Iniesta, four times a Champions League winner with Barcelona and scorer of Spain’s winning goal in the 2010 World Cup final. On the international stage he rose through the ranks with Fernando Torres, the duo playing at every youth level from under-15 upwards. Yet while El Niño was a regular in Atlético de Madrid’s first team from the age of 17, Iniesta – smaller and slighter – had to wait while his body caught up with his brain. He was 20 when he first reached double figures for Liga starts in a season with Barcelona.

“It was a case of having patience with his physical growth, because mentally he was ready from when he was very little – very mature and very responsible,” remembers Ginés Meléndez, who oversaw the production line of young players for the Royal Spanish Football Federation for more than a decade. “Physically he was very young but mentally he knew everything and was very emotionally balanced.” Meléndez worked closely with Iniesta in Spain’s under-age teams and his  last point is fundamental: “You can’t get too emotional when winning or losing. Your emotional balance is very important when taking the step up.” 

And how can a coach help in this respect? “A coach should ensure the player’s personal growth is tied to their football development, especially as regards the development of their emotional capabilities and psychological balance,” says Meléndez. “Helping them in their personal development is so crucial at this age. The most important thing you can do is help with their personal maturing, away from external elements that can negatively influence their footballing development. You have to help them grow properly as people.” 

Support structures

On the question of personal development, Champions Journal columnist Jürgen Klinsmann believes a young prospect today has more resources to call on than ever before. Drawing on his coaching experience in both Europe and the United States, where he was national-team manager from 2011 to 2016, Klinsmann discerns a greater maturity in young players owing to the support networks in place. “These days, young players are so mature already,” he says. “They’re far better prepared to become professionals than we were 30 years ago. In my time, you were more all over the place and you had to figure things out yourself. Sometimes you did it OK, sometimes not. Nowadays, they have agents who tell them what’s right and what’s wrong off the field. They have specialist coaches, not only the head coach and assistant coaches, telling them technical things. They work on their weaknesses after training, then they learn how to recover faster – because recovery is one of the key things in the professional game. 

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Thilo Kehrer benefited from a Youth League education (above), Andrés Iniesta took his time breaking through at Barça (top right), Sudden impact: Erling Haaland (right)

“The way they enter the professional world, mentally and physically, shows you what the clubs’ academies are working on day in, day out. They prepare them to come into the senior team with confidence and the fitness to play the physical game already. And, psychologically they are so prepared – they have no fear. It’s really fascinating. Haaland doesn’t have any fear. Serge Gnabry has no fear. Leroy Sané: no fear. The same for all these youngsters breaking through.”

Back in Salzburg, Ulmer concurs. “The opportunities young players have to train now are so much better compared to our day, when we were young players. I think it’s different times now. Now, the focus is more on younger players.” Not least at his own club. “I think young players really get the chance to play games here. As they always say, it’s important for the development of young players that they get as many minutes on the pitch as possible. Here at Salzburg, they can do that at quite a high level.”

Continuity is an important factor and, at Salzburg, it helps that their feeder team, Liefering, play exactly the same way in the Austrian second tier as the seniors do in the first. Matthias Jaissle, Salzburg’s 33-year-old head coach (see page 30), had a spell in charge at Liefering last season, having previously coached Salzburg’s U19s in the UEFA Youth League in 2019/20. And the proof is in the pudding: five of the players involved against Bayern this season served under him during that Youth League campaign.

Testing ground

It is not just for Salzburg that the Youth League is proving a helpful staging post. Its group stage has an identical calendar to the Champions League, meaning that each participant club has an U19 squad travelling along with the senior party to away fixtures, the juniors playing in the afternoon ahead of the main event. In this way, young players get a taste of the different rhythms and requirements of international club football, both on and off the pitch.

Thilo Kehrer, the Paris Saint-Germain defender, is one of a sizeable number of Youth League graduates now playing Champions League football. He remains grateful for his experience of three seasons in the former competition with Schalke between 2013 and 2015. In the first of those campaigns he helped a Schalke side (also including Sané) to overcome Chelsea in the quarter-finals, before a semi-final loss to Barcelona. He made his last appearance in the competition in October 2015. By November 2016, aged 20, he was a starter for the Königsblauen in the Europa League.

“It’s a great opportunity,” says Kehrer of his grounding in the Youth League. “I remember I came up against the likes of Adama Traoré and Munir El Haddadi. At Schalke we faced Chelsea, Barcelona, Manchester City, Real Madrid… teams from top-quality European leagues.”

As for the step up he then took to the men’s game, Kehrer offers the following observation: “The most challenging part was mainly having confidence in yourself, as well as earning the coach’s and club’s trust. It’s true that [the Bundesliga] is a very physical league, but it’s also a very tactical and disciplined league. It’s not like at the academy, where you can make mistakes. Instead, you concede a goal – and conceding a goal might lead to a defeat. [And there are] huge amounts of money around clubs, along with a great deal of responsibility.”

He goes on to use the same word that Meléndez highlighted earlier: balance. For Kehrer, it was important to find “the right balance between being concentrated and focused but not losing the joy and courage to try to do things as well”.

“A coach should ensure a player’s personal growth is tied to their football development”

A conversation with Kehrer also highlights the importance of young players taking the opportunity to test themselves. In his case, he left Stuttgart to join Schalke when he was in his mid-teens. “I’m convinced that you shouldn’t stay in your comfort zone,” he says of that decision. “In order to progress and make an impact, you need to go out of your comfort zone and look for challenges.”

Spanish steps

Being challenged is fundamental – and the view of one of Spain’s leading football commentators, Álvaro Benito, is that young players are often not challenged enough in their domestic junior competitions – hence the Youth League’s value. Now working as an analyst for television network Movistar, Benito was a coach in Real Madrid’s youth ranks from 2015 until 2019 and has previously used the term “false football” to describe how Madrid’s junior sides would roll over many of their local rivals in Spain’s regional competitions. 

“In Madrid, we won almost every game easily and that’s not how you improve,” he says. “It’s not real football.” His view is that players only get fully tested on graduating to Real Madrid Castilla – the club’s B team, who play in the third tier of the senior pyramid. As a result, “the maturing comes later and the jump to the senior team is too big”. Over in England, similar observations are often made about the Premier League 2 competition for U23 sides.

This brings us back to the question of how to know when a player is ready. Sometimes it can be fate that opens a door, such as an injury or suspension, and then it is a case of sink or swim. Fran González, the former Spain and Deportivo La Coruña forward who is now in charge of the Deportivo academy, says, “It isn’t a question of when – you don’t know when till the moment comes.” And that moment differs according to the individual. “There are lads who manage it at 17, others at 19, others at 20. It depends on how they mature. It is very important to be physically well, mentally well and also to have the technical gifts to get there.” 

Fran himself has seen the impact of the Youth League close up this season. Deportivo’s first team may be battling to climb out of Spain’s third division, but their youngsters stirred memories of his own playing days – when Champions League nights were common in Galicia – by winning ties against Pogoń Szczecin and Maccabi Haifa in the domestic champions’ path. Indeed, against Pogoń they produced an homage to Deportivo’s famous comeback against AC Milan in the 2003/04 Champions League: a similar turnaround resulted in them overcoming a 3-0 first-leg loss with a 4-0 triumph at El Riazor. 

Echoing Benito’s point about the prevalence of regional football for juniors in Spain – at least until the final stages of the national championship – Fran says the Youth League has meant “playing the best squads in Europe – better, stronger, quicker teams, and better prepared in all senses. This is what the Youth League gives you: a fantastic experience, a great competition that brings a certain pressure.”

For Deportivo’s youngsters, that included the “incredible excitement” of playing in front of 20,115 home fans when they tackled Dynamo Kyiv for a place in the round of 16 on 9 February. Two of the starting XI that day had already broken into the club’s first team in Yeremay ‘Peke’ Hernández and Noel López. There is the hope more will follow; in the meantime they have already tasted something special, despite a penalty shoot-out defeat against the Ukrainian side. 

“Very few times do you get to feel that kind of emotion as a young player,” says Fran. “It comes later when you are a professional. As a 17, 18-year-old, it is a unique experience to live.” Unless, that is, your name is Haaland or Rooney. 

As the old head in the youngest squad to compete in this season’s Champions League knockout rounds, Salzburg defender Andreas Ulmer is better placed than most to assess the challenge faced by youthful prospects when stepping up to the senior realm. “I think the pace of the game, the tackles, the way you go into challenges – there is certainly a big difference,” says the 36-year-old.

A difference, maybe, but not enough to daunt talented tyros like Karim Adeyemi, 20, and Noah Okafor, 21 – the Austrian champions’ front line for their round of 16 opener against Bayern München. And just to underline the point, when Okafor left the field early with an injury, on came another 20-year-old in Chikwubuike Adamu, who duly scored his first goal in the competition.

At Salzburg they are used to feats of precocity, this being the club where Erling Haaland bounded onto the Champions League stage with a hat-trick on his competition debut at the age of 19 (against Genk three years ago). The next question for Ulmer, then, is how can he tell when a youngster is ready to take that step? “You can see it, definitely, in a player’s talent, in how he behaves in the dressing room and on the pitch, in how he moves on the pitch,” he replies. “Some young players need more time than others to develop.”

Not Haaland, whose hat-trick inside the first 45 minutes against Genk was the most remarkable group stage debut by any teenager since Wayne Rooney’s treble for Manchester United versus Fenerbahçe in 2004. Looking back on his 18-year-old self in a recent documentary, the now 36-year-old Rooney said, “I remember thinking, ‘I’m the best player in the world.’” Like Haaland, Rooney was then a fearless force of nature, a raging bull calf who rattled defenders and shattered records. 

“It isn’t a question of when – you don’t know when till the moment comes”

Yet, as Ulmer has observed, every young footballer develops at a different rate. For some it takes more time for the various pieces of the jigsaw – emotional, physical, technical, tactical – to come together. A case in point is Andrés Iniesta, four times a Champions League winner with Barcelona and scorer of Spain’s winning goal in the 2010 World Cup final. On the international stage he rose through the ranks with Fernando Torres, the duo playing at every youth level from under-15 upwards. Yet while El Niño was a regular in Atlético de Madrid’s first team from the age of 17, Iniesta – smaller and slighter – had to wait while his body caught up with his brain. He was 20 when he first reached double figures for Liga starts in a season with Barcelona.

“It was a case of having patience with his physical growth, because mentally he was ready from when he was very little – very mature and very responsible,” remembers Ginés Meléndez, who oversaw the production line of young players for the Royal Spanish Football Federation for more than a decade. “Physically he was very young but mentally he knew everything and was very emotionally balanced.” Meléndez worked closely with Iniesta in Spain’s under-age teams and his  last point is fundamental: “You can’t get too emotional when winning or losing. Your emotional balance is very important when taking the step up.” 

And how can a coach help in this respect? “A coach should ensure the player’s personal growth is tied to their football development, especially as regards the development of their emotional capabilities and psychological balance,” says Meléndez. “Helping them in their personal development is so crucial at this age. The most important thing you can do is help with their personal maturing, away from external elements that can negatively influence their footballing development. You have to help them grow properly as people.” 

Support structures

On the question of personal development, Champions Journal columnist Jürgen Klinsmann believes a young prospect today has more resources to call on than ever before. Drawing on his coaching experience in both Europe and the United States, where he was national-team manager from 2011 to 2016, Klinsmann discerns a greater maturity in young players owing to the support networks in place. “These days, young players are so mature already,” he says. “They’re far better prepared to become professionals than we were 30 years ago. In my time, you were more all over the place and you had to figure things out yourself. Sometimes you did it OK, sometimes not. Nowadays, they have agents who tell them what’s right and what’s wrong off the field. They have specialist coaches, not only the head coach and assistant coaches, telling them technical things. They work on their weaknesses after training, then they learn how to recover faster – because recovery is one of the key things in the professional game. 

Thilo Kehrer benefited from a Youth League education (above), Andrés Iniesta took his time breaking through at Barça (top right), Sudden impact: Erling Haaland (right)

“The way they enter the professional world, mentally and physically, shows you what the clubs’ academies are working on day in, day out. They prepare them to come into the senior team with confidence and the fitness to play the physical game already. And, psychologically they are so prepared – they have no fear. It’s really fascinating. Haaland doesn’t have any fear. Serge Gnabry has no fear. Leroy Sané: no fear. The same for all these youngsters breaking through.”

Back in Salzburg, Ulmer concurs. “The opportunities young players have to train now are so much better compared to our day, when we were young players. I think it’s different times now. Now, the focus is more on younger players.” Not least at his own club. “I think young players really get the chance to play games here. As they always say, it’s important for the development of young players that they get as many minutes on the pitch as possible. Here at Salzburg, they can do that at quite a high level.”

Continuity is an important factor and, at Salzburg, it helps that their feeder team, Liefering, play exactly the same way in the Austrian second tier as the seniors do in the first. Matthias Jaissle, Salzburg’s 33-year-old head coach (see page 30), had a spell in charge at Liefering last season, having previously coached Salzburg’s U19s in the UEFA Youth League in 2019/20. And the proof is in the pudding: five of the players involved against Bayern this season served under him during that Youth League campaign.

Testing ground

It is not just for Salzburg that the Youth League is proving a helpful staging post. Its group stage has an identical calendar to the Champions League, meaning that each participant club has an U19 squad travelling along with the senior party to away fixtures, the juniors playing in the afternoon ahead of the main event. In this way, young players get a taste of the different rhythms and requirements of international club football, both on and off the pitch.

Thilo Kehrer, the Paris Saint-Germain defender, is one of a sizeable number of Youth League graduates now playing Champions League football. He remains grateful for his experience of three seasons in the former competition with Schalke between 2013 and 2015. In the first of those campaigns he helped a Schalke side (also including Sané) to overcome Chelsea in the quarter-finals, before a semi-final loss to Barcelona. He made his last appearance in the competition in October 2015. By November 2016, aged 20, he was a starter for the Königsblauen in the Europa League.

“It’s a great opportunity,” says Kehrer of his grounding in the Youth League. “I remember I came up against the likes of Adama Traoré and Munir El Haddadi. At Schalke we faced Chelsea, Barcelona, Manchester City, Real Madrid… teams from top-quality European leagues.”

As for the step up he then took to the men’s game, Kehrer offers the following observation: “The most challenging part was mainly having confidence in yourself, as well as earning the coach’s and club’s trust. It’s true that [the Bundesliga] is a very physical league, but it’s also a very tactical and disciplined league. It’s not like at the academy, where you can make mistakes. Instead, you concede a goal – and conceding a goal might lead to a defeat. [And there are] huge amounts of money around clubs, along with a great deal of responsibility.”

He goes on to use the same word that Meléndez highlighted earlier: balance. For Kehrer, it was important to find “the right balance between being concentrated and focused but not losing the joy and courage to try to do things as well”.

“A coach should ensure a player’s personal growth is tied to their football development”

A conversation with Kehrer also highlights the importance of young players taking the opportunity to test themselves. In his case, he left Stuttgart to join Schalke when he was in his mid-teens. “I’m convinced that you shouldn’t stay in your comfort zone,” he says of that decision. “In order to progress and make an impact, you need to go out of your comfort zone and look for challenges.”

Spanish steps

Being challenged is fundamental – and the view of one of Spain’s leading football commentators, Álvaro Benito, is that young players are often not challenged enough in their domestic junior competitions – hence the Youth League’s value. Now working as an analyst for television network Movistar, Benito was a coach in Real Madrid’s youth ranks from 2015 until 2019 and has previously used the term “false football” to describe how Madrid’s junior sides would roll over many of their local rivals in Spain’s regional competitions. 

“In Madrid, we won almost every game easily and that’s not how you improve,” he says. “It’s not real football.” His view is that players only get fully tested on graduating to Real Madrid Castilla – the club’s B team, who play in the third tier of the senior pyramid. As a result, “the maturing comes later and the jump to the senior team is too big”. Over in England, similar observations are often made about the Premier League 2 competition for U23 sides.

This brings us back to the question of how to know when a player is ready. Sometimes it can be fate that opens a door, such as an injury or suspension, and then it is a case of sink or swim. Fran González, the former Spain and Deportivo La Coruña forward who is now in charge of the Deportivo academy, says, “It isn’t a question of when – you don’t know when till the moment comes.” And that moment differs according to the individual. “There are lads who manage it at 17, others at 19, others at 20. It depends on how they mature. It is very important to be physically well, mentally well and also to have the technical gifts to get there.” 

Fran himself has seen the impact of the Youth League close up this season. Deportivo’s first team may be battling to climb out of Spain’s third division, but their youngsters stirred memories of his own playing days – when Champions League nights were common in Galicia – by winning ties against Pogoń Szczecin and Maccabi Haifa in the domestic champions’ path. Indeed, against Pogoń they produced an homage to Deportivo’s famous comeback against AC Milan in the 2003/04 Champions League: a similar turnaround resulted in them overcoming a 3-0 first-leg loss with a 4-0 triumph at El Riazor. 

Echoing Benito’s point about the prevalence of regional football for juniors in Spain – at least until the final stages of the national championship – Fran says the Youth League has meant “playing the best squads in Europe – better, stronger, quicker teams, and better prepared in all senses. This is what the Youth League gives you: a fantastic experience, a great competition that brings a certain pressure.”

For Deportivo’s youngsters, that included the “incredible excitement” of playing in front of 20,115 home fans when they tackled Dynamo Kyiv for a place in the round of 16 on 9 February. Two of the starting XI that day had already broken into the club’s first team in Yeremay ‘Peke’ Hernández and Noel López. There is the hope more will follow; in the meantime they have already tasted something special, despite a penalty shoot-out defeat against the Ukrainian side. 

“Very few times do you get to feel that kind of emotion as a young player,” says Fran. “It comes later when you are a professional. As a 17, 18-year-old, it is a unique experience to live.” Unless, that is, your name is Haaland or Rooney. 

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