It was a bright start: following a shock 1-0 win at the start of the season at home to RB Leipzig, in which several Mainzer Covid cases caused Bo Svensson to make several emergency changes, young players like Niklas Tauer and Paul Nebel received praise for their top performances. By the end of the season, though, it has unfortunately been the case that these young players have not kept their place in the 1. FSV Mainz 05 team as may have been wanted.
“We can’t be satisfied with their development, let’s make that clear,” said head coach Svensson on the youngsters’ playing time. Having stepped up to the first team from the academy, Tauer played 484 minutes in 11 appearances this season, whereas Nebel managed 221 minutes in 10 games. Merveille Papela also played five times for a total of 79 minutes. Austrian youngster David Nemeth, who did not graduate from the Zerofivers’ youth setup, instead joining from Sturm Graz, made six appearances for 310 minutes of game time. “They all hoped to have played more this season and are disappointed,” said Svensson. “We really try to develop players here, to bring about the next Burkardts and Barreiros. This year, unfortunately, it hasn’t quite gone as well as it could have in that respect – that shows just how big the step up is from youth player to professional football and the Bundesliga,” the former defender added.
“You also have to notice that the younger lads, Paul Nebel for example, are fighting for places with real top-class players. Paul is up against a South Korean international in Jae-sung Lee, who has already won 60 caps and is travelling to the World Cup. Papela’s counterpart is Dominik Kohr, who has played over 220 games in the Bundesliga. We could go on; the point it, it’s not easy, as a coach, because you have to keep everyone in your mind, and you have to do a lot to bring the lads in, so that they become proper Bundesliga players. We’ll analyse that once again and already have the next lads like Eniss Shabani and Ben Bobzien to bring through. Then there will be the next group who will make their starts soon. The message is the same to them all: ‘It’s still a big step’.”
Taking on the challenge of competition
Martin Schmidt, who worked as head coach of both the U23 and first team at Mainz before taking up his current role as sporting director, knows how long and hard the journey from academy player to first-teamer can be from experience: “For the lads, the mental side of things is the next step, if they want to keep working with the pros,” he explained. “They will have always been the best in their year group, in the U16s, U17s and so on. They’ve been praised and selected for their youth national teams along the way – players like this exist at every club. When you have the chance to get into the first team, you have an opportunity not just to make up the numbers, but to be a real part of the squad. That suddenly means that your counterparts aren’t the same ages as you – your competition for a position is now someone like Moussa Niakhaté, who you have to earn your way past, or you have to work your way past Jeremiah St. Juste. A player like David Nemeth now has to defend against Karim Onisiwo, a striker who every central defender in Germany says is the ‘most difficult player you can ever play against,’ with his toughness and the way he goes into challenges. Suddenly, that becomes your competition for places.”
Your competition for a position suddenly becomes like Moussa Niakhaté, who you have to earn your way past.
Now and again, some younger players fail to understand not playing, or sitting on the bench and not being substituted. “Suddenly it becomes hard to get on the radar, and keep fighting for places with established Bundesliga players. They all have a lot in terms of footballing quality, but the next step is always psychological,” Schmidt explained. When a player manages to take up the fight mentally, shows their power in a difficult season and knows that they have to overcome their competition rather than just waiting for them hoping that the coach will come to them and say ‘I’m going to give you a game some day.’ – No, you have to get past your opponents yourself. That’s the only way it can be, and the lads are in that process now. It might mean you don’t get straight into the squad – perhaps you might have to go around the houses and then come back another time,” said Schmidt, naming Robin Zentner as an example. Our current number one has done just that, going on loan to Holstein Kiel for two years, before returning to Bruchweg and earning his current position.
Burkardt and Barreiro set examples
“Those processes of mental improvement are ones these lads have to go through to make them tougher. It will be decisive as to whether they can be a Bundesliga player or not, at the end of the day,” said the Swiss sporting director. “Jonny Burkardt had one or two tough years, but didn’t let it get him down, worked hard on himself and is now right where he belongs. The same goes for Leo Barreiro.” Schmidt is sure that the current crop of youngsters will complete their journey; one might be quicker, and one might need a year or two longer, but they all will. To fight against the established players and get on the radar are things which belong to all young players.
Jonny Burkardt had one or two tough years, but didn’t let it get him down, worked hard on himself and is now right where he belongs.
The head coach turns his attention once more to David Nemeth. The defender has not had the best of seasons. “As a result, we have to discuss what the best road for him is and what the next steps are. Things haven’t happen how he hoped they would, but, again: the step up from the Austrian Bundesliga to the German one is also big. We have to make considerations about all of our young Bundesliga players – what works best for them? Will it be best with us, or another way,” said Svensson.