It’s an age old issue and one that always comes front and centre when the national team inevitably underperforms at a major international tournament, but the subject of youth development in the Premier League is an important topic of debate, and taking a look around the top flight, which clubs are the best at integrating younger players into their first-team set-up and is there any one right way to plot success?
Manchester United currently hold a 15-point lead at the top of the Premier League over rivals Manchester City, and while the side may need tinkering with in certain areas with a number of key players quickly approaching the twilight of their respective careers, the overall balance of the squad seems on the money.
However, all of the fawning talk of ‘Ferguson’s Fledglings’ in clear reference to ‘Busby’s Babes’ is clearly a load of nonsense. Of course, having 22-year-old Longsight born and bred Danny Welbeck and 23-year-old academy product Tom Cleverley ensures that they retain an element of identity and link between the pitch and the local community, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves about the broader picture. David De Gea (22) arrived from Atletico Madrid for £18.9m, Phil Jones (21) was signed from Blackburn for £17m and Chris Smalling (23) moved from Fulham for £10m. As far as transfer policies go, planning for the future like that is a sound one, but it also comes at a cost that most teams in the division can’t match or even get close to.
Where they have struck a balance well, though, as much as the good age range between experienced and seasoned pros, those players approaching their peak and a youthful core of up-and-coming hungry players striving to become first-team regulars is their use of the loan market. Welbeck benefited hugely from his time at Sunderland, while Cleverley thrived at Watford and Wigan and it’s a route that not enough clubs have used successfully in the past few years, which is puzzling because it seems such an obvious and simple way to get players much-needed battle-hardened experience.
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Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers has been forced to rely on an entire swathe of younger prospects this season, but as he’s spent more money, slowly but surely the opportunities have dried up for the likes of Suso, Raheem Sterling, Jonjo Shelvey and Andre Wisdom. Kenny Dalglish initially granted youngsters a chance to impress when he first took over from Roy Hodgson, only to then go out and spend £56m the following summer on the likes of Jordan Henderson, Stewart Downing and Jose Enrique, blocking any path they may have found to the first-team. It will be interesting to see if history repeats itself again this year under new management given the club’s record since Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher broke through has been nothing short of dreadful.
Manchester City clearly sense that bringing through a steady stream of academy products is essential to their long-term plan with the building of a new training centre and emphasis on youth-team football. It’s no coincidence that former Barcelona duo Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain are heading that project up, given La Masia’s outstanding success not only in terms of quantity but wonderful world-class quality in the past decade. With Financial Fair Play coming into effect, which aims to reduce the influence of money in the game while simultaneously ensuring the status quo of the current elite is maintained, and the next decade will as much be about the success of youth development as anything else for those seeking to bridge the gap, with their ambitions curbed by Uefa.
Chelsea have followed a similar path to Real Madrid in forsaking instant success and short-term gains over the longer benefits of having a successful system from top to bottom. This has seen Scott Sinclair, Daniel Sturridge, Miroslav Stoch, Fabio Borini, Nemanja Matic, Gokhan Tore and Michael Mancienne find success elsewhere after struggling to break through past the more established household names. The pressure for success at Stamford Bridge is all-consuming to whoever comes through the door and takes charge and that doesn’t look like changing in the near future with only really Ryan Bertrand filtering through in recent years. It’s an embarrassingly poor record considering the talent they’ve had at their disposal and a massive waste of resources.
Arsenal, as you might expect given Arsene Wenger’s principles and ideas about the game, nailed their colours to the mast long ago and they’ve had some huge successes in the last decade, with Cesc Fabregas (poached from Barcelona at 16), Jack Wilshere and Alex Song all serving as great examples. They’re not afraid to move for younger players on big money in a similar way to United either, though, as the Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Aaron Ramsey signings indicate, totalling approximately £26m. Where they have fallen short where United have succeeded, mind, is keeping hold of those younger players once they’ve developed into fully fledged stars, being forced to sell Robin van Persie, Fabregas and Samir Nasri due to a lack of silverware. Glory funnily enough always fosters loyalty.
Tottenham have been punching above their weight in the youth stakes for quite some time now, with Michael Dawson, Tom Huddlestone and Aaron Lennon all purchased on the cheap, with Kyle Walker, Kyle Naughton and Gareth Bale all costing just that little bit more. They’ve really tried to maintain an English core to their squad and a lot is expected of both Steven Caulker and Tom Carroll in the future, even if Jake Livermore and Andros Townsend seem as if their futures may be elsewhere in the summer. By buying British, they’re ensuring an identity is preserved, even if their own academy record hasn’t been all that good of late, but they’re another club to invest heavily off the pitch in rectifying that the past year.
It just goes to show that when it comes to handling youth, so many things can go wrong at that age and players develop at different speeds meaning it’s impossible to say with any real conviction that one model is better than the other. It’s all about striking that balance between drip-feeding local players, buying the best from around England early and the odd big splash for a star in the making.
In that respect, Ferguson has done an impressive job at United, bolstered by the club’s success which has made the task even easier in the future. It’s a unique environment and situation in which he holds all the power and can do as he please and few clubs get the opportunity to replicate that.
The constant turnover of managers create constant pressure on those in charge to create results. At the moment, investing in youth is essential, but without opportunity, few see the rewards it can bring.
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