Give star­lets a go

Young guns de­serve break

Late Tackle Football Magazine - - CONTENTS -

STRANGE things fre­quently hap­pen on the last day of the sea­son. Fans ap­pear in fancy dress, teams cel­e­brat­ing ap­pear hun­gover, there is of­ten some­one or some­thing to say good­bye to.

Manchester United’s 2-0 win over Crys­tal Palace at the end of May was cer­tainly un­usual.

The Red Devils’ XI that day was by some dis­tance the youngest side of any club to ap­pear in the whole Premier League sea­son.

Jose Mour­inho seemed to have a smirk in the dugout as he car­ried through on his threat to field a youth team due to his anger at the league’s in­abil­ity to resched­ule the game to al­low for more time ahead of his side’s Europa League fi­nal.

The line-up was the only side picked by a Premier League man­ager in any match last sea­son to have an av­er­age age un­der 25.

Over in Ger­many, things were a bit dif­fer­ent. RB Leipzig were cel­e­brat­ing fin­ish­ing sec­ond in their de­but Bun­desliga sea­son.

Their side on the fi­nal day away at Frank­furt was also their youngest all cam­paign, but no­body re­ally no­ticed – the av­er­age age of their squad is un­der 23, after all, and nine times last sea­son they picked a side av­er­ag­ing un­der 24.

It wasn’t just them – while it only hap­pened once in Eng­land’s top flight, well over 50 line-ups were picked through­out the 16/17 Bun­desliga sea­son with an age av­er­ag­ing un­der 25.

We could re­signedly point to Ger­many’s suc­cess in the Con­fed­er­a­tions Cup and Euro­pean Un­der-21s this sum­mer and say their young­sters are just bet­ter than ours, so no won­der they get picked.

Yet Eng­land’s vic­tory in the Un­der-20 World Cup and achieve­ment in reach­ing the fi­nal of the Euro­pean Un­der-17 Cham­pi­onship show there is lit­tle be­tween the two na­tions’ youth set-ups in terms of qual­ity – though Ger­man sides seem bet­ter for now in the later age groups when first­team ex­pe­ri­ence should be tak­ing young­sters to the next level. Mour­inho, with his de­mand­ing na­ture, is not known as a man­ager in­ter­ested in de­vel­op­ing young tal­ents – al­though he has done a very de­cent job of nur­tur­ing Mar­cus Rash­ford. After the first three matches of this sea­son, six of the eight youngest line-ups had been se­lected by the Premier League’s two Ger­man man­agers, Jur­gen Klopp (Liver­pool) and David Wag­ner (Hud­der­s­field). Let’s not use that fact as an ex­cuse to feel all in­fe­rior again – some Premier League man­agers have in the past been bril­liant in youth de­vel­op­ment. Alex Fer­gu­son saw sev­eral gen­er­a­tions through to promi­nence at Man Utd, most fa­mously Giggs, Beck­ham, Sc­holes and the Nevilles in their Class of 92. At this point in time there is lit­tle prospect of most of our tal­ented young­sters mak­ing it in the Premier League, though.

While the Ger­mans have a con­veyor belt of tal­ent, we have a hor­ren­dous ob­sta­cle course.

All the star man­agers were asked why this is so over the sum­mer, and they all said it wasn’t their own fault. The most no­table thing about the young play­ers on Chelsea’s books is how many there are – count­ing them all (most of which are loaned out) is an ef­fec­tive al­ter­na­tive to count­ing sheep if you strug­gle to sleep.

They’re pretty good, too – or Chelsea wouldn’t have won the youth ver­sion of the Cham­pi­ons League, the UEFA Youth League, in both 2015 and 2016.

An­to­nio Conte said he wants to pick young­sters when they are “ready and strong enough to play reg­u­larly” but stressed he can’t in­vent these cir­cum­stances.

He then went on to de­flect at­ten­tion onto Manchester City, ask­ing if they are reg­u­larly se­lect­ing academy play­ers.

The an­swer to that is no, of course, de­spite City’s own­ers pour­ing a small oil­field’s worth of money into the club’s academy – with £200m spent on the fa­cil­i­ties alone in 2014.

Man City man­ager Pep Guardi­ola said re­cently that the gap be­tween the first team and Un­der-21s is too large for young play­ers to breach. This turns the blame on the English

sys­tem that does not al­low top clubs’ re­serves to com­pete in lower leagues like in Spain.

Ar­se­nal boss Arsene Wenger, who has a proud record in nur­tur­ing young tal­ents, was hon­est in say­ing he has to battle the re­al­i­sa­tion that se­lect­ing a young cen­tral de­fender will cost his side points.Wenger is per­haps the only man­ager who can af­ford to be bru­tally hon­est, as he has no rea­son to fear for his job.

The com­pe­ti­tion at ei­ther end of the Premier League is so fierce that most man­agers are only a cou­ple of poor judg­ments from an in­ex­pe­ri­enced young­ster away from be­ing the next boss to be shown the door.

In an age when a de­fender slips de­fend­ing a cor­ner and trends on Twit­ter for it, you can un­der­stand the safety-first ap­proach from man­agers who favour ex­pe­ri­ence.

While Ger­many might be do­ing bet­ter at giv­ing young­sters a chance, that is not to say that ev­ery board there is packed with pa­tient an­gels and fans never get an­gry.

Like any ma­jor league, the Bun­desliga has its gi­ants ex­pected to win ev­ery game like Bay­ern and Dort­mund and big clubs bogged down by the weight of their his­tory like Schalke.

A ma­jor dif­fer­ence is the com­par­a­tive lack of money. The Bun­desliga’s TV deals might amount to scraps on the ta­ble com­pared to the Premier League, but its clubs get by fine enough – with­out rel­e­ga­tion be­ing quite the same peril due to less of a gap be­tween the top flight and the rest. Strict rules of fan own­er­ship mean there are no im­pa­tient club own­ers in Ger­many des­per­ate for a re­turn on their in­vest­ment. The riches of the Premier League, Real, Barca and PSG have also helped Bun­desliga clubs to make se­ri­ous money just by fo­cus­ing so much on youth. Dort­mund sign­ing Ous­mane Dem­bele as a raw tal­ent for € 15m and sell­ing him to Barcelona a year later for € 145m is the kind of busi­ness that would make pro­mot­ers of pre-sea­son Premier League tours to Asia blush. There are those who have led by ex­am­ple too. Alex Fer­gu­son’s youth­ful 90s United sides seem from an­other life­time these days – a time when Noel Gal­lagher was an en­er­getic young­ster rather than a moany old man. Much fresher foot­ball mem­o­ries are the ti­tles won by a youth­ful Dort­mund side in 2011 and 2012. Iron­i­cally, these came just a few years after heavy trans­fer spend­ing on big names left Dort­mund on the brink of ruin and the club felt forced to turn to cheaper young­sters.

Ralf Rang­nick has sim­i­larly proved that hunger and youth can lead to great things at smaller clubs like Hof­fen­heim and Leipzig – firstly as a manger and now as a sport­ing direc­tor.

Rang­nick has be­come a ge­nius in the trans­fer mar­ket with his pol­icy of never sign­ing a player over the age of 24.

While there is no rea­son Ger­man young­sters should be bet­ter than English ones, the in­vest­ments into a mod­ern academy sys­tem were made ear­lier in Ger­many.

Fa­mously, after both Eng­land and Ger­many were hu­mil­i­ated in the same group of Euro 2000, the FA thought pay­ing Sven-Go­ran Eriks­son £4.5m a year would solve all the na­tional team’s prob­lems, while their Ger­man equiv­a­lents qui­etly over­hauled youth foot­ball.

All clubs were com­pelled to build acad­e­mies with strong net­works in their lo­cal re­gions. Ger­many is now reaping the ben­e­fit of a gen­er­a­tion of tal­ents fully schooled in that sys­tem.

A bit of pa­tience might be needed on these shores as many of our brand-spank­ing new acad­e­mies like Man City’s or the FA’s St. Ge­orge’s Park are just a few years old.

Maybe the work that Klopp is do­ing at Liver­pool – or Mauri­cio Po­chet­tino at Spurs - will en­cour­age other coaches to place some faith in youth.

It’s a smart way of get­ting a pos­i­tive at­mos­phere at a club. All fans like to see a lo­cal lad they iden­tify with make it big, other young­sters around the club get en­er­gised by see­ing that there is a way into the first team, and se­nior first­team play­ers get a gen­tle re­minder they can never take their place for granted.

Cul­tur­ally, a few things could change to help us bet­ter ap­pre­ci­ate young play­ers in Eng­land, though.

Man­agers in Ger­many in re­cent years have of­ten beamed with pride at stats show­ing how young their side is.

While young­sters break­ing through is warmly re­ceived over here too, there might be some ways to keep youth de­vel­op­ment more in the pub­lic eye.

The PFA Young Player of the Year award has long been an in­spi­ra­tion for tal­ents, but why is there no young player cat­e­gory in the Premier League’s player of the month or goal of the month hon­ours?

Of­fer­ing clubs an ex­tra £2m to fin­ish 13th in­stead of 14th may add a lit­tle mo­ti­va­tion to end-of-sea­son en­coun­ters, but couldn’t some of the TV money be set aside as a re­ward for clubs who have se­lected the most young­sters? That could go some way of solv­ing the dilemma Wenger raised of young­sters cost­ing points.

In the mean­time, more man­agers be­ing brave and back­ing their young play­ers with play­ing time would be won­der­ful to see.

It might have been a mean­ing­less game al­right, but Man Utd’s win against Palace on the fi­nal day was ac­tu­ally one of their most en­ter­tain­ing per­for­mances last sea­son.

Ace: RB Leipzig’s Naby Keita

One to watch: Manchester United’s An­gel Gomes, 16, comes on as a sub to re­place Wayne Rooney against Palace

Big money move: Ous­mane Dem­bele

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