Give starlets a go
Young guns deserve break
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