Reserve Teams? F.A. Never Learns
England, a perennial underachiever in the international stage, had long hailed its league system as the best. But even the English clubs have failed to make any impact in the continental front in recent years. Apoorv Upadhye looks at the issue of nurturing young talents in England and how to revolutionize the system here at GOALden Times
The Kid Arrives
10th March 2007, that boy from Rosario scored a wonderful hat-trick in probably the biggest match of the year, El Clásico. People wondered how a 19-year-old boy could get into a Barcelona team boasting a bunch of superstars. Today we might wonder what would have happened if that boy from Rosario wasn’t given a chance so early in his life but it wasn’t happenstance.
Are you a Foreigner?
Question arises, why we haven’t seen such magisterial players coming through in the English Premier League. Arguably most of the greatest players of all time in the English Premier League have been bought from the other foreign leagues.In the recent past players like Dennis Bergkamp became a superstar coming in from Inter Milan, Didier Drogba was bought from Marseille, Fernando Torres came in from Atletico Madrid, Thierry Henry from Juventus and Claudio Makelele from Real Madrid. Then we have someone like Ben Arfa – not in the same league as those mentioned above, but still, as soon as he came into EPL, he was tagged as one of the best dribblers in the league, although eventually he could not fulfil his potential. The point is how easily these foreign players – some world class, some very good, some not worth a place in the first team – can walk into the Premier League sides. Why don’t we come across a Sunday League player being given a chance to become a potential superstar?
Catch them Young
This is the huge difference that prevails between England and other countries with better planned league system.Lionel Messi – the boy from Rosario – emerged from La Masia. Rather than being part of the reserve team, he played for Barcelona C. He netted five goals in 10 appearances as a 16-year-old boy.Soon he was promoted to Barcelona B playing in Liga Adelante. Not only did he perform exceptionally well, he was getting the much needed match practice to toughen him up. Eventually he got promoted to FC Barcelona first team at the mere age of 16.As of now, he is considered as the greatest player of our generation.
Lionel Messi – the boy from Rosario – emerged from La Masia. Rather than being part of the reserve team, he played for Barcelona C
The question is not how Messi,a once in a lifetime talent, developed himself, but what is the system used by FC Barcelona to foster such talents and give them the needed experience. So, when we look at the structure of England and Spain – having quite contrasting success level at the international stage in this millennium – we observe a lot of dissimilarities that explains the way both teams have fared in World Cups and Euros in recent past.
Fulham FC, Barcelona and Real Madrid – a case study
Fulham FC were relegated from the Barclays Premier League after the 2013-2014 season and finished at a lowly 17th position in the Championship this season. On the other hand, their youth team ranks amongst top five in the last three years in the U21 English League. But even with so much success, those players were not given a chance to play in the senior team. If these U21 players got a chance to play in the Championship, they would have definitely developed much better and would have been readier to take a giant leap ahead towards the competitiveness of senior level football.
Spain’s major clubs have their own ‘B’ team playing in lower tiers. This way the reserve players in the club get the opportunity to shine and get exposed to competitive football.And the results are not that bad! Barcelona B, currently playing in Liga Adelante, generally finishes in the top half of the table although this season they are languishing in the relegation spots.Eventually, the good ones are selected to appear for FC Barcelona first team – albeit gradually, starting with domestic cup matches. This process not only helps the youngsters to integrate well into the main team, but also keep the first team regulars on their toes due to increased competition for first team places. Real Madrid also have their own ‘B’ team and have been churning out young world class talents for quite some time now.
In the last decade the average age of a player making his debut in the Premier League has risen from 19 to 22. It is well known in football circles how reserve team football has become unconditionally non-competitive. With the Premier League starting the U21 competition, it was hoped that this would see clubs retaining their best talents in their formative years but that hasn’t really happened. Players emerging from the reserve teams are unable to meet the desired standards of the first team. Clubs are finding it easy to replenish the stock of quality footballer by buying a ready-made product rather than going through the hassles of nurturing a talent through the rigors of a lower league where the success rate is bound to be very low. However the benefit of B teams,sometimes known as the feeder teams, playing in competitive leagues are many.Most importantly, it would give young players at clubs the chance to play competitive football week in and week out, using the same style and strategy adopted by the first team. In turn, this will definitely help them get integrated better in the first team when they get a call.
Numbers don’t lie
If we look at the mecca of talents, FC Barcelona, the number of first team players in 2013-14 who came through after playing in the B team was 68%. A look at the number of players playing in the league who come through the youth system of the clubs in the respective countries, the contrast couldn’t be starker.La Liga has over twice (77%) as many home-grown players compared to England’s 32% – a figure the FA is aware of and which continues to decrease season after season.
Of course, B-teams are not the only answer to the problems young British footballers face in getting first team football, nor it is the single solution to fix the national team.Generally, many young talented players in Reserve teams are not from England.But for the few that do get to play, it is disappointing how few of the England U21’s are regular starters at their clubs compared to most other countries, especially those nations whose systems allow B-teams to play in lower leagues. Playing regular first team football can only quicken their progress, and in turn help the national teams, but alas!
In the 2009 Under-21 European Championship final Germany trounced England by 4-0. The only player from England’s 23-man-squad in 2014 World Cup to have played in that 2009 final was James Milner. On the contrary, eight German players from that final were part of the 2014 World Cup winning squad.The likes of Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley had not played in a major tournament at under-21 level, with the latter three playing less than 10 games at that age group.
The Pros and Cons
The biggest advantage of having the B team in the Championship, rather than sending players out on loans is that players will adapt to the style of the main team. But in England, this cannot be taken for granted as the B teams, often, do not play with the same style as that of the main team.The problem is with the mentality. In Spain, B teams are the last step in nurturing a talent before deploying him in the first team. In England, B team is only a reserve team for players who cannot get into the main team.
Andre Villas-Boas has been critical of the poor reserve system in English football. He, when at Chelsea, believed that a new system should at least be tested throughout the English leagues. There is still a lack of competitiveness. Very few fans turn out to watch these games and they are considered more of friendlies than league matches.Chelsea ex-reserve team coach Dermot Drummy, Manchester United executive vice-chairman Edward Woodward, David Moyes, Andre Villas-Boas have all voiced their opinions supporting the B team system, but it is up to the Football Association to implement the suggestion.
Playing youth in a team involves an amount of risk. It may cost the team a title but in the long run will present the nation more full-fledged long serving international players. Teams in Spain or especially in Germany emphasizes on their home grown or national players. Most premier league club are owned by rich (foreign) business men who perceive their club to be a profit-seeking endeavor. They want to see their team dominate the league, and in some cases, even Europe. Owners of Manchester City or Chelsea have historically splashed out cash and they have had one point agenda – just WIN.
The (False) Dawn
But things are changing. Due to UEFA Financial Fair Play rules, clubs can not spend whimsically without balancing their books. Under pressure, Manchester City hired former Barcelona technical director Txiki Begiristain to oversee a complete makeover of their club image with the aim of making it as famous as Barcelona. Chelsea, too, are using their good scouting network to great effect to buy young player with potential from all over world at a reasonable price.But the problem is that these fringe players are often sent out on loan where they learn to play in a completely different environment and style. The parent club cannot dictate the tactics the club being loaned to must use. No doubt, it gives the players more game time but more often than not they return as a misfit to the parent club. Trying to develop young players through loans does not always work. When they come back, if they have performed well, clubs do not think twice before encashing on their good showing. Chelsea sold Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne for combined profit of €27 million. Teams in Spain too sell their best player and buy some cheap alternatives or youth as replacements. German teams cannot afford too much of wages. They value their youth academy and player also put release clause in their contract.
If the perfect fit and team is found for a player, they can get significant amount of playing time at a decent level, but finding that fit is not nearly as easy as it might seem, and history is filled with instances of seemingly capable players getting loaned and then barely ever playing. While England’s clubs maintain “reserves” teams, the quality of play is too hit-or-miss and the matches far too sporadic to use as a proper development tool.
Needless to say, this loan system is not very productive. It benefits only the two clubs involved in the loan of a young player, not the player himself (or the country). The parent club wants to keep their fringe player engaged so that he does not crib about warming the bench, as well as reduce their wage bills. The lower league club is not interested in developing the player long term and only want the player to fill the immediate need. However, if the club is given some incentive to develop the player that might augur well for all the involved parties. That can be some bonus payment if the player appears for a certain number of times in the first team next season, or providing them with some share of future sale price, or even selling the player outright with an exclusive right to buy the player back at a price that would be related to the performance.
Hitches – to be fixed
The FA has recognized the shortage of home grown talent recently and has been trying to refurbish the youth and reserve leagues. In 1999 they introduced the Premier Reserve League. But the league failed to provide the players with a competitive format. It was a million miles off the Premier League. After all, the system to be implemented is not as simple as it looks. England is a country with more than 150 teams already playing League football, Sunday League, and many more. How to involve them to have a youth league, which teams should be invited to play and which teams should be mandated to play, how the different tier systems will work – there are quite a few complications.It will definitely add more burden – financially and logistically – especially for lower league clubs and they are not likely to give it their nods, but it is the duty of FA to iron out these problems.
The only way FA can introduce the B teams is by inducting them at the lowest league level as a new team rather than giving them the privilege of starting automatically in a higher league. FA can also create a flexible system between the main team and the B team for mutual player exchange – this will become more prominent as the B teams get promotion and starts playing at a much higher level. In Spain, players such as Munir El Haddadi, Sergi Samper and Sandro find themselves shuttling between Barcelona B and FC Barcelona. This helps the main team deal with their injury crisis or suspension issues better. Young players are provided with an opportunity to play in the first team and get better groomed. On the other hand, there is also provision to send back youth players to the B team if the B team’s performance starts dipping alarmingly due to his absence.
With every change brought in the system, there are pros and cons. People are terrified that getting B teams of big clubs to play in lower leagues will somehow wipe away smaller English clubs.And that makes a degree of sense; having big clubs buy out smaller clubs or forcing B teams in to existing league setups without structural amendments would have a detrimental effect. This proposal, however, one that puts the B teams alongside the current leagues without truly disrupting them, should achieve a happy medium that eventually satisfies everyone.
Irrespective of the cons, for the Premier League and Championship squads having B teams, the prosare obvious. Significant competitive minutes for young players and under-utilized fringe first teamers would be a major plus.Besides, keeping academy graduates who are not yet good enough for the first team in a club-controlled training environment for as long as possible can only be a good thing when the time comes to integrate them into the first team.
Belgium might be the best example any aspiring nation – and England –can learn from.Belgium once used to languish very low in the FIFA ranking and did not have any presence in World Cup or Euro main rounds for a couple of decades. Slowly they introduced a flexible system to support the player’s growth and transform them into better players.One must remember that passion is what drives the game and the motto should be to spread the game as wide as one can. English players lack in technique, no doubt, but the clubs too fail to instil any desire or true commitment within them. Some other countries have preferred to create a cut throat top league and have attained moderate success.However this system has a major problem, as it narrows down the talent at one big place at the cost of smaller clubs, which are the backbone of any strong footballing country.
So, as tempting as it might sound for its ease of implementation, this idea of having a league with less number of clubs surely cannot work. Within that framework B teams do not seem to have a place. In Spain and Germany most of the big clubs’ B teams play competitively most of the time.But every now and then– late in season against those chasing promotion or fighting relegation–they understandably cannot match the determination of their rivals. This seems unavoidable and must be tolerated and accepted. After all, B teams’ main functionality is to groom players, not to be judged based on their silver wares.
In the end, it is a complex proposal to get through, but it at least appears to be an effective one. With more roster spots for players, more money for the leagues, clubs, and FA to be had, and more development opportunities for home-grown players, everyone involved wins. The fans of smaller clubs would be more difficult to convince of the advantages this system, but given time they could come around. The change could do a lot to take England towards the top of the pile, both at the club and international levels.