By: Joe Donnohue (@JoeDonnohue)
The summer transfer window; extortionate fees, long-running sagas, the endless speculation and big clubs’ abuse of the loan system. Would it not be great if there was a solution that clubs could turn to, in order to avoid the incessant rumours and ransom-like prices?
Youth. It has been shown to work, that a crop of young players assembled at a small cost or produced through a club’s academy, can achieve success.
20 years ago, Manchester United’s ‘Class of 92’ had cemented their place in a title-winning team before being instrumental cogs in the machine that delivered the historic treble of 1999. Ajax’s rich history of promoting from within carries on to this day, with young talent being plucked from across the Netherlands and the world where they are developed into Ajacieden. These players go on to win titles and compete for major European honours, whether that be at Ajax or further afield.
AS Monaco’s Ligue 1 triumph of 2017, defying the oil-rich PSG a fifth successive title was a fairytale in itself, headed by a core of U-23 stars.
Of course, there is the counter-argument that clubs can quite easily achieve domestic and continental honours through much more pragmatic means than producing a batch of youngsters who are fast-tracked to the first team. Chelsea and Manchester City for example have won multiple Premier League titles between them, spending exorbitant amounts of money in transfer fees while bringing through almost no youth of their own. It can be argued that they may not have enjoyed such success over the past decade or so, had they opted for trying out their own in the starting XI.
In this transfer window, Chelsea’s use of the loan market has been criticised yet again, as their reputation for stockpiling players has seen them loan out five U-23 players to five different Premier League clubs.
Tammy Abraham (19), one of the standout performers of last season’s EFL Championship, has headed to Swansea City after signing a new deal extending his contract at Chelsea. Kurt Zouma (22), once billed as a shoe-in at centre-back following the gradual departure of John Terry, has departed to Stoke City on a season-long loan deal. Zouma is another player that Chelsea have tied down to a long-term extension on his current deal at Stamford Bridge.
Izzy Brown (20), a livewire in Huddersfield Town’s improbable but successful promotion bid, has temporarily left for Brighton, meanwhile Kasey Palmer (20) returns to Huddersfield for a second loan spell. Finally, one of the brightest prospects to emerge at Chelsea’s Cobham training facilities in recent years; Ruben Loftus-Cheek (21) joined Crystal Palace on loan in a bid for first team football, which he has been starved of at the Bridge.
Naturally, integrating each of these five players straight into Chelsea’s star-studded starting XI would not pay dividends in the form of Premier League and Champions League titles, but it is widely perceived that these players will never be given the chance to prove themselves in a Blues shirt.
Chelsea view their army of loanees as assets and will protect their sale value by tying them down to long contracts. Former Chelsea outcast Nemanja Matić was farmed out to long-term affiliate club Vitesse Arnhem over the course of the 2010-11 season, before being sold to Benfica, used as a pawn in a swap deal for David Luiz. Two-and-a-half years later, Chelsea coughed up a fee in the range of £21m to retrieve his services from Benfica.
Should Matić have been afforded the opportunity to prove himself following his loan spell at Vitesse? There is a case for both sides of the argument but what harm could have befallen Chelsea by simply testing the waters and giving the Serbian a shot in the first team, at a time when the club finished 6th in the Premier League, a far-cry from their table-topping display of two years prior in 2010.
The same can be said of Paul Pogba’s career to date. Discarded by Manchester United after being given a mere seven substitute appearances, Pogba left on a free transfer and joined Italian giants Juventus. Many Scudetto’s later and Pogba was on the move again, back to Old Trafford; an expensive mistake. Were the likes of Darron Gibson, Anderson and Zeki Fryers really that much better than Pogba and deserving of being retained in favour of the budding Frenchman?
The loan market benefits a whole host of clubs, especially in the lower leagues, and does provide a platform for young players registered to top division clubs, to get minutes and professional experience. It is when this process is abused time and time again by clubs who view themselves as untouchable, that the concept of a loan market becomes distorted. Assuming that Chelsea’s loanees currently at Premier League clubs will be starters, when they visit Stamford Bridge or when the Blues roll into town, Chelsea will be playing weakened opposition due to their loanees’ ineligibility. That will affect five clubs (so far) in the league and several others in the Championship such as Fulham and Hull City, should they be drawn together in a cup competition.
While Pogba looks to spearhead a Manchester United surge back to the summit of English football, Matić has headed for the exit door at Stamford Bridge once again this summer. He will seemingly be replaced by the more youthful Tiemoué Bakayoko, a success story from AS Monaco where youth are given a platform to excel.
PSG domination of French football had been renowned prior to a gutsy bunch of youngsters, led by Leonardo Jardim who emerged as serious contenders to the Parisiens’ crown in 2016. The undoubted star of Monaco’s Class of 2016-17 was Kylian Mbappé; the dynamic, crowd-enthusing forward whose youthful optimism dazzled spectators and opposition defenders throughout the entire season.
“If you’re good enough, you’re old enough”. The old saying rings true when it comes to Mbappé, handed his first team debut in December 2015 as a 16-year old, breaking the record previously held by Thierry Henry as the club’s youngest player. His first dozen games for Monaco were not uninspiring, but they were a world away from his performances that would place him firmly in the world footballing spotlight, just a year later.
Mbappé grew in confidence and began to handle the exposure to first team football following his first season with the first team, leading to his inclusion in the UEFA European Under-19 Championship Team of the Tournament in 2016. Nevertheless, nobody would have expected this boy to be named in the Champions League Team of the Season just ten months on.
It was not until October 21st, 2016, that Mbappé really announced himself to French football, never mind the world. A goal and two assists in a league fixture against Montpellier gave Jardim a dilemma. Many top clubs across Europe were in hot pursuit of the young Parisien, and given his lack of playing time prior to this game at Monaco, prospective offers will have been considered. Subsequently, Mbappé missed just two league games for the rest of the season and helped fire Monaco to their first Ligue 1 title since 2000. All the while, Jardim protected and appreciated the value of Monaco’s greatest asset, much akin to that of Chelsea, however their methods of doing so could not be more scathingly different.
A hat-trick against Stade Rennais in the Coupe De La Ligue in December 2016, six days before his eighteenth birthday made people begin to sit up and take note.
In a few months’ time, he would be the hottest property in world football. Why? Because he was given the opportunity to showcase his talent on the big stage and he did not disappoint. In fact, he was exceptional. Had Jardim considered Mbappé too raw for his team and stuck with Valere Germain in attack, Monaco may not have romped to the league title in such rampant fashion, if at all.
Monaco’s team of 2016-17 was not dominated by just one player, it was an astute compilation of fervent attacking talent, speed and often naïve enthusiasm which made them a joy to watch. They went through the season bludgeoning teams to death, winning league fixtures three and four goals to nil as if it was ordinary to do so. Leonardo Jardim must deserve immense credit for this experiment of his where a triumvirate of Bernardo Silva (22) – now of Manchester City, Thomas Lemar (21) and Kylian Mbappé (18) terrorised Ligue 1 defences and put on a show of epic proportions against some of European football’s most exciting and dangerous teams such as Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund.
Mbappé, brought through the youth ranks at Monaco combining with Lemar, signed for a snip at just £3.4m in 2015 from SM Caen, are prime examples of how clubs like Monaco who should be challenging for titles, can do exactly that by giving their young players a platform to perform upon, and at the same time without breaking the bank. Of course, Bernardo Silva was more expensive at around €15m but the principle remains the same, that at his former club Benfica, he was not provided with ample opportunities to showcase himself on a regular basis. At Monaco and in Portugal’s youth teams he thrived.
It remains to be seen whether Monaco’s level of unprecedented success can be repeated on another scale, at another club in a different country. The inevitable break-up of their 2016-17 squad began even before the transfer window opened and it doesn’t look like stopping any time soon with Lemar and Mbappé both unsurprisingly linked with huge money moves elsewhere.
The banality of some players being touted to clubs for eye-watering fees has become the norm in the modern age of the cult of the transfer market. Premier League spending alone is set to surpass the £1bn mark in guaranteed fees, without considering add-ons. Ordinary players with high-maintenance agents and extraordinary wage demands come in, while youth prospects are cast aside and loaned elsewhere, with little regard for their development. Their potential could be equally as exceptional as Kylian Mbappé’s, yet it will never be realised if they are not given the opportunity in the appropriate high-pressure setting.
If they are consistently incapable of handling the hardships of the modern game at the top level, the transfer market has been proved the correct way of assembling a team. It is an area where the Premier League is fundamentally behind other major European leagues, but it is not alone. The culture of spending is not isolated to the British Isles, however abroad, as proven by Monaco’s victory over the major adversity in PSG, there is a much more distinct culture of nurturing and developing rather than seeking the quick fix.
In days gone by, teams produced their own talent and were successful from doing so. Many academies in lesser footballing nations without Level 1 Facilities and a smaller population, produce excellent players due to the fact that their young players are exposed to the rigours of first team football from a young age, if their natural talent is befitting of what is required to play at that level.
Mauricio Pochettino is one of the most exciting, young coaches in world football at present, with a vast collective of young, primarily English talent. His attitude towards youth bucks the trend of the English Premier League, proven by his continued faith in 24-year-old Harry Kane; his success a testament to the ethos at the Lane. Kane is not the only one to benefit from Pochettino’s faith; Dele Alli, Premier League Young Player of the Year two years running, can attribute a great deal of his early career success to Pochettino’s trust as well along with his undisputed ability.
“He’s one of our own”; is famous on the terraces nowadays yet everybody knows it is truly the chant which embodies Spurs’ perseverance with young players in their academy. Harry Kane had to endure many unsuccessful and dissatisfying loans on his road to the top. A goalless spell at Norwich City and three months at Leicester City where he largely warmed the bench, immediately preceded his breakthrough at Tottenham. At plenty of other clubs, he may have been deemed surplus to requirements at this point having failed to make an impact in a lesser team or in a lesser division, but Spurs’ coaching staff persisted and eventually gave him the chance.
Former youth team coach Tim Sherwood introduced him to the first-team fold before he was relieved of his duties, however it was under Pochettino that Kane began to thrive. Credit must go to the Argentine for retaining the young England striker in his ranks, which has indubitably led to Kane’s exponential rise to become one of Europe’s hottest strikers and England’s key asset. It’s not as if Pochettino didn’t have better striking options on paper: Roberto Soldado who had spent three seasons at Valencia, averaging just shy of 20 league goals per season, a player who at the time could have been perceived as needing more time to settle. Emmanuel Adebayor, a striker of brilliant Premier League pedigree, scorer of many a-goal at Arsenal and Manchester City, with a point to prove. An imposing striker such as the Togolese man would surely have represented a better striking option given the current circumstances facing Tottenham in 2014-15.
Nevertheless, when Kane was provided with game-time he used it to his advantage and created a dilemma for Pochettino. Could the manager justify making the in-form academy graduate their lead man up front and keep his job, while taskmaster Daniel Levy continued to fork out hundreds of thousands of pounds a week in wages to the aforementioned Soldado and Adebayor? The answer was simple, yes, he could – and it paid dividends.
From that point on, Spurs surpassed the previous season’s final position in the Premier League table each year, climbing from 6th, to 5th before posing title challenges in 2016 and 2017, finishing 3rd and 2nd respectively. The crux of their relative success being down to their talisman and forward-thinking manager.
Dele Alli is another who has benefitted greatly from Pochettino’s zeal for young players. Already an England stalwart for years to come at just 21-years-old, Alli’s career could have taken a very different track had he moved elsewhere following his breakout at MK Dons. A meagre £5m sum prized him away in the winter transfer window of 2015, although part of the agreement was that he would be immediately loaned back to stadium:mk for the remainder of the 2014-15 campaign for developmental reasons.
Dele hit the ground running during his maiden season with Spurs, cementing a place in Pochettino’s system, never looking out of place after a handful of initial substitute appearances. Had the England international joined Chelsea for example, his career trajectory may have taken him to Vitesse Arnhem in the Eredivisie during 2015-16, along with a whole host of other Chelsea loanees. At Spurs, his ability and crucially his potential, were noted instantaneously, allowing him to be integrated into a first team role perhaps earlier than even Pochettino had anticipated.
The raw, natural talent is out there, festering in academies, prevented from first-team disclosure because of the bureaucracy and red-tape that dictates how modern football clubs are run. Managers in high-pressure jobs are required to deliver results and if spending exorbitant fees on proven quality is the answer to keeping their job, they will almost always opt against experimentation and taking a risk by playing youth. This model is unsustainable because after all, the players being signed for the huge fees had to have been developed somewhere. These same players had to have been given the opportunity to impress in a first-team setting, no matter how large or small.
The Premier League harbours this culture where youth is unappreciated for what it is. The usual stereotypes of, “You can’t win anything with kids”, seep into the thinking of football fans, managers, pundits and chairmen and it becomes gospel.
In 2009-10, Portsmouth fielded a starting line-up whose average age was 32.3 years old. Similarly, for the majority of the 2012-13 season, Fulham fielded a starting XI where the average age was over 31 years old. In Portsmouth’s case, the club were relegated as the league’s basement club, meanwhile Fulham finished twelfth, but were relegated the following season with the core of the squad still the same.
There are plenty of case studies dictating that success can be garnered from blooding youth. Monaco and Tottenham are two renowned examples of such systems being implemented successfully, meanwhile Chelsea’s abuse of the loan market is documented widely by the mainstream media whenever the transfer window rolls around. However, they are not the only club suspect of stockpiling and treating players as appreciable assets, rather than aiming to incorporate them into a first-team environment.
It is an attitude that will not be changed overnight, but a gradual movement towards trusting young players with more responsibility could very well be an experiment that pays off for clubs who adopt these methods, trailblazing the idea of shorting the transfer market and focusing more enthusiastically on youth.