BY: MATT ROBSON (@milanclubleics)
With clubs like Southampton and Ajax getting constant credit for their investment in youth football, has Leicester City’s youth development project gone under the radar?
HOW DO THEY DO IT?
When I was in the Leicester Academy in the years 2011-2013, the Foxes were an average club in the Championship who did not have lots of funding. However, no matter the situation financially they were always trying to develop their youth system. Youth academy setups are ranked by the FA from D to A, with A being the best. Despite being a mid-table Championship side, the Foxes were ready to compete with the youth facilities of the likes of Southampton and Manchester United. They educated players of all age groups on health and fitness and, on a more technical note, put in a new top of the range AstroTurf pitch and planned efficient training sessions. Even as young as 7, academy players partake in the same training sessions as the first team, just less intense. Therefore, each player knows what is expected of them and know how to play “the Leicester way” as they move up age groups. The players are so well trained from a young age and that is why the products can gel so quickly when they reach the first team
One academy graduate who integrated well when he was given an opportunity to feature in the senior team was Ben Chilwell. The 20-year-old joined the academy back in 2009 and he impressed whilst playing for the younger age groups. In the season 2014/15, the year of Leicester’s great escape from Premier League relegation, the Englishman was voted Academy Player of the Year. Despite such an impressive achievement for the youngster from Milton Keynes, there was a lot of uncertainty regarding the full back’s future. In the following pre-season, City’s gaffer Nigel Pearson was sacked after some controversial off pitch incidents. Everybody knew that Chilwell was a Pearson favourite so there were immediately some doubts about his position at the club. To make things worse, Claudio Ranieri, who rarely trusted young players, was Pearson’s replacement. However, things turned out perfectly after the Tinkerman sent the young Englishman out on loan to Huddersfield to gain some experience and the player, who had just turned 20 years old, came back rejuvenated. With no solid backup to first team left-back Christian Fuchs, Chilwell became that man and appeared twice for the Foxes in the FA Cup. The Englishman is the typical modern full back; he loves to bomb forward and help the team offensively. His best attributes are his pin point crosses and his confidence on the ball. He does, however, have to work on his defensive capabilities as he can get caught out by intelligent wingers on the odd occasion. Despite being so young, Chilwell has the qualities of a leader, he even captained the Leicester U-23’s last year and maybe he can go on to captain the first team in years to come.
The next young gem that Leicester have in their first team is another Englishman by the name of Demarai Gray. Unlike Chilwell, Gray did not come through the youth system but was signed from Birmingham City in 2016 for a fee of just £3.7m. As he joined in January of 2016, Gray did not have a lot of time to impress for the Foxes during their Premier League winning campaign. However, last season the 21-year-old really shone for Leicester with some world-class displays. Gray is one of the league’s most exciting prospects and has proven his worth with the England U-21s as well. His best attributes are his lightning quick pace, his agility and his intent to always go forward and attack. Unfortunately, with such great talent, there will always be bigger clubs ready to pounce. Despite his future being uncertain, one thing that cannot be doubted is Gray’s talent, which is priceless to Leicester.
The final young player that is in the first team is Nigerian midfielder, Wilfred Ndidi. The 20-year-old, who stands at 6 feet and 2 inches, is a highly rated starlet and one who was monitored by many of Europe’s top teams, including Manchester United. However, in January 2017, Leicester City managed to get their hands on him and he has been a fan favourite ever since. Ndidi possesses a rocket of a right foot, and he has proved regularly, including his strike against Club Brugge, which was clocked at 111km/h, during his time at Genk. His upper body strength allows him to shove off opponents with ease and he can pick out a pass out of nowhere. With midfield partner Danny Drinkwater usually lying deep in the middle of the park, this gives the 20-year-old the freedom to roam and contribute in the final third. Ndidi is irreplaceable for the Foxes and if they manage to keep hold of him, he will always be the first name on the team sheet.
The players mentioned so far are pretty well known around the world of football, but here are some players who have not quite reached the first team yet but are performing tremendously in Leicester’s youth team.
- 19 years old, second striker.
- Top scorer at the 2017 Toulon Tournament with England.
- Mesmeric dribbler with an eye for goal.
- 18 years old, centre forward.
- Leicester u23s top scorer last season.
- Great off ball movement, clinical poacher.
- 18 years old, goalkeeper.
- Kept 7 clean sheets last season for Leicester u23s
- Great footwork, the modern goalkeeper.
So, after winning the Premier League with a squad with an average of almost 29 years old in 2016, it looks as if the Foxes’ are looking to a brighter future with some amazing young talent. But will these young stars prove to be the answer for a club who want to taste European football again? Only time will tell. But Leicester’s commitment to developing talent must be commended.