Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Building an Academy's reputation

Your club’s youth academy is poor? It hasn’t produced a useful player in years? You want to fix it? Just pretend it’s good.

Say you and I go to a pub. We have a few drinks and we start talking about football. Football talk being what it is, there is nothing more exciting than talking about the stars of tomorrow. It is not interesting to you and me that Messi is the best player in the world. We know he is, talking about it bores us. Instead we start talking about quality youngsters. If I tell you there is a talented young player and he comes from Boca Juniors’ academy you will ask if he is anything like Riquelme, Tevez or Gago. If I tell you a player comes from Barcelona’s academy you will ask if he is the new Messi, Iniesta, Xavi or Bojan. If I tell you a player comes from Liverpool’s academy you will instantly dismiss him.

Building a youth academy’s reputation is vital and probably the most important part of developing a well functioning factory of footballers. When the car you’re driving is produced in a proven, well respected factory, a BMW perhaps, you automatically assume its quality. It is the same with football academies. At a club like Barcelona, Sporting or Boca there is a lot of excitement about any young prospect that is around the first team squad because of their recent young players.

Young players are being dismissed on the basis of a lack of good players coming out of the academy in the past 10 years. People are automatically assuming that the new young player is not very good because the young players before him weren’t good either. One player making it opens the door for another player. Two players making it opens the door for the third player. By the time the fourth player is about to get the chance the doors are wide open and he is already being given the benefit of the doubt and he automatically brings excitement without people knowing how good a player he actually is.

It’s an evil circle though. You won’t give the benefit of the doubt to a player coming from an unsuccessful academy but you can’t change the reputation of the academy without one or two players showing that the academy works.

In the long run, for the benefit of the academy, it might be a good idea to give a couple of players a genuine chance to establish themselves in the squad. Use them as rabbits in a long distance race. They may not turn out to be great players a couple of years from now but it may reverse the trend at a failing academy. They may show other young, perhaps more talented players, that it is possible to make it. Just one successful young player can make all the difference. Just look at Mario Ballotelli at Inter. A club that hasn’t been famous in a long time for having a good youth setup gave a debut to Balotelli two years ago. The excitement builds up and by the time Santon emerged everybody at Inter were excited about him. “Wait, did he come from the same youth team as Balotelli? He must be quite good then”. Indeed he was, but he also entered the scene with full backing from the fans and pundits.

Usually one or two young players making it at a club invites a flood of other players emerging. Examples of this are the Liverpool youth teams in early to mid 1990’s, West Ham’s successful youth teams, Barcelona’s long run of success in this department etc. Man Utd’s case is rather interesting as well. After producing the likes of Beckham, Scholes, Giggs and the Neville brothers in pretty much one go, Man Utd saw the emergence of Wes Brown and John O’Shea, which in turn inspired the emergence of Jonny Evans. Now, you can’t tell me that players such as Brown, O’Shea and Evans would have ever made it had they not been a part of a previously successful academy. You can’t tell me that there is not a defender or two at a “failed” academy, like Liverpool’s, as good as those 3 Man Utd players were at the same age. So what’s going on? Why do O’Shea and Evans get the benefit of the doubt but not one young Liverpool defender does? Could it be that Alex Ferguson, having previously seen what his academy can produce, is more inclined to give a young player a break than Rafa Benitez, who doesn’t have any precedent of his youth system churning out a good, young player?

Sometimes it’s not even about making the young players feel more confident about their chances of making the first team. Sometimes it’s about the supporters instead. Building a feeling among them that when a young player is about to get the chance that he might actually be quite good and not instantly dismissed. It’s about giving supporters a few previous “positive cases” which gives them confidence for future youngsters coming through. This positive climate, in turn, gives the emerging youngster a far more comfortable platform to perform. While the pressure of being the next big thing might be a heavy burden for a youngster, at the same time all of them want to be recognised and portrayed as extraordinary talented players. Even when their talent doesn’t warrant it.

A lot of fans around Europe are crying for their club’s youth system to produce a home grown player good enough to play for the first team. They’re asking how a system that employs so many coaches and spends so much money can’t produce a player once in a while. With every barren year the confidence in the academy fails and it automatically belittles the whole organization. Hence the product that comes out of it is belittled as well, long before it’s actually assessed. Heck, sometimes it doesn’t even get the chance to be assessed because it’s either automatically dismissed or dismissed very quickly.

Having great coaches is only a small part of having a successful academy. A club can pick and choose the coaches for its academy but they’re not likely to create a much different outcome on that account. If this was the case then every club would just send a few people to copy everything a successful youth system does and that would be it. Job done. If that was the case then Ajax’s academy would produce top class players every year. Surely they’re not doing things differently on the training ground all of a sudden. Ajax is in fact a perfect example of the importance of having confidence in an academy. After many years of producing great players the club allowed the academy to ruin it’s reputation by dismissing the players that started emerging in the late 1990’s. A couple of years went by, Ajax started investing in older players from the outside and the reputation of the finest academy in the world kept declining. It has reached a point where nobody expects Ajax to produce a great player any time soon. This, at the most successful academy of all time? This, at Ajax’s academy?

Ajax let their momentum of producing young players expire and it is crucial that this doesn’t happen. There is nothing that benefits a line of any production as the momentum of successful production. Barcelona is an example of this. They give a player or two a chance every season. They come into the team with the full backing of everybody at Barcelona and they do well enough so that the next couple of players in line can get their chance the following season. Of course not every young player turns out to be the next world superstar. Some of them don’t even properly make it at Barcelona. However, they still do well enough and sometimes even better than their ability would suggest by riding the good feel of it all. This alone is worthy of another try and this is why young players are constantly being given a chance.

Building the reputation of a youth academy is a tricky project. Is it worth giving a few talented players the chance, which could harm the first team in the short run, in order to open doors for superior young players being given the benefit of the doubt in the future? You decide.


  1. Interesting article.

  2. You probably need more than just reputation but I see your point. Nice blog.

  3. There will always be young players who have the potential to step up and shine not only in the first team, but continentally also.

    I feel it's the nature of the pressures first team managers face from club owners to produce instant results that inevitably reduces the chance of them venturing into the unknown, picking young players, so to speak.

    A good example is Wenger, a man whom has God-like backing @ North London is more inclined to pick a Kieran Gibbs than a more experienced 'Johnny Foreigner'.

    It has to change, clubs need to give love to the Acadamy's for football to keep progressing in the right way.

    Good Blog.

  4. It's an interesting and different way of looking at this topic.

  5. nice read vedran

    todays move for Nemeth makes me question our own policies, is he heading the same path as leto. For me we should be loaning players to the championship or above if there is no space for them in the team in that particular season

  6. Building an academy which produces talented youngsters is probably the most difficult task football clubs encounter. I believe success is striking the balance. Given the demands of instant success from fans and from board level the manager is often swayed towards players of experience and steers away from placing a promising youth player into the cauldron of the Premier League or La Liga etc.
    I think the point you make about players opening the doors for other young players coming through is spot on however it’s the balance which I feel is the key. Arsenal are a good case study. Arsene Wenger has opted to blood many youngsters and has seen the fruits of his labour by seeing another crop of youngsters win the FA Youth Cup last year. Despite this the fans are crying out for silverware and have increasingly mentioned how they need more experienced players to win trophies. Thus this is the crux of the problem.
    Over the past few seasons the Carling Cup has become the arena for which managers blood youngsters and see what their capabilities are in the first team set up. However I feel this has some disadvantages insofar that the team which plays is often overloaded with youth players with no one to guide and instruct them through the game and secondly there is so much pressure applied to those games to produce that you often find the player doesn’t feel free to express himself. This is why a medium of mixing good youth players with the first team regulars is the key in them feeling free to express their talents as footballers. This is what Manchester Utd have done so well over the years. They have a constant stream of talented young players who get moulded in their youth system and are gradually introduced to the first team, and they gain the valuable opportunity to pick the brains of the experienced first team regulars.
    This is slowly what I see Rafa achieving at Liverpool. Since his arrival the youth set up has been totally revamped and new experienced coaches have been appointed the task of finding the next Gerrard or Carragher. We have seen Insua make the break through in the past two seasons and the likes of Kelly Ayala, Spearing, Plessis, Nemeth and Pacheco have all seen glimpses of first team football. However I feel Rafa is a cautious person by nature and his reluctance to blood these players may stunt their progress. There are stages in a players career where he has learned all he can off the pitch and the only way he can improve is through first team football.
    I think the key to unearthing the next kaka or messi lies in the home grown players. The Barcelona Team is case and point. The likes of Inesta, Xavi, Valdes, Puyol, Pique, Bojan and Fabragas have all come out of a youth system which focuses heavily on the local talent. While they have brought in youth players from abroad i.e Messi they have continually pressed home the importance of local talent. The problem I see in many other clubs is that youth systems are often being overloaded with foreign players and it stunts their progress somewhat. While it does develop them as players to see how the game is played elsewhere it can cause an adverse effect. I also think that the English players have the perception that a player with an exotic sounding name from South America has more talent than he does when in fact it may often be the other way around, and also he may have it in his head that because the manager is foreign he may have a preference towards players from abroad. This is why I feel the medium of building a youth setup focused on local talent along with introducing them into the first team set up along with the first team regulars is the key to building a reputable youth system which gains recognition both home and abroad.
    I would be interested to have feedback, both positive and negative on my post. Apolagies for it being so long got a little bit carried away!!

  7. In reply to the last comment:

    I agree with you regarding the balance. I think Wenger has gone too far with it and has therefore struggled. Signing Vermaelen was a good move instead of waiting for someone like Djurou to make it.

    I also agree with your point regarding signing foreign kids, but perhaps they simply are more talented than kids around the Liverpool area? Is there a Dani Pacheco among Liverpool kids? Don't forget that Liverpool can't pick up a kid from Newcastle for their academy due to regulations.

    Insua is a good thing for Liverpool's academy. If one more successful player emerged it could all turn around for Liverpool.

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