ENGLISH PREMIER clubs spend a lot of money on academies, but very few players emerge from these youth structures to play in the first teams of the top clubs. It’s a worrying situation that does not bode well for the development of the national team in England. But it is not just the historic home of the game that is suffering from a dearth of genuine talent, the problem is replicated across the major leagues of European football.
There are many theories why there is a ceiling on player development: short-termism on the part of managers and club owners; the globalisation of football making player movement easier and often cheaper (i.e. outsourcing); clubs greedily scooping-up youngsters to prevent others from securing signatures; the club v country argument; and the demand of fans to see big statement signings on an annual basis by the bulge bracket of European football. There is another reason, often overlooked by football watchers – the self-perpetuating transfer market, which is now a sub-industry in itself. Who will want to stop this money machine chugging away, circulating money, funding clubs and lining players’ pockets?
All clubs, to some extent, rely on transfer income. For smaller clubs, the development of talent and the potential to sell young players to more monied clubs is essential. At the very top, this is less important and therefore breeding home-grown talent is not such a priority. The big guns buy players in preference to player development.
Chelsea are a prime example of this. Look at the plight of Nathan Ake, who has been on the fringe of the first team for a few seasons. He is now at Watford and performing well, while his parent club is struggling, notably in defence. No matter what Ake did, there was little chance of him being given time to become accustomed to first team football. Where would Chelsea have been in the past without giving home-grown players like Jimmy Greaves, Alan Hudson and Ray Wilkins the chance to flourish?
It’s a different age, but at some point, Premier clubs have to look in the mirror and ask themselves if they are merely paying lip service to youth football. Chelsea’s youth team has been incredibly successful, but the first team is seeing little evidence of that mythical beast called “progression”.
All over Europe, the proportion of club-trained players in first team squads has decreased. In the 31 leading leagues, the percentage is 19.7%, versus 23.1% in 2009, according to data produced by KPMG’s Football Benchmark.
Even in countries that have prided themselves on giving youth a chance, notably the Nordics – Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden – the percentage has gone down.
In Eastern Europe, they are bucking the trend, largely due to the Russo-Ukraine crisis which has restricted movement in the region.
Across the top leagues, the figures make depressing reading. England’s Premier clubs have just 11.7% of “home-trained” in their squads, but Italy’s ratio, at 8.6%, is even worse. Then there’s Germany 13.3%, France 19.4% and Spain 23.7%.
When you consider the really big picture, it is alarming – only 24 teams across 31 leagues have 50% or more home-trained players. A big slice of these clubs are from central Europe. The club with the most is Gomel of Belorussia, who have 92%. From the “big five” leagues, Athletic Bilbao are top with 63%, but that owes more to that club’s ethos of “Basque-only” players.
It is not that clubs are not producing players. Partizan Belgrade, for example, have produced 78 players that are currently playing across the 31 leagues. Ajax are next with 75. From England, Manchester United have 41 of their alumni playing continent-wide.
Football Benchmark noted that top European clubs are “less and less courageous” when it comes to giving club-trained players a chance to prove themselves.
Will it change? I don’t think so. With managers expected to bring instant success at most clubs and increasingly intolerant owners and boards, there is little chance – or it would seem appetite – to nurture. And with the transfer market now a huge game of Monopoly, there is a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
Bad news for players like Nathan Ake, good news for agents.