Accent on youth

RB Leipzig’s Timo Werner, one of the young players the controversial German club is nurturing. Photo: PA

MONEY buys experience and waits for youth to develop. That has to be one of the conclusions from the recent CIES Football Observatory’s analysis of the average ages of top division clubs across Europe.

There is a correlation between the average age of a first team squad and the amount of money that a club has at its disposal. If you look at the CIES list of clubs fielding the youngest squads, they mostly come from Ukraine, the Netherlands, Croatia, Slovakia, Denmark and Slovenia. Among the top 10, only Lille of France (with an average of 22.88 years) features from the “big five” leagues.

The youngest squad from the top divisions is Stal Kamianske of the Ukraine, with an average age of 21.67 years. This is a team that is in its third season of Premier football, representing the town of Kamianske (formerly Dniprodzerzhynsk). Their average crowd in 2016-17 was just 872, so it is clear that the club has to rely on young, home-grown talent. If the current squad most are Ukrainian, with the addition of three Armenians, one Bulgarian and one Serb.

Slovenia has the lowest overall average age at 24.51 with Croatia the only other sub-25 country at 24.59 years. The “big five” go for more mature players: Germany is the lowest at 26, then it is France (26.16), Spain (26.96), England (27.22) and Italy (27.32). Only two English Premier clubs are below 26 years – Newcastle (25.57) and Liverpool (25.97).

It would be nice to think that the commitment to youth pays off for countries like Slovenia and Slovakia, and domestically, it might. But on the international stage – UEFA Under-21, Under-19 and Under-17 competitions – names like Portugal, Germany, Spain and England crop up in the final stages.

But the reliance on older players is not only short-termism, but must also be more expensive than fielding younger players. Needless to say, the English Premier’s squads are invariably boosted by experienced players seeking a last pay day in the most lucrative league in Europe. Although English clubs have strong academy and youth set-ups, too often the promising young players are loaned out to other European leagues.

It hasn’t always been like that. Chelsea’s 2016-17 title winning squad had an average age of 27 years and two months. Fifty years ago, when Manchester City won the title, their average age was just 24.82 years. That team served City well for a few years, the sort of consistency that is rarely seen in today’s environment where teams change from season to season. Still, there are leagues that have a higher average age per squad than England – Turkey (28.63) and Cyprus (28.48) being at the peak.

It should be noted, however, that keeping together a talented young squad is difficult and not always the strategy of a club. Firstly, bigger clubs will come along with sizeable cheques to lure away promising starlets – as seen at Monaco this past summer – and some clubs nurture youngsters to be sold in the market out of sheer necessity. Others, presumably like Kamianske, have no choice but to place their trust in young, inexpensive players.

To see the CIES report, click here

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