BY THE time Diego Armando Maradona was 21 years old, he had played around 200 league games for his employers. Likewise, Pelé, at that tender age, had turned-out around 300 times for Santos. More recently, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the two totems of the modern age, made more than 100 appearances. George Best, by his 21stbirthday, was heading towards the 150 mark. In short, these great players had established themselves and were widely recognised as exceptional by the time they were 21. They had plenty of games under their belt.
If there’s one thing that’s notable about many of the players in a recent paper by Soccerex and Prime Time Sport, it is that many of the world’s top young players do not have comparable playing experience. Furthermore, the valuations of these young men appear to be grossly inflated, even in this era of overpaid and overhyped players.
Rare ability makes greatness, but it is not something that develops beyond a certain age. In other words, most of the game’s greats are pinpointed in their very nascent professional days. We are talking about true greatness, not the sort of status that people are still claiming 26 year-old Paul Pogba possesses. In Pogba’s case, the age is the key – at 26 he is not a player of potential, his development is probably over.
We are in a different time to when Pelé and Maradona were finding their very skilful feet – there was far less opportunity for players in Latin America to export their skills and promising young footballers in a different continent were less well known than they are today. Clubs in Europe can afford to nurture talent, such are the size of contemporary squads. But in most cases, promising young, domestically-reared players do not seem to be getting the opportunity they need to become truly outstanding.
Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi is just 18 and he’s made 12 Premier League appearances. He is “work in progress” but the amount of publicity he has received and the call for him to be given a chance suggests the 2019-20 season could well see his regular inclusion in the Chelsea team. The Soccerex report values Hudson-Odoi at € 31.7 million, perhaps the market rate for a player that has been tipped to become an England regular, but somewhat excessive for a still untried individual.
There are six England players in the Soccerex report, the highest-rated being Jadon Sancho of Borussia Dortmund, who is valued at € 120.3 million. The 19 year-old has made 46 Bundesliga appearances and has already won six England caps. There’s no doubt he’s got talent, but a valuation like € 120 million has all the hallmarks of a Malcolm Allison bid for a relatively raw youngster. How many people had heard of Sancho 12 months ago?
Players like Sancho and Hudson-Odoi need to be assessed again in 2019-20 to see if their rise to prominence last season was not a one-off. In England, there’s been a little too much over-expectation around the current national squad, largely because for the first time in years, there is some cause to be more upbeat, but also because there are some potentially good youngsters on the fringe. With so few English players in the Premier League’s top teams – the top six clubs average 27% English players in their squads, ranging from Arsenal’s 15% to Liverpool’s 34% – any youngster who shows any sign of promise receives enormous attention, but all too often, the expectation outweighs reality – witness Jack Wilshere, whose early promise was extinguished by injury and loss of direction.
Sancho looks to have found his niche in Germany, but Hudson-Odoi has to claim a place in Chelsea’s first team to be considered worthy of such high hopes. Likewise, Manchester City’s Phil Foden has to move from being “one for the future” to “one for the midfield”. For some years, people have been aware of Foden, ranked by Soccerex as a € 40 million player, as “the future of rock and roll”, just as they used to talk about Joe Cole back in the 1990s. Foden, 19,
has played 18 games and he has to compete with an all-star squad that gets added to each season with more big-names. If players like these are so valuable and cherished, then why are they not being given priority by their clubs – or is it a case of protecting assets that will be liquidated in the future, giving a club valuable income and profit on their investment?
Ryan Sessegnon of Fulham is among the top 20 and rated at € 34 million, but after impressing in the Championship, he never really progressed in a team that had a disastrous season. Sessegnon was supposedly England material but he may need to leave Fulham now to go forward in his career.
But if there is one player who has shown the expectation in him is warranted and realistic it is Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold, who has made 55 Premier appearances and was key in the club’s Champions League triumph in 2019.
English players aside, the most highly valued player in the Soccerex under 21 report is Kylian Mbappé, who is apparently worth € 192.3 million. Mbappé has proved his quality in a World Cup, but he has yet to make 100 Ligue 1 appearances with Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain. His valuation is based on what he might become as well as where he currently stands. Mbappé has scored 46 goals in 56 Ligue 1 games for PSG, a good rate, and 13 goals in 33 internationals for France. He’s still only 20 but will surely be looking to clinch a move to a big-hitting club in a stronger league to consolidate his place among the world’s top players and also to monetise his ability and move up the pay scale.
Mbappé is different from many of the under-21s in the Soccerex paper, he’s already established himself over the past three seasons. In the top 10, only AC Milan’s keeper, Gianluigi Donnarumma, has played more league games – he’s already appeared 142 times for the Rossoneri and he’s just 20.
Prematurely tagging players with huge valuations doesn’t guarantee success. Real Madrid’s Vinícius Junior is a curious case. He’s played 18 La Liga games and he’s rated at € 60.2 million, even though he hasn’t been capped by his country yet. Although he arrived in Madrid as one of the great hopes for the future, it has been reported that Real coach Zinedine Zidane would sacrifice the youngster in order to secure the signings he wants, such as Manchester United’s Pogba. A move away from Real Madrid would not do Vinícius’ reputation or valuation much good at 19. Also, if Pogba is their man, Zidane would be replacing a 19 year-old with a player seven years older, hardly a signal of a commitment to youth.
The promise of a young player can prompt clubs to over-pay for coveted stars of the future. Atlético Madrid, for example, recently bought Benfica’s João Félix for a fee that will amount to € 126 million, way above the valuation of € 71.8 million in the Soccerex report. Félix played 26 Primeira Liga games for Benfica before departing for Madrid, scoring 15 goals in the process. His transfer fee is a reflection that when a decent player is identified, the big clubs have the liquidity to enter a bidding war and meet any buy-out figure, which do seem to be plucked out of air as a form of insurance policy. By contrast, Félix doesn’t feature in the top 50 of other valuation studies, such as Football Benchmark.
Perhaps the current era, more so than in the past, allows clubs to gently introduce their talented young players into the big arena. It is worth considering that when Duncan Edwards died in the Munich crash of 1958, he was just 21 years’ old and had played 177 games for Manchester United and had won 18 caps for England. When United won the 1955-56 title, they included five players who were 21 or under. They were nicknamed “the Busby babes” because English football had rarely seen their like before.
A glance at the successful teams of 2018-19 shows that very few players under the age of 21 feature in their regular line-ups. Manchester City’s youngest regular was Gabriel Jesus (22), while Liverpool’s was Trent Alexander-Arnold (20). The youngest player in Chelsea’s Europa League winning line-up was 23 year-old Andreas Christensen. Has it always been that way?
With the exception of extraordinary players like Maradona and Pelé, most successful teams have not had a plethora of under-21s in their line-up.
The old cliché, “a blend of youth and experience” is an accurate description of how teams are normally constructed, because very few champions have included any more than the odd fledgling. There are exceptions, such as two Arsenal teams: the 1971 “double” side that regularly fielded Ray Kennedy, Charlie George and Eddie Kelly in their line-up and the 1988-89 team that included the likes of Michael Thomas and Paul Merson, not to mention 21 year-olds such as Tony Adams and David Rocastle. In 2005, Chelsea had Glen Johnson and Arjen Robben, who were both 20 and their average age was the lowest – 24.3 – of any Premier League champion side.
Liverpool, who won 13 titles between 1963-64 and 1989-90, increasingly put their faith in maturity. Their successful teams went from an average age of 24 to 27.5 during that period, underlining that they had the resources to buy read-made talent to sustain their dominance. Go further back and Liverpool’s 1922-23 winners averaged 29.95!
Nothing with youth?
“You never win anything with kids,” is a comment that former BBC pundit Alan Hansen has never lived down, especially as Manchester United’s 1995-96 team, which included five players who started the season under the age of 21, the so-called “Class of 92”, won both the Premier League and FA Cup a few months after that comment. United’s 1995-96 team had an average age of 25, which would have been lower but for the inclusion of three over-30 players.
It can still be done in the modern game. Monaco, in 2016-17, surprisingly won Ligue 1 with a batch of young players, which included the 17 year-old Mbappé and Thomas Lemar. Monaco, unable to keep the core of this team together, received around £ 300 million in player sales after winning the title.
Ajax, who went so close to reaching the Champions League final, won the “double” in the Netherlands, with a group of young players that are now among the most sought-after in Europe. Ajax’s captain, Matthijs de Ligt, was 18 at the start of the season and has played almost 100 Eredivisie matches.
It is possible that today’s managers, only too aware of the very temporary nature of their jobs, opt for more experience as they don’t have the time or patience to nurture young talent. Chelsea, for example, have no choice now but to give Hudson-Odoi his chance, given they are banned from the transfer market for two windows. However, older players cost more money in wages – compare Lionel Messi’s € 130 million compared to Mbappé’s € 25 million.
The 2018 World Cup provided some evidence that teams may be getting older. There were only 19 players under the age of 21 across the 32 squads (a drop on 2014) and the average age of participants was 28, the oldest-ever World Cup. The European Championship of 2016 also had 19 players, although eight fewer teams, with three 18 year-olds, including England’s Marcus Rashford.
Whatever the reason, it does appear that players under the age of 21 may not be getting enough playing time, even though their reputations grow at a phenomenal rate. Top talent always comes at a premium, but given so many of the most coveted youngsters are being valued so highly, surely they need more first team exposure before an accurate assessment of their ability can be made? It could save some people a lot of money.