Busting some myths and inaccuracies regarding youth development in soccer
(This article is orgianlly taken from this source: http://www.espnfcasia.com/blog/marcotti-musings/62/post/2727314/youth-development-in-soccer-is-a-nature-vs-nurture-issue )
La Masia is held as the gold standard of youth development but is it really that simple?
The CIES (Centre International des Etude Sportifs) Football Observatory is a research foundation based in Neuchatel, Switzerland, that periodically publishes statistical and demographic research. They’re good at what they do — we in the media are less good at interpreting it.
Earlier this month, they published a comprehensive study measuring (among other things) which clubs produced the most footballers currently plying their trade in Europe’s top flights and which ones had the highest number of academy graduates in their ranks.
There were two headline reactions to come out of this. One spoke of a “crisis” in youth development, particularly in England and Italy since home-grown footballers had played just 7.7 percent and 9 percent of minutes since the start of the season. Europe-wide, the number of club-trained players on first team rosters was 19.7 percent, marking the fifth-straight year of decline.
The other, based on a chart that ranked clubs by the number of home-grown footballers currently playing in the top-flight (for any team), was taken by many as a way of ranking the best academies. The Europe-wide list put Partizan Belgrade, Ajax and Barcelona first, second and third, respectively. Limiting it to Europe’s Big 5 leagues, you had Barcelona, Ajax and Real Madrid.
Both interpretations are wrong or, at best, simplistic. The fact of the matter is that we see youth training as virtuous and desirable — the “right” way of doing things. It’s an article of faith. So when the numbers decline, the alarm bells go off.
First off, the definition of “club-trained player” used by CIES is the same as the one used by UEFA and most European leagues: a guy who spends three seasons between the ages of 15 and 21 with one club is considered “trained” by that club. The problem with that definition is that you can sign an 17-year-old international from the other end of the world, stick him in the first team and he’ll count as “club-trained.” Case in point: Cesc Fabregas. He counts as an Arsenal “home-grown” player despite the fact that he signed for them after six seasons in Barcelona’s youth system and spent a paltry amount of time in the Gunners’ Academy. (In fact, he made his first team debut 47 days after signing for the club.)
Indeed, having a team stocked with “club-trained” players can often be a result of factors that have nothing to do with being virtuous and believing in “youth development.” Many times, it’s simple economics: a cheap way to fill your roster. The CIES report lists the teams with the highest percentage of club-trained players and you’ll find FC Gomel topping it with a whopping 92 percent; they were relegated from the Belarusian top-flight last year. In fact, other than Athletic Bilbao (and there are other reasons at play here, starting with the Basque-only policy) you won’t see any clubs from Europe’s Big 5 in the top 20.
There’s also another factor, one that strikes to the heart of the ageless “nature vs. nurture” debate. Do the clubs with the most academy graduates playing professionally actually “produce” the players? Or are they just places that aggregate kids who are already extremely talented?
One parallel might be with higher education. Harvard graduates tend to be rather successful in life, whether your metric is earnings or PhDs or achievement in other fields. Is that because Harvard is exceptionally good at educating people — what with their brainiac professors and state-of-the-art facilities — and giving them the tools to become high achievers? Or is it because Harvard aggressively recruits the best and brightest kids, most of whom would have been high achievers anyway?
Cesc Fabregas is considered homegrown/club-trained given his time at Arsenal, though it’s clear he was developed elsewhere.
Where you lean in answering that question probably matches where you stand on the nature/nurture debate and it’s not dissimilar to football academies. Some love giving the impression that random 10-year-olds arrive at a place like Barcelona’s fabled La Masia and emerge eight years later as fully-formed pros. It’s not really like that.
Barcelona have used 10 players who went through La Masia this season. It’s a remarkable number, but look a little more closely: only six of those 10 joined before they turned 14 and of those six, two (Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba) left the club and completed their youth training elsewhere. That leaves Lionel Messi, Rafinha (both 13 when they joined), Andres Iniesta (12) and Marc Bartra (11).
Messi (who had spent six years with Newell’s Old Boys in Argentina) and Iniesta (who came from Albacete) were both hugely hyped youngsters with plenty of suitors from around the world. They moved a long distance to come to La Masia. Would they have become the players they are today if they hadn’t joined Barcelona? We’ll never know for sure, but, odds are, they’d be playing top-flight football somewhere.
Now this doesn’t mean you learn nothing at La Masia. Far from it. But the instruction they receive is probably not entirely dissimilar to that they would have had at most other top-drawer academies, if only because clubs are constantly monitoring and copying each other. (Go to any semi-serious youth club and they’ll all tell you they same thing: they don’t care about results, it’s all about development. They prize teamwork, humility and technique, teaching fundamentals and a holistic approach.)
So why are there so many La Masia alumni dotted around Europe? For the same reason there are plenty from Real Madrid, Ajax and Manchester United.
These clubs have huge youth academies, funnel hundreds of kids through the system and, crucially, they recruit heavily, cherry-picking the best kids from local clubs right up until the age of 18. If it takes a soothsayer to look at a nine-year-old and predict whether he can make it as a pro, when you’re dealing with 14-year-olds who’ve been in other clubs’ academies, your success rate is going to be that much higher. And when it’s 16-year-olds, well, it’s higher still.
Man United’s vaunted Class of 1992 is a plus point for youth development, but also a freakish outlier.
To some degree, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you have good youth coaches, good facilities, tons of good scouts filtering the kids in your area (and further afield) and a good “brand,” it will then follow that plenty of your graduates will play at the highest level. Furthermore, you don’t need to be a big club to be a good youth brand: Atalanta and Rennes are mid-tier sides who consistently churn out top-flight talent.
Even then, it’s a numbers game. Superstars are often born by accident. Manchester United’s academy sometimes gets stick because after the much celebrated Class of ’92, they haven’t produced a steady stream of first-teamers. But surely not having a David Beckham or Ryan Giggs or Paul Scholes — three freakish outliers — can’t be seen as a mark of failure, can it?
The reality is that what is perceived to be a good youth academy is often predicated on recruitment and sometimes, there’s a dark underbelly to it: talk to enough scouts and you’ll hear stories of cash payments and unscrupulous agents, even in the realm of 14-year-old prospects.
Fundamentally, good youth development is desirable for any club. If you can develop your own first-teamers it’s financially advantageous, good for your image and often yields players who are more loyal to the club. But the truth of it is that to be good at it increasingly requires the same skills — scouting, negotiation, ruthlessness and hard bargains — that are needed for the first team, and often more so than simply having good coaching and facilities. And so clubs devote more of their resources to the first team: if assessing a 16-year-old is easier than assessing a nine-year-old, then assessing a 25-year-old is easier than assessing a 16-year-old. Simply put, there is a lot less risk.
It’s not as if youth development is getting worse. Or that some kind of mortal blow is being dealt to football because clubs don’t bring through as many of their “own players” (whatever that means) than they did in the past. Simply put, different clubs are doing things in different ways. For the simple reason that it makes sense for them.
Gabriele Marcotti is a columnist for ESPN FC, The Times and Corriere dello Sport. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.