How to predict your future squad
Meet Gavin. Gavin is 17 years old, and has just signed a professional contract at a top Premier League football club. He’s played for England at an under-17 World Cup, and is already warming the bench of the first team in the League Cup.
What are the chances Gavin becomes an established first team player for his Premier League club?
You might think it’s quite high, based off the limited information above. Indeed, in 2007 one newspaper tipped Gavin – Hoyte, of Arsenal – as a potential starter at the 2014 World Cup. Of course, this prediction, along with a few others, was wildly off the mark.
Whilst it is easy to mock these predictions – which in truth are supported by little more than a hunch – they reflect the inherent difficulties in predicting the futures of our young players. Indeed, it’s often hard to predict what our squad will look like next season, let alone in 4, 5 or 6 years time.
But here’s a little exercise for you to try.
Get a list of every U21/academy/youth player in your club. Next to each name, mark the probability (on a scale of 0-1) that, at some point in the next 6 years, that player will at least be a semi-regular first team player.
For your standout under-21 players, it may be that you give them a 50-75% chance. For younger players it may be best to assign them all your ‘base’ rate – the proportion of under-18 players that have made it through to your first team in the last 10 years (perhaps 5%, so 0.05).
Next, dust off the calculator and add up the probabilities you’ve assigned each player. If you have, for example, 20 players at 20% (0.2) and 10 players at 50% (0.5), the numbers will add up to 9. This means you would expect 9 players to reach the first team within the next 6 years. Firstly, this becomes a starting point in evaluating return on investment in youth development; is 9 players (or whatever your number may be) an acceptable target given our costs? Secondly, its acts as a benchmark to which everyone at the club is accountable and can work towards.
Six years may seem like a long time in football, but they are a crucial six years for the development of our young players. Do your current plans create blockages in their pathways to the first team? How would sending these players out on loan affect their chances? In which positions are you likely to have holes in the squad, based on your estimates?
Prediction is rarely about “this player will definitely make it” or “this player has no chance”; it is generally shades of grey, reflecting the uncertainty of talent and opportunities. We’re dealing with human beings. This probabilistic approach is both risk-savvy and creates more reasonable expectations when talking to a player about his future. It should also save the club from pinning its hopes on one or two of its very own Gavins.