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Why knowledge is the antidote to fear in youth development

The Guardian’s Sean Ingle wrote a piece recently questioning whether England was on the verge of producing another ‘Golden Generation’ of footballers with the recent run of form of players like Spurs’ Harry Kane and Liverpool’s Jordan Ibe. Using data provided by Infostrada’s Simon Gleave, Ingle noted a remarkable drop in the number of players starting in Premier League first teams who are under the age of 24:

In the early 70s and 80s, between 35% and 37% of starting appearances in the old Division One were made by footballers who, being under 24, would qualify for the PFA’s young player of the year award. By 1991-92, on the eve of the Premier League era, it had slipped to 27%.

But despite the FA’s Blueprint for Football promising in 1991 that the Premier League would emphasise developing English talent, those numbers have continued to slide. In 2011-2012 just 21% of top-flight starters were 23 or younger. This season it is 17.4% – the lowest in the modern era.

This, despite increased investment in youth academies and younger player development.

Though I don’t know for certain, I would guess there are a few powerful trends responsible for this drop, chief among them being the enormous influx of television rights revenues in the Premier League, which have significantly raised the stakes of top flight clubs desperate to stay up every year. This—coupled with the continued dual roles of the football manager, who is both coach and player recruiter in chief—has led to a situation in which persons in a very vulnerable, public position have a tremendous amount of cash available to buy a first XI that will not only keep the club afloat, but will keep them in a job for a few years—or more likely months—longer. I don’t think all of this is a conscious development, but simply the result of a number of factors outside any one person’s control.

One obvious solution would be to give more power over recruitment to the role of technical director, a person generally kept out of the media spotlight whose job security extends beyond a few short-term results. But it may be even more helpful to address the root cause of the failure of English clubs to start more of their young players:

Fear.

Fear of failure, fear of the unknown, fear of losing one’s job. Choosing players with a proven track record of scoring goals or preventing them involves less risk—ie, fewer unknowns—than putting your professional trust in a promising young player who has yet to show their ability on the world’s biggest stage.

How do we counter fear? With knowledge. As in: how certain are we that this lightning quick, razor sharp 22 year old winger on the reserves won’t suddenly crash and burn when they join the first team? How many games can the club risk on this player before we know whether or not they will develop into a bona fide star?

Developing reliable predictive metrics is one way, but in the future, analytics will go even further into more accurately measuring the unseen ways a player may contribute to a winning performance. If you want some evidence for that, look at some of the presentations included in the latest OptaPro conference, particularly Dan Altman’s. This information could one day help youth academy staff to better work with their players to both help them reach their full potential, and to provide first team staff with more reliable knowledge about their younger players, removing some of the fear associated with starting them. 21st Club have also created Evolution: a tool specifically designed to help clubs build sustainable success by creating future scenario plans that encourage talent development through the system.

It’s important to note here that there are already several European clubs who rely on their youth products not out of choice, but financial necessity. They don’t exist in leagues with TV deals that would allow them to buy a first team wholesale, and they rely on transfer fees for finished products as a revenue source. Some teams have perfected this process more than others, but the important thing to note is that the most successful among them trust their youth system because it has worked in the past. The fear-cancelling knowledge here doesn’t reside in the individual players, but the system itself.

That system must also be dynamic, meaning that players are never regarded as finished products, but persons in constant need of development, coaching, improvement. This should involve a lot of bold experimentation, so long as results are recorded and either included in best practices or discarded. Analytics, properly applied, can help with that, but they are not strictly necessary in of themselves. What matters is the approach, the Official [Your Club Here] Way. A reinvestment of some of that TV money into a smarter, more comprehensive approach to team management won’t just help the club, but national football development as a whole.  

About Richard Whittall

Richard Whittall has created 28 entries.