The opportunistic debut
As we approach the final stretch of the European season, an increasing number of teams have fewer major placings for which to compete. With that comes an opportunity for young players to make their league debut, and hopefully with it a positive impression for the following season.
It’s not unfair to suggest that these opportunities can often be the result of tokenism though; a manager making a nod to the club’s academy, but done so in the knowledge that these matches will have little bearing on the final league table.
The problem with this opportunistic approach to youth development is clearly reflected in the data; players who make their debut start in April or May tend to make about 40% fewer starts in the following season than those who debuted in August to December.
The relationship with late debuts persists into a player’s third season, where those that debuted in April and May again played 40% fewer games than the early-season debutants, despite now being more than 12-18 months on from these first starts.
This isn’t to say a late-season debut directly damages a young player’s prospects of becoming a first-team player, but is more a reflection of the underlying thinking and processes that go into talent development. A debut awarded in August suggests a level of strategy and thought that has gone into the decision; the player has often demonstrated readiness in the summer and the club has made a considered decision to bring him into the first team. A debut start in April or May is more likely to be a result of league circumstance.
Southampton are an example of a club that recognises this: since promotion all 10 youth academy players to have made a league debut start did so in January or earlier. The club’s best youth prospects are always considered to be potential options at any point in the season, not just the end.
The challenge as ever with talent development is to balance short-term risk with long-term reward; so if clubs are serious about youth development, then awarding token end-of-season debuts is perhaps not the place to start.