In EPL, big transfers mean small minutes for academy players

Sunday June 9th, 2013

Arsenal's Carl Jenkinson and Tottenham's Tom Carroll have made the first-team leap after starring at the U-21 level.
David Price/Getty Images

The tills are already a-ringing. Manchester City has spent its first £50 million, bringing the Shakhtar Donetsk midfielder Fernandinho to the Etihad after agreeing a deal with Sevilla for the winger Jesus Navas. Roman Abramovich is hoping that Bayer Leverkusen will relieve him of close to £20 million in exchange for the forward Andre Schurrle; there is also talk that Hulk might join Chelsea for another £35 million.

Manchester United has already paid £10 million for the former Crystal Palace winger Wilfried Zaha, and could spend a further £17 million on the Benfica centre back Ezequiel Garay even before any Everton players follow David Moyes to Old Trafford. Arsenal is expected to spend this summer, with Marouane Fellaini and the Swansea striker Michu grist to the rumour mill. As has become traditional, Tottenham Hotspur will "chase" the Internacional striker Leandro Damiao all summer, waving £20 million around.

The transfer windows have become as much a part of the Premier League soap opera as anything that happens on matchdays. If you are not at least thinking about spending silly money on a big name, you can bet you are not being talked about as a contender for even the most modest of achievements. For all the lauding of Swansea City's savvy, having signed Michu from Real Vallecano for just £2 million last summer, <i>too much</i> is more if you want to be taken seriously.

In this environment it is almost impossible for young academy players to break in to the first team. Just 22 debuted in the 2012-13 campaign, an average of little more than one per club -- and when you consider that Liverpool gave first team game time to seven of its academy players, it is easy to see how rare the opportunities have been elsewhere. The numbers were not much higher last year, but they are in decline.

The creation of the Under-21 Premier League (or the Professional Development League 1, to give it the proper title) and the pan-European NextGen Under-19 series was supposed to be a good thing, giving younger players more competitive action. Yet in creating a feted place for them to play, these competitions also make it easier for managers to ignore young players when they consider their squad.

Coaches do not see these competitions straightforwardly as routes to the first team squad even when their youngsters do well. Besides Liverpool's Brendan Rodgers, the Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert is the Premier League's most committed to bringing youth through, but he told his NextGen-winning team that they still had a long way to go before being in contention for the first team.

"He's right," said the academy assistant director Steve Burns, whose team defeated not only fellow finalists Chelsea but also Sporting, Ajax, and PSV along the way. "If you have done well in the NextGen, all it means is you have been in a fortunate position to win a few games. The Premier League is a million miles away. For them to make that step is really big."

That said, Villa currently has 13 academy graduates with at least one first team appearance to their names; Graeme Burke and Derrick Williams joined the list last season and they are among five young players offered contract extensions this summer. Villa may have flirted like a 2am drunk with relegation last season, but Lambert has a young side primed in his way of doing things, and with a hard season's experience under their belts. Bets placed on exciting attacking players such as Jack Grealish and Callum Robinson making their first team debuts next season wouldn't be frivolous.

But what about the clubs in the top four or five - shouldn't they be producing the cream of the crop? Responsibility for the cult of the expensive overseas player is often laid at the supporters' door, but talking to fans at a game, over a drink or on Twitter it is clear that people would like to see their clubs developing their own players. A £30 million signing is exciting but there is something about watching a young player whom the club has shaped -- has put time and expertise, not just money, in to - that cannot be replicated.

Manchester City has trumpeted the money going to develop its academy setup, but the club has stopped producing first team players at the rate that it was 10 years ago. Micah Richards, who made his debut in 2005, is the last graduate to establish himself in the first team. Several of the seven still at the club to have debuted in the past three seasons are still waiting for their second appearance.

That includes John Guidetti, the young Swedish striker who has been compared to Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Last term City could not find the goals that had come so easily in the championship-winning 2011-12 season (during which Guidetti was scoring 20 goals in 21 league starts on loan at Feyenoord). Guidetti was laid off with a serious leg injury in the first half of the season but didn't even make the bench once recovered, despite the fact that it took him only nine minutes to get back to scoring for the Elite Development Squad. Perhaps his chance will come next season, with the injury well gone. "We'll see which striker they choose," he said, though his chances must be considered slim.

Tottenham's Under-21 side only narrowly missed out on the title this season, losing to Manchester United in the final having dominated the competition throughout the group stages, scoring goals for fun. Of that team Tom Carroll, the slight but delightfully cultured central midfielder, has made his way in to Andre Villas-Boas's plans.

He made 14 first-team appearances last season and that should go up again next; he's exactly the kind of player that Tottenham need to link back to front, and that most teams would think nothing of spending £8-10 million on if he were plying his trade in La Liga. Will Alex Pritchard (think young Steven Gerrard) join him? Is there room for Shaquile Coulthirst, the striker who has also attracted attention from Real Madrid and Barcelona? Tottenham has let so many young strikers go by the way side in recent years. (The trouble of course is that Spurs have neglected to sign an additional striker for so long that they almost have to make a marquee signing now.)

Chelsea has a wealth of young talent at its disposal, but most likely these players will spend next season on loan. Again. It's probably the best that Arsenal's Chuba Akpom can hope for. Moyes would have been brave enough to ship the likes of Larnell Cole (who scored two to win the U21 final against Spurs) and Adnan Januzaj in to the first team squad at Everton, but during a high-pressure first season at Manchester United?

Not all players who impress at academy and reserve level go on to match their promise. There is nothing wrong, per se, with giving young players competitive football in a Champions League-type format. The loan system does enable clubs to give their best young players a chance to grow -- the Football League is fiercely competitive.

But it is too easy to loan a whole squad of players out to make their mistakes elsewhere, on someone else's dollar, calling back only the exceptional few. The standards set for academy players seem to be higher than for those players brought in at a cost, the second-chances less numerous.

Of 47 players who started last season aged 21 or under and who played 10 or more games, only 11 can be said to have been cultivated by the team they were playing for, even if we're being generous with those terms. Meanwhile 16 were (typically recently) signed from overseas, where - and this is significant - they often had whole first-team campaigns on their CVs.

Something is rotten in English football when so few academy players become the first teamers their clubs want, and I am not convinced that the fault lies with the players. Are you telling me that Manchester United could not have produced a player at least as able as Anderson, and saved the £20 million that Porto said was paid? The club ought to choke on the suggestion.

The Premier League has more money than ever before, and is proud of that fact. It would be nice to see a little pride attached to spending less of it on players that other clubs have had the courage to put on show.

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