The imperfect system: are loan deals the future of English player development?

The imperfect system: are loan deals the future of English player development?

THE THIRD ROUND OF THE FA CUP is an occasion that footballing romantics savour for a whole variety of reasons. Despite the competition’s fall from grace in recent years – as the country’s sides privilege league placings over short-term glory – and with remarkable giant-killings increasingly uncommon in the modern game, English football’s most feted club competition still maintains the ability to churn out stories to set the pulses racing.

The start of this years’ competition was no different in this regard, with Oxford United of League Two delighting neutrals up and down the country in defeating established Premier League side Swansea City 3-2 at the Kassam Stadium.

Most of the attention in the immediate aftermath of the match centred on Kemar Roofe’s double and the outstanding work being done by head coach Michael Appleton; two worthy, talented protagonists who warranted the back page headlines afforded to them after the pulsating cup clash.

Interestingly, however, most of the pre-match media attention was focused on 21-year-old Oxford midfielder John Lundstram, who is experiencing something of a renaissance, steadily rebuilding his career with the upwardly mobile U’s after failing to make the grade at the very top of the English game. Against Swansea City, Lundstram largely outplayed opposite number and England international Jonjo Shelvey (now at Newcastle) in a performance that made scouts across the nation sit up and pay attention. If the nadir in the former Evertonian’s career was the move from his boyhood club a year prior – a disappointing conclusion to a story that was meant to have a happy ending – then this was the moment that signalled that the highly-rated talent was once again back on track, and ready to make a name for himself.

Formerly of Everton, the player labelled ‘England’s lost boy’ by The Guardian’s Paul Doyle gave a candid interview on the eve of the tie, citing, amongst other things, the various potholes that lie in wait for young English players on the well-trodden development path towards the promised land of the professional game.

For those interested in youth development, Lundstram’s cautionary tale should not be dismissed, as it offers a clue as to why promising youngsters of his ilk, once tipped for stardom, almost inexplicably seem to fall at the final hurdle. It is a story that should not be viewed in isolation, as an anomaly, but as further evidence of the flawed nature of the English academy system for footballers between the ages of 18 and 21. For his case, like that of former Chelsea starlet Josh McEachran before him, highlights the dilemma managers face in attempting to bring through the cream of the crop from the development sides.

A regular in the England youth setup, the Everton academy star’s ability caught the eye of UEFA’s technical scouts from an early age, to such an extent that the cultured central midfielder was named as ‘one to watch’ by the governing body’s website before the under-17 World Cup in 2011. As with most teenage prodigies, Lundstram rapidly ascended the academy youth ranks and was regularly playing under-21 football by the time he was 17. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but tellingly, on Merseyside, there was almost as much hype about Lundstram as there was about Ross Barkley, his midfield partner in the age groups. He really was that well thought of by those on the blue half of the Liverpool divide.

It quickly became clear that although Lundstram was not yet ready for regular Premier League action, the player needed more than the occasional run out for Everton’s development teams. Then manager David Moyes had a chequered record when it came to blooding youth – for every Wayne Rooney there was a Skhodran Mustafi – and with the cautious Scot reluctant to even blood the youngster in one of the numerous cup competitions, Lundstram was farmed out on loan in an attempt to bridge the cavernous gap between development football and the professional game.

The initial signs were promising and the teen prospect took to lower league football like the proverbial duck to water. After a hugely successful loan spell with Doncaster Rovers in 2013, which culminated in the South Yorkshire club achieving promotion to the Championship, Lundstram went to the under-20 World Cup alongside the likes of former teammates Barkley, John Stones and Harry Kane. The Scouse midfield general seemed set to make the breakthrough under Moyes. However, that summer the Scot left for Manchester United and his replacement, Roberto Martínez, was evidently less enamoured with the young hopeful’s ability.

“When David Moyes was at Everton I was in the squad and with the first team and doing really well but as soon as he left it just wasn’t the same for me,” says Lundstram. “It’s a game of opinions and I wasn’t involved in the first team as much as I’d have liked under Martínez. I was meant to go on a pre-season tour with the first team when I came back from Doncaster and then, a couple of days before that, I got taken off the squad list to go and I was never told why. That knocked my confidence a bit and little things like that set me back a bit. Then I had to go on loan to Yeovil.”

At the time, Yeovil were embroiled in a battle for Championship safety and had moved towards a more direct style in an attempt to fight their way out of the mire. With the midfield often bypassed and games descending into scraps Lundstram’s technical ability was largely negated. Almost inevitably the Liverpudlian’s confidence diminished and the player found himself benched in favour of an assortment of wise old heads and battle-hardened grafters.

“It wasn’t the right club because we never had the ball. If I had my time again, I’d have more say in where I went and would say ‘no’ to some things. But I was just trying to please the manager and saying ‘yes, yes, yes’ all the time.”

Upon his return to Merseyside, the Goodison hierarchy were still not convinced. To ward off interest from lower league suitors and avoid a promising talent leaving on a Bosman, Everton offered Lundstram a short-term deal that smacked of tokenism. The contract afforded little stability or certainty to the player, was swiftly rejected and Lundstram took the brave decision to drop down the Football League pyramid in search of increased game-time.

Looking back, the case could be made that both Everton and the system itself had failed the player, with a series of loans only serving to heighten Lundstram’s self doubt and stall his overall progress. Perhaps Martínez and co. could have chosen better destinations for their charge – ones that allowed him to flourish as the focal point of a possession-centric unit – but the lingering feeling, as is so often the case in English football, is that the main issue was a systemic flaw in the final stage of player development, when players lie in the purgatorial space between reserve team and the seniors.

“I didn’t feel it was worth wasting any more time, so I just wanted to get out there and start playing first-team football regularly – and not on loan for once. It definitely makes a difference being permanent. You just feel much more part of things. With all the money involved in the Premier League it’s tough for a young English lad to come in but there are definitely some gems in the Football League who could play at the top. It’s just about getting the chance.” Thankfully, the 21-year-old is now in possession of the opportunity he so craved, and is taking it with both hands.


Lessons from the continent


With this fundamental flaw in the English player development plan perhaps firmly in mind, Lundstram’s former manager David Moyes offered an interesting, if controversial, alternative to the loan system in an interview with the Independent back in 2012. In an impassioned plea for change, the Glaswegian argued that British football would be best served in attempting to replicate the successful B team model evidenced in major European nations like Germany and Spain. His belief was that the Premier League’s best had a long way to go in order to keep up with their foreign counterparts and allowing second-string Premier League sides to play in the Football League was a potential remedy for the sick patient.

“The youth development system in England is not right, in my belief. In my opinion there is a missing link between age groups in all competitions. The gap between the reserve team and the first-team is immense here,” noted the Scottish coach.

“Barcelona ‘B’ play in the equivalent of the Championship. If the European model is applied in England, it could be tested. Four or five years ago I would have liked to have put an Everton reserve team into the Conference because it would have been better football for them. My hope was that we could have used Widnes’ stadium as the home ground and that when Everton were playing away the B team would have played in the Conference there.

“That was my long (term) idea because I thought the games would have been better, more competitive and more realistic for the players. Because the games would tend to be on a Saturday or a Sunday the young players would be able to follow the same programme as the senior ones.

“The training week is similar and the players can do similar work. When your reserve games are Tuesday or Wednesday night it makes it difficult to follow programmes and your weekends become difficult because they (younger players) may have to come with the first team.

“But we would have had to have gone into Division Nine of the North-West Outer Counties or whatever you want to call it and it would have taken 10 or 11 years to get through.

“I would have been happy just to be in the Conference – no promotion, not involved in cups or anything – just so I could have got a good reserve team and given young players a game against the men. But I think it would be unfair for any team to go into the Championship, the tradition in this country would see that not as the right thing to do.”

Moyes was right in thinking that, at the time, there was little scope to change the existing system. While Premier League sides were generally in favour, some struggled with the idea of ‘wasting’ funds on a B side, and Football League clubs outright rejected the notion, arguing that it would put their very existence at risk.

Instead, knowing that he was fighting a losing battle as far as B sides were concerned, the Everton boss plumped for what he deemed to be the second best option; the loan system.

To varying success, Everton’s top talent was shipped out to lower league teams. Whereas current club veteran Leon Osman was unable to make the breakthrough at Goodison Park until profitable loan spells at Carlisle United and Derby County, Lundstram and others failed to make the grade and needed more nurturing and guidance from the parent club. The message was clear, the loan system worked for some, but not all; the key lay in personal development plans tailor-made for individual players.


Martínez: development guru?


Years later, Moyes found an unlikely ally in his battle to implement B teams in the form of his replacement at Everton, Roberto Martínez. The two men couldn’t be further apart in terms of their prospective managerial styles – Moyes is often labelled a pragmatist and Martínez an idealist – yet the former Wigan boss’s Catalan roots and obsession with Barcelona’s La Masia academy meant that the two were, for once, singing from the same hymn sheet as far as player progression was concerned.

“First and foremost we need to be aware there is a big problem with development of the age group 18-23 and not enough competitive football. You will always get a reaction that is negative and suspicious when you change things, but we have to look at that young English players don’t get a fair level of competition. We need to look around at other leagues, at what they do, and give the young players the best chance of developing.

“Everyone speaks about Spain, about how they develop players and they’ll tell you that it has been a programme of 10 to 15 years and so on,” said Martínez.

“What they have is a programme that develops men at the age of 18 to 21. That’s what it is and nothing else. Up to the age of 18 we [England] are the best in the world. They’re too good, but then they become over-protected.”

For all his flaws, the Catalan supremo has a point and should be at the centre of any debate surrounding the future of English academy football. First, in terms of his own team, Everton, his greatest achievement to date has been the startling progression of the Blues’ aptly named ‘Fab Four’ of John Stones, Ross Barkley, Romelu Lukaku and Gerard Deulofeu, of which Martínez has played an influential role. Second, a brief glance at the results of various England age group sides over the past decade highlights an interesting trend; from 16 to 19, the Young Lions are right up there with the best in Europe, as two European under-17 Championship wins in 2010 and 2014 outline.

Significantly, most of the class of 2010 are now reaching the maturation point in terms of their professional careers. As is stands, few have achieved anything like the success expected of what was supposedly a vintage generation of young English talent. Ross Barkley, Jack Wilshere and Jack Butland may have shone to varying degrees, but the progress of others, namely Nathaniel Chalobah, Bruno Pilatos, Conor Coady and the aforementioned Josh McEachran has stalled. Simply put, the yield from the 2010 generation has been far lower than expected. Compare it to that of the all-conquering German under-21 side of 2009 featuring Messrs Özil, Neuer, Hummels and Khedira, and the contrast is stark. The same can be said for the Spanish system, with Barcelona B responsible for the vast array of talent currently plying its trade at the Camp Nou and across Europe.

So what’s the fundamental difference between England and Germany, then? A huge disparity in the number of UEFA A standard coaches helps. Moreover, one has a B division in which the likes of Neuer and Hummels refined their trade, the other relies on temporary loans and an inadequate reserve league. Never was the old adage, ‘you reap what you sow’ more apt.

“The under-18s have the same facilities as the first team, the same support team and everything. It’s too much. It’s good to have things, don’t get me wrong, but if we’ve got such a fantastic set-up to the age of 18 why are we looking away at the ages of 18 to 21? Here, lads of the same age are at the bottom of the dressing room. They’re in the first-team squad, but what experience are they getting? They are getting nothing. It’s the opposite,” continued the Catalan, in a manner befitting the most ardent preacher addressing his enraptured congregation.

“If a boy trains at under-18 level he does 35 hours; if he goes into the Under-21s he’s lucky if he does 10. Too much time on their hands and then the boy starts thinking he has made it with cars and girls and so on. “We’ve created a void in that age group. It’s common sense. It’s not big science.

“The games programme has not been good enough, in terms of reserve-team football. In the under-21s you don’t learn to get promoted or to get relegated, you don’t learn that you can cost yourself something and can even cost people jobs. It’s not a real environment,” he added.

A keen advocate of B teams, Martínez acknowledges the error in the English system, but in light of no real desire for change has, like Moyes before him, settled on what he believes to be the lesser of two evils in sending his brightest talent out on loan. After the failure of the likes of Lundstram and Mustafi – the latter a current German international after being released on a free by Moyes – Everton’s Finch Farm academy now does it better than most, with former player and manager Joe Royle in charge of overseeing academy loans. Lessons learned, then. But is it sustainable?

“You have the loan period which takes you away from the environment you’ve been playing into a completely different environment, so you don’t learn the type of game that you should be playing at your club.

“The reality is that we need to take responsibility because the youngsters at 18, 19, 20 aren’t getting the education they would get in France or Spain or Italy.

“I like B teams. Can you imagine playing at Championship level with your group, in your environment, but having to win games, try to get promotion and avoid relegation? You know what it means to play against men.”

It’s far from ideal given the precedent, however, Ross Barkley came through the Goodison Park ranks after formative spells on loan at Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United, while current first teamers Brendan Galloway and John Stones were quickly snapped up from MK Dons and Barnsley respectively after cutting their teeth in the lower leagues. Given the profitable nature of Everton’s youth development programme, maybe loans really are the way forward in the absence of an overhaul in the current system?


Klopp dismisses the English system


Approximately one mile across Stanley Park Liverpool, too, are going through something of a period of transition, with an overhaul of their youth development programme close to the top of their list of priorities. Led by the enigmatic German Jürgen Klopp – the man tasked with turning around the fortunes of one of England’s most historic clubs – the Kirkby-based academy team has set about instantly dismantling Brendan Rodgers’ vision. Like Martínez, the Northern Irishman used the loan market to test his youngsters in a competitive environment, again with varying success.

Yet for a prescriptive, authoritarian and ‘hands on’ coach like Klopp, the model he inherited was far from ideal and he immediately sought to rectify the situation.

“It is important we take our own players back like with Kent, Ojo and Tiago. These are our players and we have a situation (with injuries),” noted the ex-Dortmund manager in a subsequent interview with the national media.

“In my opinion the best talents should be at their own club so they can play together for the under-21s and develop as a team, so you always have them around you.”

Clearly, the German’s approach contradicts sharply with those employed by his predecessor, Martinez and a whole host of other top-flight managers, including Louis van Gaal and José Mourinho. Klopp’s ability to bring through young players was evident during his immensely productive time at Borussia Dortmund yet the fact remains that he was aided by a better structure at reserve level and won’t be afforded such a luxury during his time in England. It will be interesting to see if he strongly-held beliefs on the loan system do indeed change in the coming years, when he is fully to grips with the British game.

Time will tell on this one- maybe the former Dortmund manager possesses wisdom to subvert the imperfect system currently in place, with all its flaws, and point the way forward in terms of future player development. One way or another, he’ll have his work cut out, that’s for sure.

By Patrick Boyland. Follow @Paddy_Boyland

No Comments Yet

Comments are closed