Who has the most successful youth development system in the Premier League? Famously, Manchester United have consistently included at least one graduate from their youth development programme in their matchday squad for a few decades now, and while cynics claim that this is mainly perpetuated for PR reasons, it remains true just the same.
The club also has a rich heritage for bringing through players and turning them into first-team regulars. This was especially so under Sir Alex Ferguson. Others may posit the cases of Tottenham under Pochettino, and Liverpool or Arsenal. The problem is, though, before you can give a truly valid answer, you need to define the question. What does the phrase “most successful youth development system” mean, and in what context?
Success in the FA Youth Cup is often used as a measure of success when judging the worth of a club’s young talent, and indeed, Manchester United have won this trophy more than any other, doing so on ten occasions. It should be noted, however, that six of those triumphs came more than 50 years ago, and they have only won it twice since the year 2000.
So who is the dominant club at this level over recent years? Tottenham’s last success was in 1990. Arsenal have three triumphs this century, in 2000, 2001 and 2009. Liverpool won it in 2006 and 2007. If success in this competition is in any way reflective of a successful youth system, the dominant club is the one often lambasted for not bringing youth players through into their first team squad – Chelsea.
Between 2008 and the final contested in 2018, the Stamford Bridge club have contested eight of the 11, winning seven, including the last five on the bounce. Even narrowing it down to those last five years, it seems fair to say that there was something in the order of 50 or so top ranked players in the Chelsea youth system, being among, if not actually topping, the crop of players in the English game.
The question that therefore arises is whatever happened to these starlets, these players brimming with talent, players in blue with rosy futures? The simple answer is that although the vast majority achieved first-team status and remain active in that arena, very few – hardly any, in fact – are doing so with Chelsea.
To put the answer in fairly brutal terms, it’s just that Chelsea’s modus operandi makes such progress extremely difficult. When any new manager joins a club, there’s a chorus of encouragement from fans, press, pundits and indeed the club to use the club’s youth system to fill out gaps in the first team squad, rather than lavish big brass on imported players. The problem is that such clarion calls are folly, bordering on farce.
The average tenure of a manager is pretty short. Of the 20 jobs in the Premier League, seven of the managers were appointed in 2018 or 2019. If you want to have a manager committed to bringing young players through, it’s likely that they’re going to need five years or so to see the full flowering of that talent. How many of the 92 clubs have given their managers that long?
A review suggests that there are merely four – Jim Bentley, Gareth Ainsworth, Eddie Howe and Sean Dyce, equating to around four percent. If you’re a new manager and want to keep your job, what’s more likely to make that happen: bringing in off the peg solutions or a load of young players that will probably benefit the guy after you, or indeed the one after that? It’s your job remember, and you want to keep it. What would you do?
Now imagine if that situation was intensified. The hot seat at Stamford Bridge is one of the hottest in the Premier League with occupants whisked in and out with alarming regularity. Since Roman Abramovich took over, including caretakers, interims and other temporary appointments – as if anything is ever anything other than temporary at Chelsea – there have been 14 different managers.
The current situation with Maurizio Sarri suggests he will leave soon as odds on betting sites have increased on the Italian departing in the summer. Given the discussion about choices between young players and buying in, is there much reason to doubt which was the obvious answer for the man in the dugout at Stamford Bridge?
If we take this as being the case, and it’s surely difficult to posit an alternative logic, the consequence is that any young player seeking to make their way at the club is going to have a more than difficult fight on their hands, regardless of the domination of youth level football. Chelsea, therefore, have adopted, perhaps on a de facto rather than de jure basis, a policy of turning their youth system into a conveyor belt not for their first-team but for loans and then potential sales that bring in the revenue to buy the big-money signings required to deliver the success the club demands. This has also led to younger, promising players being brought in and loaned out when considered either unsuitable or not ready for first-team action at the club.
Some will, of course, argue that this isn’t what youth systems are for, and it’s often used as a stick to beat the club with, but that there’s not much reason to assume that the Chelsea hierarchy are overly worried by such fevered hand-wringing, mostly by supporters of other clubs or pundits with a particular axe to grind.
There’s also a danger that the occasional star in the making will slip through the net. People citing the cases of Mohamed Salah, Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne would say that putting these players out on loan, rather than playing them, led to big financial losses, but such things may almost be written into the model by the club.
So, if Chelsea’s way of operating, with its inherent revolving door of managers, requires the youth set up to operate more as a money-raising venture through exploitation of the loan system, with the added bonus that occasionally some players may even get into the first team squad – Loftus-Cheek, Christensen and Hudson-Odoi for example – does it work?
In July 2018, a news site completed a survey of the most successful clubs of the previous decade based on the number of major trophies won. Leicester, Wigan, Liverpool, Swansea and Birmingham were placed in joint fifth, with one. Arsenal were placed fourth with three major honours. Manchester City were third with seven. The runners-up were Manchester United with eight. You know what’s coming next. Yes, despite sacking six managers in that same period and having the cream of their youth crop out on loan or transferred, Chelsea were judged the most successful club with ten honours.
So, if someone asks you who has the most successful youth development system in the Premier League, make sure first what they mean by the question. Is it judged on how many players make it into the first team, regardless of any success the club may enjoy with those players in the first XI, or is it how much success a club enjoys by using that system as an adjunct to, rather than, a part of the development of the club’s playing staff? As with so many unknown answers, it all depends on the question.
By Gary Thacker @All_Blue_Daze