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Chelsea’s large number of youth and squad players has caused uproar amongst the assorted press.

The reality is that Chelsea are not doing anything that other clubs are not doing other than it being highly organised and effective financially.

What's the best way to develop young footballers?The approach however offers no guarantees and is not without financial risk. The second issue is the question of who exactly is responsible for protecting young players and their development is a thorny one. The debate about how best to develop young talent is a highly complex one.

Football – or at least those enlightened footballing sages that believe they know better than the rest of us – however seems to be wrestling with this notion, arguing that the hoovering up of young talent from across Europe – and the globe – is immoral – or at least amoral – if largely legal (clubs have been penalised for crossing the line with transfer bans such as Barcelona most recently).

One of the biggest feathers in the cap of any club is a successful and burgeoning youth system. Even better if it is filled to the brim with local youth products. After all, only a lad born down the road can truly understand what it means to play for your club, even in these times of globalisation. Forget that the likes of Thierry Henry at Arsenal and Eric Cantona at Manchester United would be ranked by many of the club’s support as arguably that club’s greatest ever player. Please indulge my brief sarcasm at the irony. Manchester United’s famed Class of ’92 were mainly from the surrounding area, Giggs had a Welsh mother and Beckham was from London, but hey there were English or at least British so who cares? A youth system no matter how big or what happens to the players ultimately is deemed fine if the players are all local.

Manchester United - Class of 1992

Manchester United – Class of 1992

Barcelona's La Masia - Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi

Barcelona’s La Masia – Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi

United’s class of ’92 was a wonderful anomaly, matched or bettered only by Ajax’s great team of youth products in the mid ’90s and Barca’s last great La Masia batch.

However, of that famed United academy and even from that team, both Phil Neville and Nicky Butt were moved on. Wes Brown and John O’Shea (Eire) later were mere squad players and the likes of Luke Chadwick, Danny Higginbotham, Ronny Wallwork, Tom Cleverley, Fraizer Campbell, Robbie Savage, Ryan Shawcross and Kieran Richardson were all surplus to requirements. There have also been many foreign talents brought through that system in recent times. Giuseppe Rossi, Paul Pogba, Jonathan Spector, Federico Macheda and even Adnan Januzaj, none who have made the grade – there is still time for Januzaj it must be said and Rossi and Pogba were aberrations of judgement it would appear.

Manchester United's Adnan Januzaj

Manchester United’s Adnan Januzaj

There is still time for Januzaj to become a regular at United but his career trajectory at Old Trafford is now uncertain at best. The point here is not to pick on Manchester United, but more to illustrate that even the most successful of youth systems has a massive failure rate – and that the hoarding of young players who will eventually not make the grade has always gone on.

One could argue that United (and they should be praised accordingly) have done more than most to give those players a chance in their first team however. Danny Welbeck is the most recent example where the player developed into a full England international yet was still deemed not to be of a sufficient calibre. Now of course many youth systems are more successful than others. How can anyone criticise an academy that produced Messi and Iniesta? But the truth is that it is the initial scouting and size of that network that recruits those players initially that dictates how successful the system is.

Let’s not forget Lionel Messi is not from Catalunya and was prised from his native Argentina at the tender age of 13 at which point he was already a prodigious talent in his country and destined for the very top. La Masia cut and polished the diamond, they did not mine it. Chelsea – amongst others – are criticised for not serving the interests of the player and his development but that is entirely counter intuitive given the aims of the club.

It would seem almost entirely illogical to assume that when an elite club signs a young player, it is not with a view to the player having the potential (and I would stress potential) to play in the first team, but if he does not reach that level then he can be sold on for a profit or at least a break even versus his development costs.

Assuming that statement is correct, there would be simply no reason for a club to stifle the development of a player yet there is an assumption that a club in England buying a young player and loaning him to a club in say Belgium or Holland (to play first team football) is in some way harmful versus letting him develop in his native country or in a lower division in England.

It would also be reasonable to assume that the youth facilities at the bigger clubs are better and that the potential salaries on offer are better. It is hard to see how the player is being hindered either professionally or personally given those criteria. Thirty-two is the total number of Chelsea players out on loan to other clubs right now. They have been castigated pre FFP for spending huge swathes of Roman Abramovich’s cash and now they are now being pilloried for a business model that does much to make them self sufficient.

Nearly all of those players it must be said are playing regular first team football rather than stagnating in the reserves. Many loan deals stipulate how much first team football a player should receive which benefits the player’s development – a fact that seems to be lost on most. The truth is that the problem at Chelsea appears to be one of the initial scouting rather than the development of the player – and Josh McEachran is a prime example. Given that faced with a place on the bench at Chelsea at best, he was instead loaned out to Swansea City (amongst others). And given McEachran is a play maker and Swansea play possession based football, surely Chelsea served both theirs and his interests to the fullest?

Chelsea Academy product Josh McEachran

Chelsea Academy product Josh McEachran

Chelsea have been castigated for the failure of the likes of McEachran to develop into top players but the reality is McEachran has had numerous opportunities at clubs such as Swansea and has failed to nail down a regular starting place, he is simply not good enough. Likewise, young striker Patrick Bamford is another people are crying out to be given an opportunity at Chelsea, yet Crystal Palace do not see him as a viable starter so far this season it would appear. Players need an opportunity but the talent and ability needs to be there in the first place.

Arsenal also provide compelling evidence that the loan system is not necessarily an evil for young players. Jack Wilshere played wonderfully on loan for two seasons for Bolton before being brought into the side. He has played for Arsenal and England since because he was good enough to do so. If Wilshere’s body (and mind) can stand up to the rigours of modern football, he remains one of England’s great hopes. Theo Walcott conversely, was bought by Arsenal just before his 17th birthday in 2006 and has been there ever since. You would find it hard to find someone who believed that Walcott had fulfilled even a fraction of his potential during his nine seasons with the Gunners.

Despite differing career paths in their younger years, neither Jack Wilshere nor Theo Walcott has fulfilled their potential

Despite differing career paths in their younger years, neither Jack Wilshere nor Theo Walcott has fulfilled their potential

Many people – to the point of protectionism – argue that foreign players are stifling the development of young British players. This can be disproved simply by a look at the career paths of England’s true top class players over the past decade or so. Gerrard, Ferdinand, Terry, Owen, Ashley Cole, Beckham, Scholes and Rooney were all playing for top clubs – many as teenagers – early in their careers, simply because they were good enough.

The problem and the reason why so many clubs take players in at youth level only to jettison them later is because either the scouting is not good enough in the first place or the young players are not good enough – or both. It is hard to imagine that the likes of Chelsea would have been loaning out Lionel Messi had he come through their youth ranks because he would have obviously been good enough in the same way that Rooney was a first team regular at 17.

Not all players develop in a linear fashion of course. Spurs signed a 17 year old Gareth Bale and took five seasons to work out he wasn’t a left back, nearly swapping him for Stewart Downing with a cash top up in Downing’s favour in the process. Possibly a loan move for Bale during his early Spurs years and more careful management at a smaller club may have seen him blossom sooner.

Young Gareth Bale at Tottenham Hotspur

Young Gareth Bale at Tottenham Hotspur

Spurs initially had no idea of the young Gareth Bale’s potential, what his best position was and how to take care of his physical development. Barca’s La Masia is revered – quite rightly – but the reality is it is Barcelona’s scouting network and the initial young talent pool that they draw from that makes it so successful. Mourinho famously referred to making an omelette with bad eggs during his first stint at Chelsea, but the truth is that if the raw talent going into an academy is the best possible, then the reality is it has the biggest chance of succeeding almost regardless of the methods employed within that academy.

And the system is far from perfect – just ask Cesc Fabregas or Gerard Pique who both stepped out before returning, or players such as Bojan Krkic, Giovani dos Santos and Mikel Arteta who have made their careers elsewhere after failing to develop as hoped for. It is also the reason that the likes of Neymar Jr and Suarez amongst others are recruited for huge transfer fees.

Now of course, none of this is to say that the current youth system cannot be improved or changed. Football is of course a business first and foremost nowadays and the clubs therefore cannot be expected to put the interests of a teenager before their own regardless of the moral implications. It is no different in American sports where the franchises act purely in their own self interest during the annual draft.

If FIFA or UEFA believe there is an issue with young players not developing or having their interests protected – the roles of agent and third party ownership of young players would be of far greater concern – then it is for the governing bodies to intervene or to change the rules. Much of this of course would possibly be at odds with EU employment law.

For the clubs, it is their responsibility to act within the legality of the rules, to take what actions they feel will ultimately make the team the most successful and for clubs such as Manchester United also to provide the best shareholder return.

The loan system is far from perfect but the use of it by clubs is not to blame for young players not emerging, indeed it encourages their participation in first team football.

For young players, the opportunities and the riches on offer are almost untold, but quite simply only if you are good enough.

Originally published at oneshotfootball.com

Post written by Steven McBain
for One Shot Football, Blog: One Shot Football, Twitter: @O_S_Football

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