The English Premier League is considered by many as the best league in Europe and yet, if one were to look at the squads of some of the bigger clubs in England, you get the feeling that the major stars are predominantly foreigners.

Two of Europeai??i??s top 5 leagues stand out for their ability to produce talent through their youth systems on a consistent basis: Spainai??i??s La Liga and Germanyai??i??s Bundesliga. However, since the Premier League isAi??unarguablyAi??the largest football league in the world (at least financially) and the country itself is the birthplace of the sport in almost every aspect (from its Football Association to the oldest club in the world), basic logic suggests that England should be producing world class talent on a consistent basis, but somehow that is not the case. The question is why? And why are Spain and Germany so successful in that department? In fact, right now, even the Portuguese and French leagues develop talent on a more consistent basis than England.

On the one hand, fans of the Premier League would argue that it is in fact because the league is so competitive that younger local players find it so difficult to join the first team of their clubs. Yet, wouldnai??i??t the opposite be true as well? Can we not argue that, although the league is so competitive, if there are young English players who are good enough, they should be promoted to the first team of their club?Ai??Maybe, itai??i??s about the numbers. The United Kingdom has about 2700 (give or take 100) coaches that are certified by UEFA and an extremely large number of clubs with their respective youth systems. How exactly do they train youngsters with just that many coaches?

Leaving aside the lack of human resources or infrastructure, just the sheer large number of clubs across the United Kingdom should be enough to generate a large number of extremely talented young players. Yet, the English National Team has had little success of late, to put it mildly. Spain and Germany, on the other hand, have long been among the top 5 national teams with the former having won Euro 2008 and the World Cup in South Africa. How did the Netherlands, with a smaller population than England, produce some of the all-time greats of the beautiful game while their English counterparts continue to be found wanting?

Michael Owen, an explosive youngster back then, was the last English player to win the Ballon d'Or, in 2001

Contrary to popular belief, Ai??Spain isnai??i??t just ai???the big 2ai??i??. As a football playing nation with some great clubs, Barcelona and Real Madrid are not the only clubs to produce world class talent. Both clubs do have some of the most modern and well equipped systems set in place, which allow young players to develop. Indeed, Barcelona has become so famous that players who come from La Masia are automatically ingrained with ‘Barca DNAai??i??, which basically translates to a player with superior technical talent, vision and passing ability (and range), and this is done on a consistent basis. Light-hearted banter about La Masiaai??i??s carousel churning out world class midfielders every year and how there are doubts whether they are human or indeed an alien race is common even among football pundits.

Barcelona have paved the way for many clubs aspiring to win consistently by using homegrown talents. Out of their current squad (who are undoubtedy the greatest in the clubai??i??s history), unlike many other clubs who have enjoyed success, the core is largely homegrown and have played together for years. Victor Valdes, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Lionel Messi, Pedro Rodriguez, Thiago Alcantara, Isaac Cuenca are all graduates of La Masia. These arenai??i??t just squad players; many of them are either amongst the best players in their respective positions or among the best young players in the world. It is not difficult to imagine a day when Pep Guardiola sends out a team comprised solely of La Masia graduates (in fact, he has played a game where 9 of the starting 11 were from La Masia) and it’d not really surprise anybody. Can anybody say the same of, say, Manchester City? Chelsea? Manchester United? Or even Arsenal, whose manager is famous for his preference for developing younger players Ai??rather than buying experienced world beaters?

Real Madrid, who are just as big as Barcelona and just as desperate to win titles, have a slightly different youth policy. Florentino Perez, president of the club, is famous for his ai???Galacticosai??i?? policy, which is more about marketing and generating revenue than trusting in the clubai??i??s youth system. However, the system itself is brilliant and can be confirmed by looking at some of the players that were part of the capital clubai??i??s youth system at one point or another: Samuel Etoai??i??o, Juan Mata, Negredo, Soldado, Callejon, Iker Casillas, Raul Gonzalez… – the list goes on and on – all came from La Fabrica . At this point of time, Real Madrid have only two players who were brought up in their youth system, Callejon (who was bought back from Espanyol last summer) and Iker Casillas. Despite the transfer policy followed by the club, one cannot deny that, if Perez chose to, he could build an extremely competitive squad from their youth academy.

Villarreal, Espanyol and Athletic Bilbao are some of the relatively smaller clubs that have developed some phenomenal players and continue to do so. To a Premier League fan, it might seem like Spainai??i??s top division isnai??i??t exciting, but one just has to keep an eye out for some of the players to be proven wrong. Iker Muniain, for instance, who plays for Athletic Bilbao, is being dubbed ai???the next Messiai??i?? and does a better job of living up to the tag than most.Ai??The amount of great young talent in La Liga is sure to maintain the Spanish National Team among the very best in international football.

Germany is a slightly different case; while Spain has clubs with great youth policies, the Germans took a conscious effort to inculcate a culture that encourages the development local talent. Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich are perfect examples. Both clubsai??i?? ranks are filled with players who started their careers in the youth system and progressed through the ranks. Toni Kroos, Phillip Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Mario Goetze are just some of the uber-talented players who have gone on to win trophies with their clubs and build a truly competitive German National team.

The German government, the clubs and the football association reached an agreement about 10 years back to invest in football and develop young players. The hard work is paying off now and one canai??i??t help but wonder: why not in England?

If asked, the average fan can name maybe 10 players among the top 5 clubs in England who have been brought up through the youth system. There are some reasons that stick out more than others. If England has 2700 coaches (certified by UEFA), Germany and Spain have about 10-15 times that number, each. Yes, you read that right, if a country wants to develop players, they need coaches, lots of them.

Coaches aside, one must question certain rules, or rather restrictions that the English Football Association has that other countries donai??i??t. In England, a player can join a clubai??i??s youth system only if he lives within a 90 minutes drive from said club. This, of course, is a significant hindrance to clubs that want to run a successful youth system to allow the first team to use those youngsters and promote them, as opposed to merely buying players.

However, that argument cannot be used as an excuse. Manchester United and Arsenal have been known to have excellent infrastructure as far as youth systems go and one canai??i??t help but wonder why more youngsters havenai??i??t been promoted. Moreover, why are the youngsters promoted, although obviously talented, somehow lacking when compared to the players developed in Germany and Spain? The biggest hindrance is also the boon of English football: Competition. The Premier League and the country in general treat the sport as a purely competitive affair, even at the youth levels: winning is the first and only priority. That in itself is a fundamental flaw in the system. In Spain, and Barcelona in particular, the people responsible for running La Masia have always stated that the young children recruited are expected to enjoy the game. They are made to play 5-a-side matches (which is very rare in England) to help them grow as players and results are not relevant. Xavi Hernandez has recently revealed that winning or losing was never emphasized while he was coming through the ranks, which allows players to freely develop their skills without the added pressure of having to win at all costs (like in England).

Barcelona B are currently playing in Spainai??i??s second division and are not eligible to be promoted to the first division even if they win the league title, because the first team is already in the same division. The same goes for Villarreal B. So how exactly do coaches motivate a B team if winning the title gets them nothing? The paradigms are completely different. The B team of a club in Spain is reminded time and time again that their main goal is to supply players to the first team. The final goal for individual players is that they know that if they perform up to the levels required, they will be promoted. One just needs to ask the likes of Isaac Cuenca, Pedro Rodriguez; Santi Cazorla, Cristian Tello, Iker Muniain, among many others, and it all becomes clear. All these players had fantastic B team careers before becoming stars in La Liga.

The path taken by these clubs is just as important as reaching the final goal. Players in Spain (and Germany) are expected to develop individually and not just follow the tactical approach that the club expects from them. Unlike England, it isnai??i??t about pace, build and conventional wisdom (a winger isnai??i??t always a traditional winger). On the contrary, players are recruited at very young ages, nurtured and their position on the pitch (if they are good enough) is decided later. Size has nothing to do with it. Imagine if Lionel Messi or AndrAi??s Iniesta were part of any club in England. Would they be the worldai??i??s best players if they were part of, say, Crystal Palaceai??i??s youth set up? They’d probably both have been dismissed as not big enough and not strong enough, and they’d never have made it to the first team, let alone become the world’s best.

A change in approach to the game and what is expected of young players is required if England want to catch up with other countries on the international scene. A winger does not always have to be built like a superhero from DC Comics or be as fast as Flash Gordon to do well. There shouldnai??i??t be a minimum height. Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez are considered by many the worldai??i??s top two midfielders currently, both are approximately 5ai??i??7ai???, both are not extremely fast, neither can push opponents off the ball or even run forever and fill in for that stereotypical role that all fans of English football love ai??i?? ai???the box to box midfielderai???. The same applies to the new generation of extremely talented German midfielders (Reus, Goetze, Ozil, Marin…), all short yet full of talent.

Covering every blade of grass on the pitch is no longer everything. Running around like a chicken without its head does not make a great midfielder. Long balls forward is not the only way to go. Down the wings to cross to a hulk of a striker is not acceptable as the only approach to goal any longer. Football around the world is changing and England finds itself lagging behind. This is not about just club football but obviously even about the National squad. England’s brand of football has come up short time and again on the international scene in recent international events.

Using the definition of ai???homegrown playersai??i?? is an excuse most English clubs take full advantage of to meet requirements. The new rules say that a player must have trained with the club for 3 years before the age of ai???21ai??i?? to be termed as a ai???homegrown playerai??i??. The FA states that every club must have 8 players in their squad and according to that definition players like Fabregas, Alex Song, Theo Walcott were called homegrown players and made up the list. Yet, the only real reason why that is possible is because England, unlike Spain, allows a young player (say, 16 years of age) to get a semi-professional contract of sorts. Basically, that amounts to more money for a player, which at a young age would be very difficult to reject. Money and trophies are all well and good but for the long term success and for that success to be transferred to the English National team (so that they can finally fulfill the huge expectation of the English media), clubs have to change their modus operandiAi??and look to produce world class players at their youth system instead of buying players from abroad.

Itai??i??s easy to understand that bigger clubs like Manchester United, Arsenal or ChelseaAi??have to continue to win, but if clubs just as big like Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich can win by developing local talent, their English counterparts can do the same with the right amount of vision, patience and hard work.

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9 Responses to “Why England’s Youth System Lags Behind Their German and Spanish Counterparts”

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  1. Aditya Ray says:

    Indeed a good article… english football has to grow up, just like many other leagues…. but somebody has to lead the way, to bring about a change in attitudes.

    • Inder says:

      Indeed,but its difficult to bring about a wholesale change of that magnitude.personally, i believe a good starting point would be for the top coaches to start and lead the way,so to speak.
      But then the FA itself has rules to follow…some of the points i havent mentioned in the piece would be laws for countries which are part of the EU.honestly, cause i lack a thorough understanding of the legal process there i felt it best to avoid including those points. Basically freedom for citizens to work anywhere and the choice to switch companies,in this case clubs. This seems to act as a hindrance to change in its easiest and most logical methods.

  2. Andreas says:

    Marco Reus(181cm) and Mesut Özil(182cm) are just a little below the average in the tallest League in Europe(Bundesliga 183cm average) so they are not short!

    • Inder says:

      My bad,meant to mention reus as a youth product with loads of potential not for his height..marko marin is pretty short though right?
      And thanks for the link:)

  3. Andreas says:

    by the way you can find an pdf file about the bundesliga academies here
    http://t.co/jTo6ZfmT its in english.

  4. Shivam says:

    very well article, mate! good job.

  5. KSS says:

    grt article bro….some thoughts frm a madrid fan…i believe madrid’s youth policy could be well described by the previous century and not at all the previous decade…perez changed d policies totaly…ignoring the past few years…its been madrid that has been a symbol of using their youth system…gento’s era to la quinta del buitre to the rauls, casillas, guti generation….i dont knw wats d big fuss wid a team that used their youths recently n became a symbol… 😉

  6. Aashish says:

    The article is good, however you failed to mention the likes of David BEckham, paul scholes, Neville brothers, nicky butt who came through the ranks at Manchester United and became part of the England team.
    Aston Villa as a club also has a great youth system, better than that of United.