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Oct 8, 2013

Feeding the future

It may have been Rafa Benitez who first raised the idea in 2007, when he talked about how, given the size of his squad, he would favor the opportunity of letting his Liverpool reserve team play somewhere in the Football League pyramid.

More recently, Premier League teams have floated the idea of having reserve/youth teams in the pyramid. Instead of each other, they would face real, live lower-division opposition. And, of course, they've packaged it under the guise of something vital to player development. After all, Germany and Spain are the current flavors of the year when it comes to successful "footballing models" and they both allow "B teams" in their pyramid. So too do France and Netherlands, two nations that were the gold standard of player development before everyone decided it was time to ape Germany and Spain.

(How easily we forget ... remember how an English Clairefontaine was the key to success? Or, before that, Ajax and their famous TIPS system and all that jazz?)

The argument is that taking all the bright young things stockpiled at top Premier League clubs who are too young to break into the first-team squad and getting them regular football against seasoned pros in the lower leagues would help their development.

Sure, you could send them on loan to other teams -- as many clubs do now -- but this would be better because they'd still be trained by their parent club. They would be formed in the philosophy of that club and be better prepared to make the leap into the first-team squad.

I can see the benefits to big Premier League clubs with giant squads. I really can. What bugs me, though, is the way this is now being presented as some kind of necessity if England ever wants to be competitive. Because it simply isn't. How bad an idea is this? Let us count the ways.

First and foremost, the lower tiers in England are not like the lower tiers in other nations. No other place in Europe has the depth of history and crowds that England's Football League does. England's second tier has a higher average attendance than all but five European top-flight leagues. League One, the third step down, averaged more fans per game last year than the second tier in any other European league, except for Germany's.

Allowing B-sides into this system would send a clear message that these leagues are purely developmental and nothing else. And by the way, since winning and developing players are often at odds with each other when you're dealing with youngsters, it could potentially wreak havoc with the regularity of a league. One club might be trying to win at all costs, the other might be giving a 19-year-old reserve a run of games since they've already decided that the 21-year-old starter, though better, won't have his contract renewed since he'll never be good enough for the parent club.

Then there are the "crowds," although maybe that's a euphemism. Last year, Borussia Dortmund drew 80,000 a game. Their B-team drew 2,000, in the third tier of German football. Bayern Munich's B-team managed 660, one level below. In Spain -- and note, this is in the second division -- Barcelona B notched 5,500; Real Madrid's B-team just 3,000. Needless to say, both were well below the league average.

How could anyone think that injecting teams that, for all their pedigree, only manage to attract tiny crowds into a successful product like the Football League would be good for anyone but the parent clubs?

Apart from the slap into the face to the base of the English game, there's another obvious fact: We're not sure whether it really works. If this is really about developing the England team -- and not just a place for the Premier League's biggest clubs to park their excess players -- it might be worthwhile to note that most B-teams around Europe play at a level where they square off against amateurs, not professionals. (There are exceptions, of course, like Barcelona, Real Madrid and a few others, but these are few and far between.)

That's why, unless they're at Barcelona B or Real Madrid Castilla, most youngsters who actually make it won't spend more than a year at the B-team before they either get upgraded to the parent club or loaned out to gain experience. And while we're at it, let's knock another myth on the head, shall we?

Most big clubs around Europe raid smaller clubs for their best 16-year-olds. At that age, you have a pretty clear idea of guys with the potential to make it -- certainly more than you do at 14. When we speak of a player being "produced" by a club, we need to be clear what we're talking about. If you're hoovering up the best 16-year-olds in a 50-mile radius because you're a massive, pedigreed club, then it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And the fact that the players you sign might play for your B-team isn't necessarily crucial to their success.

The other issue is that there's something distinctly knee-jerk about this. The Premier League and Football Association have made a big deal out of the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) and the Professional Development League (PDL) that was -- not without controversy -- implemented last year.

Broadly speaking, the former tends to push the more gifted youngsters towards the bigger clubs with more established academies and is meant to ensure they get the best coaching. Obviously many Football League clubs with a history of excellent youth development were unhappy with this, but now the law is in the book and there isn't much you can do.

The latter replaces the old reserve leagues and creates an under-21 league for the nation's best academies (most of them attached to Premier League clubs). Shouldn't we give this a chance to succeed or fail before we simply rip up the blueprints and start over again?

The PDL hasn't caused much of a splash, but you can see the logic. Given the way some -- definitely not all -- lower-league teams play, are we sure the best way to develop kids is throwing them out there against 6-foot-4 30-year-olds who play long ball and kick lumps from the very first minute, a brand of football they'll likely never experience in the top flight? Or might they be best served taking on players of a comparable age who have been schooled by top coaches in a developmental environment?

If the crux of the matter is getting more young players more playing time, there are plenty other ways to do it. You can encourage the loan system, rather than limiting it to five per club in the lower leagues, perhaps with the proviso that players can't be recalled except during transfer windows, thereby ensuring some level of stability. Or maybe push the notion of loaning players abroad, where they can experience a different culture and round out their skill set. You can introduce things like co-ownership, which incentivizes smaller clubs to work on developing talented players they might take on loan from bigger ones.

Some countries have quotas for young players in the lower division. Personally, I'm against that type of regulation, but incentives are another matter. You could offer bonus TV money to lower-division clubs who actually field younger players, based on the age and number of minutes they get over the course of a season.

Above all, though, what will make a difference is quality of coaching. That's where England lags behind. And that's where the bulk of the investment ought to be.

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