BY DAVID HUGHES

With a crazy….and I mean crazy(!) summer transfer window that had Premier League clubs spending over £1.4bn, there is an emphasis now more than ever for clubs to utilise and bring through the next generation of academy stars. The influx of talent that has come from overseas is hardly a new phenomenon in England. However, the fees now being paid to bring the players over here does bring with it a certain pressure on the management of Premier League clubs to give the players plenty of game time, with the hope of providing a quick fix remedy and justifying excessive fees paid. The richest clubs have been able to stockpile the best of professionals from around the world for decades but the increased revenue in recent times has ensured that the small clubs are not too far behind in the case of the Premier League. This can quite often be to the detriment of the youth within the Premier Leagues top clubs, who find their first team opportunities sparse and therefore are often loaned to the lower leagues to ply their trade and gain valuable first team experience.

According to CIES Football Observatory, no Premier League side makes the top 20 across the five major European leagues for having the most club-trained players who have been at the club for at least three seasons, between the ages of 15 and 21 years old and featured in their respective domestic league matches. The top ranked Premier League representative is Manchester United who are ranked 30th. From 01/12/2016 to 01/06/2017, 20.2% of Manchester United’s domestic league games featured club trained academy players, whilst Everton are the second highest ranked Premier league team on the list, ranked 40th with 14.66% of academy trained players featuring in their domestic games.  In the most recent report prepared by the BBC, club-trained players in Premier League squads have reached an all-time low. The study found 11.7% of top-flight players graduated from their club’s academy. This is down from 13.8% in 2014.

This sort of reliance and faith in youth is nothing new for both Manchester United and Everton. Everton have included a youth product in their squad for every match day since 14th October 1995. However, impressively Manchester United have included a youth product in their match day squad for every game since 23rd October 1937. A run of 3,871 consecutive games over a span of 79 years. AFC Bournemouth, Burnley, Manchester City, Stoke City, Watford and Swansea City currently stand on 0 consecutive games with a youth product in their match day squad – alarming.

Swansea made big news last week, managing to secure a lucrative one-year loan deal for Bayern Munich prodigy Renato Sanches. The loan costed a reported fee of £5.5m. The midfielder was bought by Bayern Munich in 2016 from Benfica for a fee of over £30m and now at the age of 20 he has already been tipped to be one of the future starlets of the game. That being said, a fee of £5.5m for a young player, unproven in the Premier League, would surely raise eyebrows if it wasn’t for the name? What message does this send to the academy players in the Swansea ranks pushing to make a breakthrough to the first team? There’s no doubt an agreement will be in place with the German giants that Sanches must be a regular starter and indeed, for such marquee players, quite often form plays no part in their inclusion on the team sheet. Paul Pogba, for all his wealth of talent, featured in 51 games for Manchester United last season, around 79% of all their fixtures across all competitions. Yet, he managed just 9 goals and 6 assists. Sanches registered no goals and no assists last season for Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga. Meanwhile, 21-year-old Swansea central midfielder George Byers had an impressive campaign for the clubs U23 side, scoring 6 goals and assisting 10 goals in 24 games across the PL2 and EFL cup. Whilst there is an undeniable gulf between the PL2 and Bundesliga, I imagine Byers must have had his eyes on pushing through to the Swansea first team this season but he looks certain to drop down the pecking order and just like any other Swansea midfield hopefuls, will have to continue their development elsewhere for this coming season.

Last season, Everton’s U23 squad captured the Premier League 2 title following an impressive season with former Everton defender David Unsworth at the helm. The same group of young players won the Premier league U18 title just two seasons earlier. Everton have been one of the leading lights in recent times when bringing through academy prospects to the first team, with the state of the art Finch Farm academy becoming a hotbed for young talent. Some consider Everton maybe haven’t been given the credit they deserve, with Tottenham, Southampton and Manchester United often stealing the headlines for their equally exceptional academies and breakthrough stars. But for Everton, the last few seasons have seen the likes of Ross Barkley, John Stones, Tom Davies, Mason Holgate, Jonjoe Kenny, Callum Connolly, Kieran Dowell, Ryan Ledson, Tyias Browning and Matthew Pennington all make their breakthroughs to the Everton first team. Whilst Everton have also invested in bringing in highly impressive young talents such Dominic Calvert-Lewin from Sheffield United and Ademola Lookman from Charlton, both have featured regularly in Ronaldo Koeman’s first team and rewarded their manager with standout performances and goals. This has seemingly paid off for both club and country, with five Everton youth players featuring in the U20 World Cup winning squad in June this year.

Perhaps Everton’s star youth performer last season was Tom Davies. The 18-year-old made 24 Premier League appearances last season, starting 18 times. He was directly involved in 5 goals, scoring 2 and assisting in 3 others making him Everton’s second most creative midfielder behind another fellow academy recruit, Ross Barkley, who netted 5 times and set up 9 goals last season. An English powered midfield all developed from within, illustrating the importance and reward of allowing youth players minutes on the pitch.

Football is a much more pressured environment than ever before. Where sometimes eye catching, entertaining and stimulating football is sacrificed for rigid, dreary, defensive displays that look to stifle teams and nick results from games. You only have to look at the struggles that face Frank De Boer at Crystal Palace.  A prodigy of Dutch total football, mentored by Johan Cruyff, De Boer has joined Crystal Palace with a squad largely assembled by Alan Pardew and modified by Sam Allardyce. Big Sam’s style of football resembles everything the Dutch ideology does not: long balls, physical presences and men behind the ball. Not always pretty but when executed correctly, very effective. With no points on the board after 3 games, some are already calling for the Dutchman’s head. Therefore, with the potential essence of football itself being sacrificed in order to obtain results, what hope do young unproven players have of breaking into first team? And furthermore, what managers are brave enough to try them?

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