Our Youth Development series has been rather disjointed and poorly ordered, and I’m going to continue that trend with another article in the series that should probably have been the very first one!
I’ve found recently that it’s very important to look at youth development as a whole, and importantly as part of a constantly changing and developing club. Many players enjoy the youth development side of the game but it can be all too tempting to focus on the short-term, as contradictory as that seems, and to ignore what may happen in the future.
When it comes to youth development, I’ve found myself usually developing players in the mould that they already in, to save time and make them ready for first team football as soon as possible. This isn’t the perfect approach though, I’ve discovered recently, and instead I’ve switched my strategy to allow for the future changes in my tactics. Most teams, as they grow, will develop their tactics drastically over the years, sometimes every season if you try to improve quickly.
As tactics change, the attributes a manager demands from his players changes. At the start of a team’s journey, a simple 4-4-2 is often the best option as it requires little specialist learning and can be successful with two decent midfielders with the stamina to get up and down a la Keane/Vieira, two fast classic wingers and a split attack. In such a system, there is no need for high levels of technique, creativity, decisions, anticipation and other highly coveted attributes, which is why it is such a popular system in the lower leagues and tactically backwards countries (England, I’m looking straight at you). The point I’m making is that when you take over a team that is far from the top, you look for completely different attributes than you do five years later when you’re pushing for European success and league titles. In business management, there is a similar concept, called workforce planning, in which a business will try and work out where they are now and will be in the future, and how many and what kind of staff will be needed to fulfil the business’ needs at that point in time. This allows them to slowly phase out employees who don’t fit the future workforce plan, while coming in the other direction, they have to start training and recruiting the people who do fit it. I now do something similar; a central part of my youth development strategy is to prepare for my long-term tactical plan, and not be short-sighted.
We’ve covered in the past that you ought to consider your finances and make the choice between “produce to sell” or “produce to use”. This again applies here: are your club finances going to be healthy for the next few years, or do you have a long-term loan that puts a regularly huge dent in profits? If its the former then one might want to go for a “produce to use” strategy and therefore consider the future needs of your team; if its the latter, it may be more sensible financially to stray from custom-built players and rather produce players that other teams will need and will pay a good amount of money for. Some players, like Paul Pogba, are so good that they fit their team’s future needs (Sir Alex’s midfield is crying out for a physical presence) and other teams’ needs and are therefore flexible in what a club wishes to do with them. If you rely on developing those kind of players though, you may well be disappointed with your output!
I know how easy it is to lapse into a short-termist strategy because I recently found myself doing it. In my Schalke save, the longest I’ve had this year, I’ve found that I’ve produced four or five very similar centre backs.
I’ve developed so many limited defenders in the same agegroup that I’ve got a problem with what to do with them and what to do tactically. When they all joined the club, between the start of my first season and the start of my second (it’s now midway through the third season), my first team was crying out for strong, brave defenders who could take knocks and give them out three times harder, Vidic types. At that time I had three ball playing centre backs who were very calm in the ball but were not reliable enough in physical battles to protect us and keep us stable in our counter attacking style. All five arrived with the potential to be great, tough, limited defenders and I allowed them to continue their development on pretty much a straight path to encourage a quick transition to first team standards.
Big mistake. Why on earth did I want to make five players of the same age in the same mould? It was a ridiculous thing to do, but I didn’t think it through properly and now I have five defenders for one position, and I probably only need one or two with them. A good plan would have been to split them in half so one could succeed Clark/Lucas Zen as the ball playing defender – as none of them were that bad with the ball – or even better, I could have signed half the amount and looked elsewhere for a couple of potential ball playing defenders.
Now I’m stuck with too many centre backs who are worth little because they have competed themselves out of any first team experience at my club. Almost as annoyingly and ironically, I’ve had to remedy the problem by purchasing a ball playing youngster whose club has planned for the future and has produced what I want. And I have to pay £500k for the pleasure.