Living on the Dreams of Legends: Do Football Academies Help or Hinder Players?

The cultural mindset of short term, instant success in our society has bled into football academies and prevented England from producing a group of players capable of winning the World Cup.

Football academies in England have been overhauled in the last few years with the introduction of the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP). The recent major championship success for the under-19 and 20s national teams show a strong calibre of players coming through the system. However, the history of the under-20s team has proved to be an unreliable measure for future success.

The EPPP has divided some in the footballing world, especially teams outside the Premier League, because of the concern the best sides will sweep up the most promising young players. Before the EPPP, young players were only eligible to play for teams within a 90 mile radius of their home. Under the new scheme, clubs make provision for the players to live at the academy and undergo intensive training. This follows the traditional pattern of other successful football nations such as Spain and the Netherlands.

The EPPP increased the amount of time players are able to spend with coaches and harnessed the philosophies of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule. Gladwell suggests 10,000 hours of deliberate and purposeful practice is required to reach an elite level in almost anything. For a number of years, players in England were limited to a maximum of just under 4,000 hours of coaching time until they reach the age of 21. In Spain there isn’t a limit with most players clocking up 8,000 hours of coaching by the time they reach 18.

In England, the top teams spend a fortune developing their academy systems. Manchester City opened a new academy complex at a cost of £200 million – they sweep up the best talent in the local area and work to develop them into top players. Except City, and most other top English clubs, all make the same mistake. They succeed at every level of identifying, coaching and developing players – but fail at the most crucial point. They don’t give them first team opportunities.

John Terry reportedly said part of the reason he did not sign on to stay with Chelsea was because he didn’t want to hinder the development of younger players like Nathan Ake and Nathaniel Chalobah and stop them breaking into the first team. An admirable gesture from a player as divisive as Terry. But soon after Terry signed for Aston Villa, Chelsea went to work in the transfer market. Ake moved to Bournemouth for almost £20 million and Chalobah moved to Watford for an undisclosed fee. Why take a risk on an unproven youngster when you can buy the ready made article from abroad?

Chelsea have a talented youngster on their hands in the guise of Ruben Loftus-Cheek. He has a number of admirers in the game, including Sam Allardyce who believes he could be as good as Dele Alli. Chelsea surely will not be oblivious to the potential of such a player. For Loftus-Cheek to grow into a player of the same class as Alli, he needs time in the first team which should constitute a fair run in the team rather than a handful of fleeting cameos in the dying minutes of matches.

Like Manchester City with their young players, Chelsea have done everything right in developing Loftus-Cheek, but failed at the point it matters most. Giving him time in the first team. Lotus-Cheek joined Crystal Palace on loan and will be an exciting prospect for fans at Selhurst Park. But you can’t help but think he should have been given a chance with Chelsea.

For years in the Netherlands, Ajax have produced some exceptional young players. Their academy, De Toekomst, is designed with the aim of producing three first team players every two seasons. Anything less is not good enough.

The Ajax scouting system firstly identifies players with talent. Before they are officially signed, every player is put through a process called ‘talentdagan’ to explore if their potential meets Ajax’s expectations. The focus of the process resolves around four key areas; technique, intelligence, rapidity and personality. If a player meets the expectations of the club and is able to prove their versatility at being able to play in Ajax’s revered 4-3-3 total football formation, they are offered a youth contract.

Ajax scaffold and incrementally build the coaching time players are exposed to. In England many players are quickly and intensively trained in order to rush them through the system to be first team ready. If they show any signs of not fulfilling potential they are released – sometimes at ages as young as 12.

Young Ajax players see the intensity of their training and coaching increased as they age. This not only prevents burnout, but over a period of years ensures young players have received 10,000 hours of coaching and practice time. Youngsters are rarely released from Ajax’s system until they have made it to the end of their training. Almost all of Ajax’s players have come through their system. This long term, slow burning approach to player development and evaluation is directly opposite to the short term rush of player development historically found in England’s academies.

The EPPP has given English academies a renewed focus on long term player development through the FA’s Four Corner Model. Similar to the Ajax system, it focuses on technical, social, psychological and physical aspects of a player’s development. The plan also identifies performance pathways starting with under-5s all the way up to under-21s. Over the next decade we should start to see the success or failure of the EPPP.

The theory is clear and the success of England’s under-19 and 20 teams shows the execution is falling into place. Perhaps we are on the cusp of a golden generation after all.