Enjoying the present is one thing but living in the past can be a dangerous habit to do – especially in modern football. Success comes and goes so it is therefore worth a club’s fans, players and all those associated enjoying it whilst it lasts as it is the silverware more so than the number of fourth placed positions that count in years to come. However without fully having an eye on the future, clubs run the risk of ultimately being left behind. Operating oblivious to the understanding that the likes of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Manuel Neuer aren’t going to last forever, clearly clubs of such stature have coped with losing star players in the past, consequently recruiting both new and equally as competent players but with a modern day tendency to take each game at a time and only focus on your own results, the next three points and nothing more, you do wonder however to what detriment such a short-term approach in many ways actually has on an inevitable transition period years down the line?
At almost every team challenging towards the top of each European league table, you will most likely find that it’s the unique combination of both young and old that can often be the key to title success. Let’s take Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Juventus as our case study. Clearly all have one eye on the future given their youth recruitment in recent years but all four have proven wise enough in recent years to be able to not only be working on future prospects through both identifying targets that can strengthen their club in the short or long term as well as giving chances to those that stand out above the crowd and thrusting them into the professional first-team setup, but also each individual club certainly isn’t deluded enough to think that achieving on all fronts simply isn’t possible by fielding youth players alone. There’s clearly no doubting the talents of Eden Hazard, Joshua Kimmich, Alvaro Morata and Daniele Rugani; testament to why they now start regularly for their respective , aforementioned club sides but club managers recognise the need for experienced shoulders to work alongside them during training and top flight games, alongside even rotating such promising stars with a much wider, more experienced individual depending on the situation in front of you.
In all major European leagues, you needn’t look far to see the number of different approaches taken to youth recruitment, ultimately leading to varying degrees of success and productivity. From identifying tried and tested young stars that are able to arrive fit for purpose and able to slot into a club’s starting XI without being loaned out to lower league opposition or languishing in a club’s youth setup for months or even years, to a conversely much wider scattergun approach. By saturating the market and signing twenty or thirty promising stars with raw talent and at a minimal cost over the space of two years, as many will fall by the wayside there’s always the chance at least a couple may become the next best thing.
Alternatively clubs also attempt to minimise the risks at hand, albeit without being able to avoid them completely and in a more common approach to youth recruitment nowadays (most notably in the English Premier League and Women’s Super League), part with their many millions to beat the queue and sign a talented, well-hyped young star for a transfer fee that perhaps reflects his or her potential value more so than their actual transfer value at the time of signing for a club. Inevitably what makes the topic of youth recruitment all the more of an interesting debate is the sheer fact each club offers a different approach to building for the future – a surprise every season to just who and where the next best thing may appear and more importantly, just how many digits in a transfer will accompany their name and eventual purchase by a top flight club.
Yet for the likes of Ronald Koeman and Jorge Sampaoli, two new managers with the pressure of both the club’s owners and supporters in building a club capable of challenging for many years to come, just how do you manage the need to work towards a long-term goal and comfortably operate between sacrificing older players and gradually incorporating those younger without significantly impacting a club’s performances on the pitch in the short-term? The likes of Chelsea and Juventus tend to sign on bulk and disperse their talent across Europe; an approach met with mixed success. Meanwhile the likes of Real Madrid and Bayern Munich whilst promoting from within favour purchasing the likes of Martin Odegaard and Renato Sanches with heavy transfer fees knowing they have been tried and tested but with even greater potential in the future. However if there is one thing that is for certain, each club is different and manages the task at hand in a number of differing ways.
One of the greatest headaches that football managers face when it comes to balancing youth and experience is how comfortably the transition can take place. Managers may be confident enough to ruffle feathers by replacing a more experienced veteran of a club but at what cost does such a brave decision in the have on the morale rest of the squad and club supporters? At both Manchester City and United, now spearheaded by former El Clasico managerial pairing Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho, both have struggled in what could arguably be considered of the most difficult balancing acts in the game. For Mourinho’s Red Devils, the need for instant success and to return to winning ways after several years of instability following Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure for the game has in many ways therefore meant that experience is the Portuguese managers’ preferred option (at least for now). And although the likes of Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford haven’t been completely banished from first-team football at United, you can almost bet that if Mourinho’s side set up pre-match to win a game or simply just to guarantee goals during a game, either one of the promising pairing will most certainly make way for 35 year old Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
On the flip side, perhaps unlike Mourinho it would appear that new man at Manchester City Pep Guardiola has seemingly been given the time and the license to overhaul the City squad with an overall objective to bring down the average age of an increasingly ageing squad – many of whom members of City’s title winning side back in May 2012 under Roberto Mancini. Whilst on paper merely giving younger players a chance in place of the experienced crop may seem a basic task, the rammifications are significant as witnessed recently with Guardiola’s attempt to create a comfortable transition between Sergio Aguero and a high-flying, exciting Gabriel Jesus. In an ideal world, City fans will tell you in their thousands that a system that incorporates one of the hottest talents in world football alongside a man who the club’s owes a considerable amount to would be the perfect solution. In some ways, Jesus’ sudden injury has helped solve the short term battle to the lead between the Argentinian and Brazilian forwards but the war will most certainly continue.
Possibly a headache that many lower league managers or those with much lesser financial resources to bring in players of even half the quality of Zlatan or Aguero, or without the infrastructuresto help breed the next Jesus or Rashford, both are however emblematic of the problems that those at the top of world football face between focusing on the present and looking to the near future.
A proven method that allows youth develop to develop not only at the same rate of using much more experienced players in league competitions but also without causing performances to slip in all competitions, is through using youth players in the early rounds of the EFL, FA and European Cups. Whilst the likes of Bournemouth, Liverpool and looking back as far as Arsenal just under a decade ago, have previously been slated for fielding ‘weaker’ sides made up of academy prospects and younger back-up players, in many ways you can understand Klopp’s frustration at seemingly not being able to do right for wrong after attempting to breed the next Liverpool stars in such a way. Although you shouldn’t be, as a top flight manager trusting in youth players in place of high-value, more experienced individuals, you’re doomed if you and you’re doomed if you don’t.
At the likes of Ajax, Anderlecht and FC Barcelona this is possible due to the overwhelming resources at their disposal to develop young players in cup competitions, it does clearly have the potential however to be a double edged sword for a number of top flight managers across the world. Liverpool have shown that in terms of helping to develop individuals that can fit into the first-team gold (more so than qualification to the latter rounds of any of their domestic cups) that it can be done successfully with Trent Alexander Arnold breaking through this season. Aleix Garcia at Manchester City, Josh Sims at Southampton, Harry Winks at Tottenham Hotspur to name three more, promoting from within is therefore achievable albeit difficult to do in top flight action, making cup competitions all the more appealing for Premier League managers to take a chance for the future good of a club.
For many managers, they have little else at their disposal and are consequently forced to simply look at either end of the spectrum for squad replenishment. At Sunderland, in spite of their incredibly experienced starting XI’s that they often field using a number of individuals with an abundance of English top tier experience, the rest is filled with promise and potential and very few stars that can be considered as in their prime. Bournemouth on the other hand appear to scarcely use or even recruit experienced individuals and instead centre a large part of their attention on using youth as and where possible; gradually producing a well-rounded, forward thinking and sustainable Premier League side with one eye on the future. Neither should be seen as advisable nor unthinkable ways of going about producing young talent, but in the trust that both clubs have shown albeit in severely contrasting ways, you could say that youth does stand a chance but this alone further emphasises the difficulties in juggling between both old and young individuals.
For an accurate view of how things are moving in the sport you need only look at the attacking options available at some of the biggest clubs in Europe to see that some big decisions are going to be made in the next couple of years. For every Jesus and Aguero debacle there are decisions to be made at Juventus with the promising Paolo Dybala and experienced Mario Mandzuckic as well as a similar problem between the young Alvaro Morata and Frenchman Karim Benzema at Real Madrid, to name just two of several incidences that look set to rear their head even further in time. Making a brave decision certainly takes a great deal of courage but dealing with the short-term reaction of loyal fans as well as the long-term consequences if things don’t quite go to plan can be far, far worse.
Nonetheless what is the best way forward for clubs, or indeed even is there one? Although there’s no exact blueprint to follow you can’t help but admire Everton’s approach and especially Ronald Koeman’s commitment to long-term development at whatever team he is managing. Clearly at a team like Everton where time is often on your side, an incredibly challenging task is made much easier by a lesser expectancy to win every game or to meet far-fetched criteria that the likes of the regular top six are expected to each season. The Dutchman’s mixture of incorporating the likes of Tom Davies and Mason Holgate from within and subsequently transforming what was previously seen as just potential into first-team regulars, alongside the purchase of promising stars such as Ademola Lookman who too looks fit to already feature in a starting role for The Toffees, has certainly worked wonders for the club this season.
Even if two or three further top flight clubs used their resources accordingly and in a similar fashion to Koeman’s, not only would their clubs be better much further down the line but equally as important, the English top flight would be somewhat improved too. As for those much lower and higher up the pecking order, the balancing act continues and it appears to be getting that bit more difficult by the day.