If you’ve happened to peruse any type of football publication from this country recently, it’s more than likely that you’ve read an article where someone waxes lyrical about the benefits of having a B team, ‘like they do in Spain and Germany’, when it comes to international football and the development of young, homegrown talent. Spain and Germany are now good. Spain and Germany have B teams. The logic is unbeatable.
Apparently, B teams will solve all of the woes currently faced by our national team. They will give our young hopes the opportunity to play real, competitive football that will help them to develop and rise above that most evil of things – the foreigner. For too long, Johnny Foreigner – with his overrated technical skills and tika-taka bullshit – has had the balls to stand in the way of our hard-working, never-say-die English Lions. Well no more Johnny Foreigner! No more! You’ve had your fun. It’s time to take back the Premier League. It’s time to reanglicise our favourite competition, and the best way to do this you ask? Well obviously it’s bloody B teams isn’t it!
It’s taken me some time to fully form my opinion on the B team argument because of course young players would benefit from playing more intense/competitive football. That goes without saying. Yet, once I started to give it a real think, I couldn’t understand why people weren’t pointing out the many reasons why B teams wouldn’t work in this country. So, here is my rebuttal to all those who believe that a Manchester United B, or a Chelsea II, would save the England national team.
It’s all about the Moolah
The biggest reason that England don’t produce as many good youngsters (although if you actually look at it, we do produce a fair few) as Spain, Germany, France, Brazil et al, is due to money. We have so much money. The Premier League is just too god damn rich, compared to Europe’s other leagues. The disparity is huge. Our ‘weakest’/’worst’ teams continually spend more than the best teams in other countries. Sponsership, TV revenue, merchandise, match-day revenue; it all goes towards pumping up the Prem’s already sizeable wallet. Not many countries count on larger support than English teams, and the ones that do (e.g. Germany) charge considerably less for the pleasure. No league can compete globally with the Premier League Brand. La Liga also successfully exports its product but, until this season, matches between the 18 ‘other’ teams in the league wouldn’t have garnered anywhere near the same amount of interest.
With all 20 clubs, even the poorly-run ones (and even many in our second tier), exercising much more spending power than a large majority of Europe, it’s no wonder that youth development is left on the back burner. Take time and effort to develop a youngster, give him a chance in the team and hope his introduction doesn’t cost you points, or buy an established player from abroad?
The man with money tends to spend. He doesn’t have much need for counting coppers.
The real reason that youth is given a chance in other countries is because, in many cases, there is no other option. Especially in the current economic climate, a large amount of clubs (whether due to their own failings or not) live a more hand-to-mouth existence. Clubs in top tiers across the world struggle to make ends meet. Player sales are a real and vital source of income. And how do you replace a player when you have no money to spend? You promote a youngster.
These youngsters aren’t expected to dazzle and delight straight away. They don’t have the burden of a huge price tag. Yet they receive the training, support and match experience that enables them to develop and to grow – and all this takes time. In the Premier League we’re so used to seeing the finished product that we’re out of touch with the real time frame when it comes to football education. Some players have no trouble adjusting to first-team football. Others develop at an average pace. Some take much, much longer (think or your late bloomers – Didier Drogba is a prime example). When we see the latest foreign import arrive for a huge sum, we rarely examine how long it has taken him to get there, or how exactly he’s got there. And that isn’t even taking into account the most important factor; that, at one point in his career, he had a coach or a manager who had faith in him and took a chance.
It takes a brave Premier League manager to ignore fans’ calls for spending and promote a youngster. With managers’ tenures becoming increasingly shorter due to fickle supporters and trigger-happy chairmen, you’ve got to have some mighty big huevos to put faith in young talent. Young players make mistakes, it’s part of learning, yet Premier league managers know that – now more than ever – a poor run of games can easily cost them their job. You can’t blame them for not blooding more young’uns.
It’s only when a manager comes with a giant reputation, or knows that he has the complete backing of the club, that he can successfully promote youth at a big/rich club. Louis Van Gaal had a dreadful start at Bayern, but his reputation and strength of character allowed him to put faith in Thomas Müller and Holger Badstuber. Wenger’s insistence that Aaron Ramsey could become a great player looked deluded (and was routinely mocked) until this season. Rogers was allowed to finish in 7th place in order to transmit his philosophies to his players and encourage youngsters like Sterling and Flanagan. Adding what is in essence just a renamed reserve team to the mix won’t make managers any braver or any more willing to use what they already have if they’re not already that way inclined.
Even Pep Guardiola, who brought Busquets and Pedro up with him when he moved from Barça B to the first team proper, could enjoy the club’s complete support due to his illustrious playing career with them. There’s also a debate to be had over whether, had he not worked with the two players previously, he would have had the confidence to promote them. Another manager may well have overlooked their respective talents simply because he was too worried that they couldn’t make the step up.
Anomalies should not be the rule
The Manchester United class of ’92 is routinely cited as the dream; to produce a batch of quality homegrown youngsters that can be simultaneously promoted to the first team. Yet the class of ’92 is an anomaly. Football development doesn’t work like that. Unless you are financially restricted, there is no need to promote multiple players together, and this is not how it works in the real world. As mentioned before, youngsters develop at different speeds and through different circumstances. It’s not realistic or healthy to expect clubs to replicate an anomaly. Even Barça’s homegrown contingent, so often hailed as the model to strive towards, come from different generations. Xavi, Puyol, Valdés, Iniesta, Messi, Piqué and Fàbregas obviously didn’t all come through at the same time.
In Barça’s case, one has to also highlight the fact that both Fàbregas and Piqué had to be bought back by the club. Fearing that they wouldn’t be given an opportunity at Camp Nou, the pair left for England. While Piqué’s impact at Manchester United was minimal, there’s no doubt that Arsenal have to be given credit for developing Fàbregas, giving the Spaniard his debut at just 16 years of age and making him a central part of the team.
Another club often cited when discussion begins about B teams is Real Madrid. Real Madrid Castilla, like Barça B, play in the Liga Adelante (Spain’s second tier). The argument is this: Real Madrid are very good, surely this has something to do with their youngsters getting more competitive football?
Well, no. Real Madrid have a real habit of not making the most of the players they produce. The majority are sold, as the path to the first team is blocked by expensive transfer after expensive transfer. Recent impressive graduates Morata and Jesé, while given some playing time under Mourinho and Ancelotti, are not going to continue to improve unless they move away (permanently or on loan).
This is not an opinion plucked out of thin air. Current right back Dani Carvajal had to leave (on a permanent deal) to Leverkusen in order to show Real what they had let go. After a great season in Germany, Madrid exercised their buy-back option (which it seems they insert into many sales as a way to cover their tracks). He wouldn’t be playing first team football for Real now had he not left. An older example is Arbeloa. He also had to leave before being bought back. Juan Mata, Roberto Soldado, José Callejón, Javi García, Samuel Eto’o, Esteban Granero and Santiago Cañizares are all recent examples of players who were formed at Real but only “made it” after being sold and learning their trade with smaller clubs who gave them time and support. Since players like Raúl and Guti came through, only Iker Casillas can really be claimed as a success story of the B/C teams.
Over in Germany, Bayern’s B side play in the 4th tier, which is semi-professional. Is this really the reason for their youth success? Or do things like intelligent loans (Toni Kroos at Leverkusen for example) play more of a part?
Dortmund’s second side play in 3.Liga (the third tier), but their youthful side is more down to clever manoeuvrings in the transfer market than due to their B team’s place in the league system. Hummels was signed after not making the grade with Bayern and it’s doubtful that Nuri Şahin learned more in his 7 games with Dortmund II than he did in the 29 on loan with Feyenoord. Reus was allowed to develop at both Rot Weiss Ahlen and Borussia Mönchengladbach before being signed. Mario Götze only played once for the B team before being promoted by Klopp, his talent clearly evident.
Even those who point towards Portugal or the Netherlands, where certain B sides compete in the second tier, are not telling the whole story. Without going into detail about the obvious disparity in wealth between Portugal’s big 4 and the rest – which enables them to afford B teams when other professional sides are folding – they have only been allowed to compete in the second tier since 2012. Equally, in Holland, this is the first season in which Jong Ajax, Jong PSV and Jong FC Twente have played in the Eerste Divisie. Before that, they competed in the Reserve League that was not connected to the regular Dutch pyramid. Furthermore, there are a few rules with which they have to comply. Players must be registered, so ‘transfers’ between parent club and the Jong version can only happen during conventional transfer windows.
Many French reserve sides play in the amateur fourth tier, yet this hasn’t stopped them from regularly churning out talented youngsters.
Back to England
The problem I have with idea that, by playing in, say, the Championship, our youth would somehow then be ready to play in the Premier League is that it makes absolutely no sense. Whether you’re playing in the Championship on loan at another club or as part of your club’s B team makes little difference. You won’t be Premier League ready until you’ve been given a chance in the Premier League. It’s that simple. If playing in the Championship adequately prepared you for playing in the Premier League, we wouldn’t witness so many promoted sides being instantly relegated or struggling to survive. There’s a sufficient learning curve that can only come from exposure and experience.
This doesn’t even take into account the logistical nightmare that the whole thing would be. Would all 20 clubs be eligible for a B side? Where in the football pyramid would they go? Surely it’d have to be quite high, otherwise the whole thing is pointless, but how would you go about this? Increasing the size of the divisions past 24 teams is ridiculous, which would mean demoting clubs for no reason – something that could surely cause lawsuits. The situation is further complicated by the fact that England has 4 professional divisions – more than any other country. Isn’t that already enough, without potentially adding another 20 teams into the mix? What if Championship sides decided they also then wanted to do this? So many unanswered questions. My real fear is that it would just give Premier League clubs another squad where they can stockpile talent from around the world, and would be detrimental to youth plying their trade at ‘normal’ Championship/League 1/League 2 clubs.
Looking at the Successes
There are many clubs that continually produce good quality youngsters, but their success isn’t due to having a competitive B side. It is a mixture of the financial reason mentioned earlier, as well as a few other factors.
Ajax and youth go hand in hand. The club has a philosophy and a pride in what they do, and stick to it. It also helps that they can’t compete financially with teams like Chelsea and Barcelona etc. If they receive a substantial offer then they accept it, and promote youth (or buy from other Dutch clubs). Players are keen on moving up the ladder and proving themselves at the highest level, and the Dutch League is not viewed as one of Europe’s top leagues. This means that clubs are more willing to work with youth, because they’re unlikely to be able to attract star players in their prime. It’s the same with the Scandinavian leagues and leagues in Eastern Europe.
French teams’ bank balances, PSG and Monaco aside, are on the low side. Lyon are a great example of a team selling in order stay healthy, and they’ve put an increasing focus on training and promoting their own youth after realising they couldn’t afford to keep buying talent in.
Outside Real and Barcelona, Spanish clubs are in a dire situation – and thus more willing to develop than buy. Only Athletic Bilbao could really be used as an example of a side benefiting from having a competitive B team, but this comes with a caveat; due to their Basque-only policy their options in the transfer market are limited, and so they must rely on effective scouting, good development and regular promotion of youth.
Clubs like Basel, Partizan Belgrade and Dinamo Zagreb, in possession of such fruitful academies, enjoy domestic domination. This gives them more opportunity to trust youth before having to sell to bigger leagues (where their players go on to develop even further).
Most African players climb the footballing ladder, first joining a ‘middle’ league in Belgium/Holland/Scandinavia/France before moving up a few years later.
South American youngsters are given a lot of opportunity due to clubs’ limited finances, added to the fact that the majority of players want to leave to play in Europe and the Champions League if possible. Football players are one of Brazil’s largest exports. In Argentina, current discussion revolves around the idea of the country suffering from a ‘Talent Doughnut’; only youngsters and old-timers are currently plying their trade in the domestic league – nothing in between. Youngsters need to be blooded because clubs have to let their best talent go so often.
Even Southampton, who are currently being praised for their youth development, owe this success to playing in the lower leagues. Would Walcott, Chamberlain, Lallana, Shaw and Ward-Prowse have been allowed to grow in the same way had the club stayed in the Premier League all those years ago? Who knows.
In sum, England’s worst enemy is its own domestic competition, nothing more nothing less.
Until there is more financial parity across Europe, it is unlikely that the situation will change much. Yes, Premier League managers have to be braver, but we – the fans – must back them. We’re the first to call for large spending and huge foreign names, but also the first to blame clubs for our national team’s failures.
We can’t have it both ways.