The famously dubbed ‘Class of 92’ will likely be the most successful and memorable phase of youth integration in British football history. Despite the unrivalled success and the enduring careers that David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Phil Neville and Paul Scholes enjoyed, the current importance of youth development has arguably reached an all-time high.
With the uncertainties that could arise from Brexit, complicating potential deals for European players, and with the recent trend of German clubs poaching young stars from British clubs, young players shoulder more agency than ever before.
Jadon Sancho and Reiss Nelson have been the forerunners of this recent development, both thriving in the Bundesliga. Since making the switch to Borussia Dortmund from Manchester City, Sancho’s ascent to stardom has been particularly impressive. At the age of 17, the England international featured in 12 top-flight games, registering five goal contributions (one goal, four assists). His stellar form has been improved upon this season, and his acclaim has heightened having contributed towards 16 goals (six goals, ten assists) in 20 Bundesliga appearances.
Nelson is another that has thrived, contributing towards seven goals (six scored, one assist) for Hoffenheim this term. Ademola Lookman enjoyed a brief but fruitful spell at Leipzig, while Rabbi Matondo and Emile Smith-Rowe have continued the trend of seeking first-team opportunities in Germany – the Welsh international joining Schalke on a permanent deal from the Premier League champions.
Limited opportunities at Premier League clubs have forced young prodigies to take account of their future, and ultimately aim to shape their career trajectory. Both Sancho and Matondo failed to make a single senior appearance for City before departing the club. To their credit Arsenal demonstrated greater faith in their prospects, with Nelson and Smith-Rowe making a combined total of 22 appearances for Arsenal (16 for Nelson, and six for Smith-Rowe). However, only three of those outings were in the Premier League, which raises concerns about the significance and the value of their inclusion.
Perhaps the inability to trust young players with truly significant involvement is an indictment of Premier League clubs and the weight of expectation that they shoulder. Following the exponential increase in television revenue, top-tier teams are expected to be more competitive and more successful in light of their enhanced financial muscle. In turn, with vastly inflated transfer fees being paid to acquire new talent, the opportunities afforded to young hopefuls is further restricted.
The average tenure of a Premier League manager has decreased drastically in recent years, a reflection of the cut-throat and gruelling nature of the divisions; far too many managers succumb to the pressure of expectation. With this trigger-happy approach to managers and increasing job vulnerability, it hardly provides a sustainable environment for meaningful youth integration, particularly at the top level.
While it’s increasingly challenging for managers to strike a balance between attaining favourable results and purposeful youth involvement, many young players are becomingly discernibly frustrated with a lack of participation (or significant involvement). This is best evidenced by Bayern Munich’s relentless pursuit of Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi. The German champions were reportedly willing to pay £35million for an 18-year-old, and the English starlet allegedly requested for a transfer to Germany.
Many could perceive the teenager’s actions as arrogant, especially considering Hudson-Odoi has made 15 appearances for the Blues. However, the winger waited until December to make his first league appearance of the season. Arguably, his increased participation has been fuelled by the transfer speculation, a desperate attempt to demonstrate his importance to Chelsea, not a product of Sarri’s burgeoning desire to play young players.
Perhaps the high-pressure nature of managing in the Premier League will provide a constant stumbling block for significant youth development, and if managers were afforded more time, then youth integration would become a more identifiable feature of the league. Nonetheless, while British youngsters continue to excel overseas, it will become increasingly challenging to retain their services. Simply, managers must be prepared to employ them meaningfully, or they risk losing them.