This article is the third in a three-part series where Cartilage Free Captain writers examine the topic of youth development at Tottenham Hotspur. In Part I, Ben Daniels explained why the lower-level loan system is ineffective. Part II, featured Edward F. on why not loaning out young players may be the best way to develop them. Today, we discuss a couple of other alternatives.
Youth development is not an exact science, but the current method of developing youngsters is probably broken. My colleagues have addressed the problems with the current system and proposed one alternative. I have two additional alternatives. One, which follows along with Ed's idea of keeping the best young players at Tottenham Hotspur and a second that uses a very aggressive loan policy.
More on Spurs' Youth Development
Should Spurs abandon youth loans?
In part one of this series, Ben Daniels examines the efficacy of loaning out youth players to lower-league clubs.
More on Spurs' Youth Development
Quick, name some of the leagues or countries that churn out the best young talent year after year. Did you pick Spain and Germany? I bet you did. What do those two countries have in common? The prevalence of B teams. In both Germany and Spain many of the big sides have B teams that play within the structure of the football league system, as opposed to as reserve teams. Real Madrid has Castilla (playing in the third division), Barcelona has Barcelona B (playing in the second division), Dortmund have Borussia Dortmund II (playing in the third division) and so on and so forth.
Each country has their own rules for these B teams. In Spain, the B team must play at least one league below the parent club, thus Castilla can never be promoted to La Liga, and the B teams cannot participate in the Copa del Ray. In Germany, B teams cannot be promoted above the 3.Liga (third division) and are also not allowed to play in cup competitions. Portugal and France also has a similar set-ups. Many of these squads feature primarily U-23 players. Spain, seems to have the best rules, however, because it's squad registration rules allow U-23 players or U-25 players with professional contracts to switch freely back and forth between the B team and the parent club.
Of course, introducing B teams to the English league pyramid is fraught with problems. Many don't want to see Football League clubs replaced with Tottenham Hotspur II or have their club co-opted into essentially a minor league club. That's because their teams have history and they want to play in the Premier League someday too and etc. etc. So many clubs in England have a rich and amazing history and having those places lose their places in the football league to B teams would be viewed as an affront to many football fans.
Ignoring those problems for the moment, a structure that allows B teams to operate within the Football league is probably the best solution. Tottenham Hotspur 2 would have a manager and staff that would not only be playing football the Tottenham way, but would be under little pressure to win because, beyond a certain point, their clubs can't be promoted. The goal of the clubs would be to merely get Spurs' young players match time in the Tottenham system against other professional footballers in matches that matter in front of big crowds. Imagine if Spurs U-21 teams had to travel to Elland Road and play in front of 30,000 plus fans, as opposed to playing at the Tottenham training ground in front of practically no one.
The English FA seems like their trying to create a system that makes youth teams matter by creating the U-21 Premier League, though maybe they are leaning towards eventually allowing B teams to play in the football league. While for the time being it is sort of the compromise between a B team structure and the current loan system, I can't help but think it could be improved. U-21 matches should be played in stadiums and be televised. Too often they're training ground matches played on a Tuesday night. That doesn't give anyone that feel for first-team football. Let's let U-21 teams play in the Johnstone Paint trophy or the FA Vase or whatever. Youth football, whether it's in a U-21 team or a B team has to matter.
The Chelsea Way
In the absence of a B team system, solution number one is to loan your players out like Chelsea do. Chelsea are well-known for aggressively stockpiling young talent and then sending them out on loan to play competitive football. The focus seems to be on sending the players abroad to teams where they can play consistent first-team football and play in a way Chelsea want them to play.Here's a list of players not named Fernando Torres that Chelsea have out on loan this year:
- Christian Atsu - Everton
- Victor Moses - Stoke
- Ryan Bertrand - Southampton
- Nathaniel Chalobah - Burnley
- Jamal Blackman - Middlesbrough
- Kenneth Omeruo - Middlesbrough
- Patrick Bamford - Middlesbrough
- John Swift - Rotherham
- Mario Pasalic - Elche
- Gael Kakuta - Rayo Vallecano
- Ulises Davila - Tenerife
- Thorgan Hazard - Borussia Monchengladbach
- Tomas Kalas - FC Cologne
- Lucas Piazon - Frankfurt
- Oriol Romeu - Stuttgart
- Marco van Ginkel - AC Milan
- Marko Marin - Fiorentina
- Bertrand Traore - Vitesse
- Wallace - Vitesse
- Josh McEachran - Vitesse
- Stipe Perica - NAC Breda
- Joao Rodriguez - Bastia
- Matej Delac - Aries-Avignon
- Islam Feruz - OGI Crete
- Cristian Cuevas - Universidad de Chile
Before we move forward: holy crap, that's a bunch of loan players. Spurs, by comparison, have ten players out on loan. Of those, one has, essentially, never been a Tottenham player (DeAndre Yedlin) and another will be making a permanent transfer soon (Lewis Holtby).
Back to the Chelsea list, notice how three of those players are playing at Vitesse in Holland. Vitesse and Chelsea are very closely linked, as SB Nation's Chelsea blog We Ain't Got No History chronicled in this excellent piece, and their benefit to Chelsea is two-fold. First, they're a talent incubator. The Eredivisie has a number of quality teams and Vitesse has, of late, found itself in competition at the top of the league. The style of play is highly technical and many excellent Premier League players have come from Holland. Spurs have five players in their first team squad that spent a good deal of time playing in the top Dutch league. The second benefit is that Vitesse provide an easier avenue for players to gain a work permit to eventually move to England.
Perhaps the biggest and best benefit of the Chelsea Way is that it actually makes the club money. If Daniel Levy ever finds that out, then you can bet Spurs will switch to this policy immediately. WAGNH has reported on just how good the system is, financially, for Chelsea. How? you ask? Well, first it gets at least a portion of the players wages off of the books. Some of the players even garner a loan fee, like Victor Moses and Thorgen Hazard. Second, it increases a players value by giving them a chance to showcase their skills. Last summer, Chelsea made £26.1 million just from selling their former loan stars.
The problem for Chelsea, however, is that rarely will these players actually displace their first team players. Go through that list above and tell me which of those players will ever be good enough to displace some of the players already in place at Chelsea or be good enough to convince Roman Abramovich not to buy someone else for that position. I'd say that list is probably limited to van Ginkel, Omeruo, and perhaps Chalobah. Now, Chelsea are obviously a massively wealthy and successful team, so they can afford to never really develop a first team player, but the club is still profiting from this system because eventually it will be able to sell the players that it developed as opposed to just letting them walk out the door when their contract expires.
Even if this policy turns into nothing more than a revenue-generator for Spurs, it's revenue we desperately need to strengthen the side. But even a club as wealthy as Chelsea has seen their loan policy already yield first team results in Thibaut Courtois, one of the best goalkeepers in the world (who supplanted their existing one of the best goalkeepers in the world in Petr Cech). For Spurs, who don't have a bottomless barrel of oil money and a team of world class stars, having these loan players with top level experience to draw upon would be a huge asset to the first team.
Sure there are downsides to this system. First, there's the problem of acquiring all those young talents in the first place. Chelsea have the financial clout to spend a couple million pounds on a youngster. Spurs likely cannot afford to miss on such a player. Take, for example, Nemanja Matic. He joined Chelsea, spent a season at Vitesse on loan and was then sold to Benfica as part of the David Luiz deal. Three years later Chelsea bought him back for £21 million. Selling Matic initially didn't hurt Chelsea, because they had the money to remedy their mistake down the road. Likewise, if a player like Kurt Zouma or Thibault Courtois didn't pan out, Chelsea could easily procure a replacement. That sort of thing probably isn't an option for Spurs.
Second, there's a major problem of finding good partnerships. ENIC used to own a bunch of football teams, but ran into some legal trouble in the late 1990s and had to divest itself of all of them, except Tottenham Hotspur. Without any ready made partners, Spurs would need to seek out one. Our "partnership" with Real Madrid obviously isn't helping us much, nor is the alleged partnership with Internacional in Brazil. What Spurs need is a club like Vitesse: a mid-tier team in a mid-tier league. There's plenty of options in the Eredivisie: ADO Den Haag, FC Utrecht, FC Groningen, Willem II, etc. The Belgian and Swiss leagues have similar rankings in UEFA and also have a number of attractive options for partnerships.
For now, the B team option is not feasible. It would require a systemic change, even if it might be the best option for the long-term. To me, if the choice for Tottenham is between keeping their players at the club, loaning them to lower league clubs, or pursuing an aggressive Chelsea-esque loan policy, then the choice is clear. I don't like to say these words any more than you like reading them, but the Chelsea way is the best way.