Not so long ago, foreign rivals would laugh at English youth teams. The physicality, the tactical innocence, the ball over the top, the running . . . English football seemed stuck in the past – comically out of date.
Now, despite the presence of the odd old-skool coaching dinosaur a gradual improvement, facilitated with large amounts of cash, has seen leading English youth sides catch-up with and overtake those aforementioned chortling rivals.
Ideas, coaches and young players have been borrowed, bought and pilfered from abroad while more enlightened domestic coaches are emerging. The English development school has become more educated and urbane.
Standards in English youth football are improving, gradually. There is still a long, long way to go but no one is laughing now.
It is easy to pick holes in the widely debated Elite Player Performance Programme that drastically altered the English academy system. It certainly favours academies at the top of the pyramid – they can sign the best players from more lowly ranked clubs – but it has raised the bar in certain key areas.
Investment in sports science and analytics has increased, the facilities at many of England’s top academies are now world leading. The style of play is more contemporary, more teams try and ‘play out from the back.’ Pressing is more intelligent, the transition from attack to defence is more considered.
The addiction to physicality still lingers at all but the most enlightened academies however. There is still a tendency to trust pace and power when patience wears thin.
Despite these lingering bad habits it is clear that progress has been made in England.
But there remains a fundamental obstacle barring the progression of young English footballers.
An invisible partition surrounds the Premier League. It is one that very few English youngsters can permeate.
English clubs lag far behind the rest of Europe’s ‘big 5’ leagues when it comes to opportunities for young players.
Academy graduates are educated in world class facilities, by world class coaches and receive world leading wages.
No expense is spared. But they are chronically lacking in the most vital of young footballer stratifiers.
English football does not give its young players enough game time.
All the skill and education in the world counts for nothing if the opportunity to use it is not there.
Game time for a young footballer is like light for a sapling. Without it there is no osmosis.
The Premier League is filled with foreign players and expensive recruits. Managers face operate under a brutal ‘win-at-all-costs’ system which affords no time to take the long view. Blooding youngsters is a brave, even principled decision, with no guarantee of success. The Premier League, through its frenetic intensity, places results before process, vision or strategy.
Signing an established player limits risk and uncertainty. It is no surprise then that Premier League managers will more often look to the transfer market than their academies to fill gaps in their squads. All but the most prodigious of young talents will need time to acclimatise when bridging the gap between youth and senior football. Time is one of the few resources Premier League managers cannot afford.
So when an English youngster completes his education at a Premier League academy what is the next step?
The reserve team system in England has been replaced with Under 23 leagues. But these can be questioned for both a lack of intensity in and quantity of matches.
Loans for Premier League youngsters to lower league clubs provide vital experience but are not suitable for all players. The physicality, style of play, technique levels and quality of facilities are often vastly different to what the elite level youngsters will have experienced in their gilded educations. Some benefit from the loan experience others are scarred by it.
Nevertheless, experience is vital in that final push from the youth to senior ranks. But the glass ceiling knocks many academy graduates back when they try to breach the Premier League.
Some drop down a division or two and successfully work their way back up to the top level. Others fall down the leagues but still enjoy productive professional careers. Some exit the league altogether and enter the semi-professional non-league ranks. Here they might rise up the pyramid system or flit about the lower leagues permanently.
Far more will fall out of football altogether.
How a player handles rejection, especially after overcoming so successfully on their way through the academy system, determines whether they will build a football career.
The odds of ‘making it’ at a Premier League club are ridiculously small. Far too many young players quit at their first taste of rejection and a lot of talent is wasted.
English youngsters can see the top. They are within touching distance of it when they finish their academy education.
Development is a linear process and without the vital oxygen of first team football young players can stagnate or regress. The structure of English football and the demands of the Premier League are hindering the growth potential of English youngsters.
But there is also a cultural problem at the top of the English game. And it is one that is increasingly difficult to understand given the improved standards and technical levels at the best English academies.
For how long will the current situation of academy investment and graduate rejection continue?
The economics of running a successful academy are a small percentage of a Premier League club’s balance sheet.
But it is questionable if the current one-in-a-thousand, 8-18 academy model is cost effective or indeed sustainable. The factors and variables which enable or prohibit an elite level career are so vast, especially over a ten year period, that arguably it makes more sense to prioritise recruitment at older age groups.
Whether the English academy system is fit for purpose is an entirely legitimate question. Without providing the requisite chance for the players it educates the Premier League and the top-level English academies are practicing euthanasia.
The glass ceiling at the top of English football is a silent, invisible wonderkid killer.
Cracks are starting to emerge but it will not shatter until we see a culture shift. How long will that take?