Wednesday 06 March 2013
In the first of a series of features focusing on the inaugural Barclays Under-21 Premier League, premierleague.com speaks to one of the men overseeing its implementation.
How do you create better footballers? It is an age-old question, but one proven way of improving standards is to ensure that players are constantly kept competitive.
Add the latest in performance analysis technology, bring in some of the most experienced coaches in the English game to provide qualitative analysis of those players, encourage clubs to retain their players rather than send them out on loan, and you have the beginnings of a successful and ground-breaking competition.
That is what’s taking place in the inaugural Barclays Under-21 Premier League this season. The second phase of the competition started in January and for Terry Westley, the Premier League’s Head of Professional Development, the start of the Elite Group Phase is the fruition of a long-held ambition, to see the best young players take each other on in an information-rich environment.
“It was very noticeable that the standard of play went up when the best players went up against the best players of another team"
The three groups of teams from the first phase of the competition have been reclassified according to where they finished in their qualifying sections, with the best eight sides now competing in the Elite Group. This is a particularly satisfying development for Westley, a former Academy Director at Birmingham City and Derby County.
“This concept was always in the back of my mind,” said Westley. “When I was at Birmingham, we’d spoken about the idea and said we have to get the best players playing and training with each other on a more regular basis. So between Aston Villa, Birmingham and West Bromwich Albion, we had some sessions where five players from each Under-14 group came together and trained together one day a week.
“It was very noticeable that the standard of play went up when the best players went up against the best players of another team and challenged each other and different coaches and start opening their minds, with different training grounds and mentally they are tested. So we thought, ‘How can we create a league with the very best players against each other on a more regular basis.’ ”
After three years of consultation and development, the competition has started but it is still very much in its early stages of development for the people at the Premier League charged with its implementation, for the coaches at the club who have to work in ways that are much more accountable than before and for the players affected by its impact on their style of play.
To help evaluate the development taking place on the pitch each match is being analysed through data analysis company ProZone, while selected matches are being assessed by Technical Match Officials (TMOs) such as former Tottenham Hotspur manager David Pleat and former Aston Villa coach John Deehan, who provide a more qualitative analysis of fixtures.
The TMOs and the data from ProZone have found that the style of play in Barclays Under 21 Premier League matches resembles Barclays Premier League matches more than those in the Football League; there a much higher proportion of passes made and a greater level of technical quality on display.
The degree of passing may have increased but where that play is occurring is a concern as most passes take place in the defensive third, which suggests that teams need to develop more of a cutting edge.
“David Pleat saw that the game was being played out from the back and trying to be played in midfield but that there were not too many creative midfielders,” said Westley. “Possession was being kept but it was going sideways and backwards and not too many of the [Jack] Wilshere types who would put balls through to people.
“Pleat found that a lot of the front players were coming towards the play, trying to link the play up and not where you often see [Robin] van Persie playing on that last shoulder and getting in behind people.”
"A lower-level club and an Under-21 spell is the way forward”
This analysis from the TMOs as well as the data from ProZone has been fed back to the coaches at the participating clubs to try to get them to understand what sort of practices they would use to break through the defensive lines. “Those meetings were very useful in terms of how they saw the league being played,” said Westley.
By developing a style of play in the Under-21s that resembles the Barclays Premier League on pitches of good quality, managers are more willing to use the competition to field first-team players in need of match action. Clubs are allowed to field three over-age outfield players and many clubs have done, with the likes of John Terry, Bacary Sagna and Darren Fletcher playing alongside the youngsters, who get to reap the benefits from an invaluable experience.
The standard of play also means that managers and coaches have a dilemma as to where their younger players learn the game. “We are trying to build a league which is comparable to the Premier League,” said Westley. “So if you are an Under-21 coach or manager you might start thinking twice about where you send a player on loan, because it might be that the U21 league is more favourable than a loan where the play is nothing like what you are trying to prepare him for.
“When on loan, of course, there is the element of playing in front of a crowd in a stadium every week and having to win the match, so a combination of going on loan to a lower-level club and an U21 spell is the way forward – such as shorter-term loans.”
One example of this approach is West Ham United, who for the first phase of the Barclays Under-21 Premier League kept all their young players together and finished top of their section.
As soon as their group was won, they sent out a few players on loan over the Christmas and January period when the Under-21 league was shut down, and there were a number of matches in which the players could gain some top-flight experience. “It would be good if other clubs look at the loan scheme like that, rather than rush and send people out,” said Westley.
One way for Barclays Under-21 Premier League matches to better replicate the conditions the players enjoy when out on loan is for more matches to be played at stadiums instead of training grounds. Clubs were obliged to hold a minimum of three matches at their main stadium over the course of the season, with some, such as Crystal Palace, going beyond the requirement, while others held their fixtures at stadiums of lower-league or non-league clubs.
"U21 matches should be in a proper stadium; if not the main stadium then another one"
The matches at main stadiums were deemed a success with Arsenal attracting 6,000 to the Emirates Stadium for one of their fixtures, and the general consensus from coaches is that the quality of the play requires arenas to match.
“The players want to know that there is a difference from U18 football, where matches are played on a training ground,” said Westley. “The U21 matches should be in a proper stadium; if not the club’s main stadium then another one, such as Arsenal at Barnet, Chelsea at Brentford and Manchester United at Altrincham.”
Clubs are under no obligation to use their main stadiums for the second phase but it is hoped that they will recognise the desire to match the greater quality of the competition at this stage with suitable arenas. Westley hopes clubs will embrace the competitive nature of the format for the second phase.
“If you look at some of those games in Phase Two – Tottenham v Manchester United, West Ham v Arsenal Liverpool v Southampton – you are creating an environment in which the players are being tested on a regular basis,” he said. “I am interested to see whether the second phase will become competitive now that teams have a chance to win it. They may not have set out like that but can we now get that mark on it?”
With the help of the data from ProZone and the analysis of Deehan and Pleat a clear judgment will be possible.
47 - the number of U21 players to have played in the Barclays Premier League
19.35 - Average age of U21 teams (youngest: Chelsea 18.47 years; oldest: Fulham 19.96) (excludes overage players of which maximum three allowed outfield)
18 Callum Driver (West Ham)
17 Nicholas Arnold (Reading), Sebastian Lletget (West Ham), George Moncur (West Ham)
16 Tyias Browning (Everton), Romaine Sawyers (WBA)
15 Jonathan Obika (Spurs)
13 Liam McAlinden (Wolves), Cristian Ceballos (Spurs), Thomas Eisfeld (Arsenal)
12 Sam Hoskins (Southampton)
10 Islam Feruz (Chelsea), Ryan Mason (Spurs)
*this data is based on information as of 18 February