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Saturday 15 June 2013

Youth Focus: Getting ready for the first team

In focus on Youth Development, we look at how players are being helped to make the step up

Last month's final between Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur brought the curtain down on the first season of the Barclays Under-21 Premier League and proved a fitting way to mark the first year of the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP).

The final, played in front of a sizeable crowd at Old Trafford, had Manchester United come from behind to become the inaugural winners of the first national competition for Under-21 players. The tournament kicked off last summer as part of the EPPP, which aims to develop a world-leading academy system and was the result of the biggest review of youth development in England for over a decade.

  In the Barclays U21 Premier League final between Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur 16 of the 22 starters were English

One of the key components of the EPPP is an expanded Games Programme, which tailors activities, matches and coaching to the age of the player through the Performance Pathway from U9s to U21s. The Performance Pathway is split into three stages with the final Professional Development Phase covering U17s-U21s. It aims to equip players with the right skills as they make the transition from Academy to first-team football.

With that in mind, this season the Barclays U21 Premier League and the U18 Premier Leagues were launched. Both competitions involved 22 teams testing themselves against the best in competitive matches.

"Part of the landscape for that transition is a Games Programme that creates the sort of occasion we saw at Old Trafford with the Barclays U21 Premier League Final," the Premier League’s Director of Youth Ged Roddy says. “It was a good-quality game, it clearly mattered to the players and both sets of coaches, there was a noisy crowd and a good atmosphere.

'Good start'

"It gives an edge so the players can begin to rehearse the things that they will be faced with when they go into the first team. What we have seen this season is that managers are using the U21s with those players that they see as potential first-team players in the immediate or the not-too-distant future. It's a good start and a lot to build on."

  Eight of the U21 champions Man Utd came from the local area: Bury, Macclesfield, Manchester (x2), Stockport, Oldham, Warrington and Rochdale

To help players adjust to the demands of first-team football, U21 matches were scheduled to complement first-team fixtures while some matches had to be played at clubs' main stadiums.

"When matches are played in stadiums with crowds watching, there is an edge to the game that you don’t get in at a training ground,” Roddy says. “By and large the feedback we have had from coaches and players is that they want to be playing in the stadium and they want to be engaged with a competition and in games that matter.

"The closer we can move things in that direction, the more it will benefit the Academy system as a whole."

For those coaches working at the Academies, there has been a significant change in working practices and Reading Academy manager Eamonn Dolan, who led his side to the U18 final against Fulham at Craven Cottage in May, believes the introduction of the EPPP has been a change for the better.

  • Fulham celebrate their victory in the Barclays Under-18 Premier League final

  • Larnell Cole scored twice as Man Utd won the Barclays Under-21 Premier League

"We wouldn’t be as good as we are today but for the EPPP," Dolan tells premierleague.com. "It's been a nightmare for me as an Academy manager; it’s taken over my life, but that's world-class standards.

"It’s about investing in the individual. You have to show outside people what you are doing. You think that this player is a good player. Why? How have you scouted him? How are you going to scout better players? Once you bring him in, how are you going to invest in him?

"Coaching-wise there’s accountability now. It's made sure clubs have to invest in it. This is a journey that has just started. English football is in a better state now but it is a foundation and we have got to keep going."

An important part of the EPPP is the constant analysis and measurement to keep track of how a player is progressing. One tool has been the introduction of written reports from Technical Match Observers (TMOs), who attend selected U21 and U18 matches.

Barclays U21s stats
Players to have appeared on pitch: 941
English/British (inc. Irish, NI, Scottish & Welsh): 689 (73%)
Average age (excl. over-age players): 19.10

The observers, who are former managers such as David Pleat, analyse formations, tactics, how teams perform in the various parts of the pitch, player performances and how coaches perform and conduct themselves.

"The reports are demonstrating that from a technical perspective the games we were seeing were not too dissimilar from what is happening at first-team level, in terms of pass completion and speed of movement of players and ball," Roddy says. "Technically, it looks like our academies are developing players and setting up a game plan which is equipping them for an approach that you would expect to see in the Premier League."

'Massive undertaking'

Looking back at the first 12 months of the programme, Roddy takes plenty of encouragement from how the clubs have embraced the "massive undertaking" of implementing the EPPP.

"It's been exciting to see some of the developments that are now coming through from the clubs," he says. "We are moving from change and lots of movement in the system, to a place where what we need to do now is bed it in. The clubs need a bit of time for it to be implemented effectively and space to get to grips with what we are doing.

"In some respects you are seeing impacts all over the system already, certainly in terms of some of the programmes in place and some of the ways in which players and coaches are working. We have got some incredibly talented players in the system and some of the enhancements that have been adopted in the last 12 months will enable them to come through quicker than maybe in the past."

The aim of the EPPP is to increase the number and quality of homegrown players playing first-team football and Roddy is optimistic that the impact will be felt sooner rather than later. 

"Within a relatively short space of time you should be able to see players coming through hopefully in increasing numbers," he says. "There's been a lot of very good practice going on for many years and what we are doing is building upon that and adding some new impetus along the way as well."

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Key Points

  • We look at the U17-U21 Professional Development Phase in a week devoted to Youth Development
  • Premier League aiming to help ease the transition from Academy to first-team football
  • Barclays Under-21 and Under-18 Premier League began this season