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Thursday 09 January 2014

Experts impressed by rising standards of Under-21s

Alan Curbishley and David Pleat helping analyse development of Barclays Under-21 Premier League

  • David Pleat, discusses the match with former Arsenal captain Tony Adams

  • Alan Curbishley was impressed by Arsenal's attempts to play out from the back

  • Curbishley and Pleat in the crowd at Meadow Park

  • Kristoffer Olsson, the Arsenal captain, would always offer an option to his defenders

  • Arsenal's Isaac Hayden always looked to play the ball out of defence

  • Arsenal full-back Tafari Moore always looked comfortable on the ball

  • Pleat was impressed by United's Larnell Cole, here with Thomas Eisfeld

Journalist and FA Level 2 coach Peter Lansley visited a recent Barclays Under-21 Premier League match to see how the Premier League is using former top-flight managers to help the development of young talent.

It is five nights before Christmas and while most people are putting the final touches to their festive preparations, former Premier League managers David Pleat and Alan Curbishley are at a windswept non-league stadium in North London. The pair, who have 42 years of management experience between them, are watching a Barclays Under-21 Premier League match between Arsenal and Manchester United that is as high on intensity as it is on quality.

They are not at Borehamwood’s Meadow Park scouting for clubs but for the Premier League. Pleat and Curbishley are working as Technical Match Observers (TMO), analysing some of the finest young talent in the country as part of the League's Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP). Their observations on tactics and players are noted and compiled to form the TMO Report, a detailed document that goes to the coaching staff of both clubs and also the Premier League (see panel below).

"This is a much more competitive league, a more equal league and players are more of an equal standard"
David Pleat

The Barclays U-21 Premier League is where the EPPP, which was introduced 18 months ago to unify improving standards of youth development across the country, is at its most high profile. The competition is seen as a finishing school for homegrown talent preparing to step into the most competitive league in the world.

It is important to track the progress of all involved and this is where the TMOs come in. As well as using ProZone to provide quantitative analysis of how the Under-21 matches are played in terms of styles of passing and player movements for the Premier League and the clubs, the TMOs provide a qualitative insight at this crucial stage of development.

Taking in the clash between Arsenal, who are renowned for producing some of English football's most technically gifted players, and United, the reigning Barclays Under-21 Premier League champions, provides the opportunity to glimpse into an exciting future. The intensity and quality on display during the 1-1 draw reflects well on the importance that these two clubs continue to place in youth development.


The eight TMOs compile their in-depth analyses after games, filling in sections on the following criteria:

  • teams and nationalities; formation and how they performed
  • formation observations for both teams
  • what happened in each of the thirds, how they linked and general observations
  • outstanding player
  • the behaviour of the coach and players
  • performance of the officials

Pleat, the former Tottenham Hotspur manager, and Curbishley, who managed in the Barclays Premier League with Charlton Athletic and West Ham United, offer their independent verdicts on what these two powerhouses of English youth football are in the process of developing. They sit in the Borehamwood directors' box, alongside Arsenal's Terry Burton, Derby County's Chris Evans, Tony Adams and Liam Brady, with pen and paper but eyes on the game. Curbishley is focused on Arsenal, Pleat on United.

"The tempo in this game was good, as you'd expect from these two teams with their traditions," Curbishley says. "In difficult conditions, with the pitch but more the wind, they all looked comfortable technically, and I was impressed with the way they were trying to deal with it. Some of the football was fantastic.

"They're all trying to play, and it's only a last resort when they don't look to feet, or when something [through on goal] is definitely on. The referee [Richard Hulme] has played a big part in that. In the conditions, the ball can pop up and invite a tackle, but he's done very well."

Fascinating tactical contrast

Among the observations in Curbishley's report is how impressed he was by Arsenal's willingness to play out from the back. Arsenal split their central defenders on goal-kicks and ask Matthew Macey, their goalkeeper, to pass wide and deep. Isaac Hayden and Semi Ajayi receive near their own corner flags, enticing United to commit men forward to press in a bid to force mistakes.

It makes for a fascinating tactical contrast based on United's relentless pursuit of the ball and Arsenal's commitment to keeping it.

Kristoffer Olsson, the Arsenal captain, or Gedion Zelalem, his midfield partner, drop deep to offer an option, but Warren Joyce, the United manager, never stops urging the impressive hustler Joe Rothwell to press tight, with Larnell Cole, United's skilful No 10, on hand to pick up any pieces.

Arsenal then play wide to their full-backs, Tafari Moore and Brandon Ormonde-Rothwell, who always look comfortable taking the ball and building the play. The play is typical Arsenal, even after Cole gave United an early lead against the run of play, and the home side come back to deserve their equaliser through Thomas Eisfeld early in the second half.

Pleat's report is also positive, notwithstanding United's "more typically British approach".

"I was impressed with the midfield triangle," he says. "[Ben] Pearson sat and moved the ball quickly, Rothwell was very strong in his challenging runs to pressure the ball and also with the ball, while Cole ran very well on and off the ball. They pressured very well for 65 minutes until they tired.

"They used the right wing very well, getting the ball out to [Saido] Janko when possible. They didn't play the ball out from the back so much and got it forward quickly. The movement in isolation of the centre-forward was very good, [James] Wilson making good runs down the left channel, and as he gets stronger, he looks set to be a good and technical player."

"Every team is wanting the No 10 to come
into play"
Alan Curbishley

"It was an excellent game," Pleat says after finishing writing his report, while also highlighting that the TMOs are not solely focused on the players but also how the people guiding them are performing. He notes Joyce's technical urgings from the touchline and also his players' willingness to take his prompts on board and put them into practice.

Going through the thirds, Pleat observes that United's blocking at the near post from corners was very effective and that they looked in charge in the air; that United passed the ball well within the midfield third, with the left-back Reece James joining in, although Donald Love, on the right, tended to leave the attacking to the exciting Sanko.

"A key factor worth mentioning generally is we are looking for coaches who can respond well and quickly to changing situations in a game, if he needs to change formation for instance, and how well his players are prepared to take on these instructions," Pleat says. "This is a technical aspect we want to improve in this country."

Curbishley, in his brief time in the role before joining Fulham, also sees some trends emerging, and one observation builds on Pleat's feedback last season that for all the quality of possession in this league, there is a lack of creative cutting edge from players "in the hole".

"The tactics being used are very similar," Curbishley says. "Most of the teams are lining up the same way - 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, 4-5-1 or when it is two front men, one tends to be floating. Everyone wants the No 10 to come into play.”

Equitable competition at Under-21

Pleat has been a TMO since the Barclays Under-21 Premier League kicked off in August 2012 and has been a keen scholar of the progression of clubs over the last 18 months. He believes this United team is better than last year's championship-winning side, and that the standard of the game at Meadow Park is better than League Two. With clubs frequently shunning the chance to play three over-age outfield players, the competition is equitable.

"Before, you could have Tottenham Hotspur with five senior pros playing Millwall with triallists and schoolboys and it would finish 8-0," Pleat says. "There's no point in that.

"This is a much more competitive league, a more equal league and players are more of an equal standard. It is better than the old reserve set-up. The boys have to play."

The TMOs' reports go back to both clubs, to be used as they see fit; some clubs are using them to build up a picture of their team and see it as a training-ground aid. Each club gets at least four reports over the season at both under-21 and under-18 level.

The Premier League's Youth Development department also receives the reports and, according to Terry Westley, the Premier League's Head of Professional Development, it helps them to develop a clear understanding of what is happening in the game across all age groups.

"We want to be able to feed back to the clubs an independent report of how their team played," Westley says. "Being able to have David and Alan here, we get a real in-depth evaluation of the game. If we can do that right across the board, with the Under-18s, the Under-16s, and in the foundation phase, we're starting to build up a real picture of what our game is like across all age groups. Instead of just hearing of someone saying, 'I was at that game, it was like this', we have a full dossier of exactly what the game looked like.

"At half-time David said Manchester United were playing really forcefully, that they were pressing really high. If we don't ask these experienced people to come here, we don't get that knowledge, we don't get that informed overview of the game. People can make generalisations, but when you hear about how we're not trying to play out from the back in English football, well, here's the evidence."

  • Each of the 22 teams get at least four of these reports at each age group across the season.
  • The TMOs meet at the beginning of the season to discuss the previous season, what is working well and what could work better, what trends and analysis has been seen already and how can that information be disseminated to the clubs to provide a full picture of what happens at the Professional Development stage.
  • The TMOs meet again on 30 January to go through the quantitative and qualitative analysis so far this season.

Westley is not so blinkered as to claim that the Barclays Under-21 Premier League is the only preparation for the Premier League itself, but he does believe that increased standards and competitiveness can only aid the best young players' bid to bridge the gap.

"This isn't the whole answer," Westley says. "But it is part of the answer. There are three likely routes through to the first team. Some simply are ready. The likes of Ross Barkley, Saido Berahino and James Ward-Prowse are fine examples of the young starlets who have progressed straight from the Barclays Under-21 Premier League into the elite division itself.

"Most players aren't ready and for some a spell on loan can be important for their development, such as Jack Wilshere at Bolton Wanderers, or Andros Townsend at Queens Park Rangers especially.

"But we firmly believe in the values of the Barclays U21 Premier League as the principle key to their development. For a boy to play in this league and be challenged accelerates his development."

"For a boy to play in this league and be challenged accelerates his development"
Terry Westley

The aim of the EPPP is to prepare players for the biggest of stages. ProZone analysis reveals that the style of play in the Barclays Under-21 Premier League is more akin to its big brother than lower down the Football League.

The Under-21 League comprises 22 teams this season, which will split into two divisions for 2014/15, with promotion and relegation thereafter. Westley senses this is helping sharpen clubs' attitudes. "That will give it an added edge," he says. "Manchester City were 18th but have won three games on the spin to get into top half."

Clubs play at least three games in their main stadia but there is a proposal to increase this to four, with the rest played at a neighbouring non-league partner, such as Arsenal at Borehamwood.

"This is real," Westley says, surveying the stadium. "Some of the lads have played at the training grounds since they were aged 10, whereas this is different. Manchester United came down overnight and playing at a stadium, with a bit of a crowd [700], with an intensity to the game, it is part of the players' development.

"There is a difference from the Under-18s to this. And there needs to be. Is there a big difference to the first team? Of course, massively. We understand that. So our role is to try and develop the standard of this league to the highest we can and make it one of the alternatives."

As the tough wind howls around North London, many of the scouts and journalists scuttle off for the trains and car parks. But even with Christmas schedules on their minds, Pleat, Curbishley and the rest are logging an integral part of the next generation for the good of the game.

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Key Points

  • Journalist and FA Level 1 coach Peter Lansley reports from a recent Barclays Under-21 Premier League match
  • He talks to former managers David Pleat and Alan Curbishley who are analysing the Arsenal v Man Utd match for the Premier League
  • Their job as Technical Match Observers is to deliver qualitative reports to the League and clubs on how the competition is progressing in the development of players