Youth Development: Is It About Talent Or Opportunity?

Youth development is continually a topic of debate in the world of football as everyone wants to see kids from their teams’ academy breakthrough to become homegrown stars. But, there’s no one rule to develop players. Some teams have mastered this process (Ajax, Sporting Lisbon, etc), but other clubs develop superstars as well. So what’s the secret to youth development? Is it the opportunity to play valuable minutes from a young age or is it simply whether or not you have the talent?

I recently engaged in a heated debate on the topic of “talent vs. first team minutes” as I was repeatedly told that it’s a shame English players don’t get enough minutes for their club teams and that it hampers the development of the EPL and the English National Team. However, having analyzed the socio-economic conditions leading to the creation of good players and being a football coach, I fundamentally disagreed with this principle and wanted to write a short piece to detail my thoughts. In my eyes the debate actually boils down to the question:

Can the training you do in an academy (after the age of 11-14) turn an average player into a great one?

For me the answer is no, and England is indeed the perfect example. On a fundamental level, if you take two players, one who grew up playing football in a favela in Brazil and played for his local team with semi-regular training before joining a mediocre European club and one who joined his local team’s academy in England before slowly working his way up to the first team, the Brazilian will be better.

*The reasons behind abject poverty and “football culture” leading to a better player is psychological and an important factor, but that’s not what I want to look at today.*

For me, the debate lies at the academy stage (ages 11-14). Had the Brazilian been swapped with the English player when they respectively entered their club/academy, he’d have gone to heights the English player could only dream of, whereas the English player would attain very little, no longer nurtured by the academy he was at. Even if you placed both of them in the academy simultaneously, the Brazilian would soar above his European counterparts.

I tend to think this is the case because I find that the skills developed in your early years are the most critical to your future development. As a coach myself, I notice that players who struggle technically when they are 11-14 years of age cannot improve that much because it is in those early years where you develop your key skills. And it is in this area where this fictional Brazilian kid would have the advantage of the English one. But why?

It’s probably because street football is far more common in a place like Brazil and that’s where you develop important technical skills in your youth that can never be taught no matter how impressive your academy facilities may be. Once you are around 11-14 years of age there’s only so much you can be taught, which is why I think street football (or however one will develop their skills at a young age) is the most integral factor to youth development.

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This is issue is clearly evident in England as both the FA and English clubs spend tons and tons of money on academies and youth programs year after year, yet English football talents are consistently mediocre.

Now, of course people will ask about the recent success the young Lions have had winning the U20 World Cup and the U19 European Championships. And to this I say that these recent talents have come from the socio-economic conditions created by the 2008 financial crisis and Prime Minister Tony Blair’s immigration policies that led to more kids playing on the streets and developing their techniques from a young age rather than going immediately into academies.

successful youth players
England has seen a rise in successful youth players since the 2008 financial crisis and Tony Blair’s immigration policies (Source: Getty Images)

Yet, in the Netherlands, a country of little socio-economic difficulty, football clubs keep producing quality players and it’s nearly always down to top class academies and the availability of first-team minutes, or so you might think… I argue once again that the most important factor is how players develop before the age of around 14, when they start serious academy work.

The main difference with the UK is that while school ground football remains a common past time, street football has become less and less common (as mentioned earlier), in part due to new health and safety norms. In contrast, street football in the Netherlands is encouraged at a young age and players who join academies before the age of ten usually experience a high level of football all through their time at the center that develops their key skills.

In conclusion, can training and academies make you a great player? The short answer is “no, not after the ages of 11-14” and the long answer is “Academies can improve good players and can improve mediocre players, but they can’t make a mediocre player great“.

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