The U21s league – Genius revolution or frustrating stop-gap?

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Michael Sweeting discusses the FA’s new Under 21’s League that is introduced this season, a step in the right direction…?

academy lfcSo, only twenty years after Spanish football came to realise its youth development procedure was flawed, The FA have come to the same conclusion. The reserve team system was correctly highlighted, along with the slightly better ran academy system, to be the root cause of England’s poor performances at international tournaments and terrible track record of developing talented young footballers.

Simply put, the reserve league has too few games. For example Liverpool had several periods of three weeks or more without a single match despite progressing to the semi-finals of the NextGen Series, without which the gap in match time would have been more even severe. When players like Jonjo Shelvey, John Flanagan and Jack Robinson are restricted to a maximum of just twenty-two reserve team games per season is it any wonder why they find it so difficult to make enough of an impression to force their way into first team consideration?

Clearly, even to the most casual of observers, the system needed overhauling. The FA’s answer is the shiny, new, rather convoluted ‘U21 Premier League’. It includes three groups (two groups of eight and one of seven) which then breaks down into three further groups based on final league positions which guarantees a minimum of twenty-eight league games per season and a potential of thirty-two matches. The exact details are best described by the flow chart below…

On the face of it the system looks far better than the previous one. The three groups are not based on region so instead of playing the same teams every season (Bolton, Blackburn, Everton…) Liverpool will experience trips to Fulham, Chelsea and Middlesbrough as such benefitting from so far rare experiences such as staying overnight in hotels and learning about the slightly different styles of play across the country; the North West is famous for its never-say-die mental strength and physical approach whereas London football is more pace obsessed. It is essential for young footballers that they learn to cope with different approaches and will only stand them in good stead when attempting to bridge the gap to the first team set up.

The greater amount of games will also give better scope for development, coaches will have a chance to experiment with formations and player positions which enhances the all around game of young players, improving different assets of their skill set and forcing them to activate their brains. The changing of positions is a system famously implemented by Ajax and Barcelona for decades with great success, if English clubs have more games they have more opportunity to copy it.

However there are some glaring omissions from the new league set up. Firstly is the strange decision to divide the league into three. Many reserve team managers were asking for a full league system of twenty clubs – perhaps even an exact replica of the first team leagues. Including our own Rodolfo Borrell…

“It’s just the start, the final idea I hope will to make one big group and play home and away.”

Surely the club coaches would have been an important group for the FA to consult? While it’s not exactly disastrous for the league to be divided in such a way – and it appears to have been done so because the FA still want a show piece ‘final’ – it does mean that it probably isn’t going to be a permanent system and developing a stop-gap league isn’t what English football needs right now.

Another problem is the limitation of first team players, although overage players are allowed to feature, there is a maximum number allowed and this reduces the chances of matches happening such as Liverpool v Everton last season when Everton practically fielded a first team and were left hanging on for a draw by the incisive running of Raheem Sterling. Playing against older, more experienced players is great for development and the new system appears to try and separate ‘reserve’ and ‘first team’ to a greater degree than the old system which is disappointing.

On the whole though the U21 Premier League is a step in the right direction. More game time and experience for young lads on the cusp of first team football can only be viewed in a positive light even if there are some deficiencies to the overall system which will either need a tweak or whole new rethink this time next year. For now though we can sit back and watch the football… safe, in the knowledge we won’t have to wait a month between games.

As Rolo Borrell says “It’s just the start”.

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