George Smith looks at what English football can learn from the Netherlands in terms of youth development and league structure.

Two years ago, Pep Guardiola suggested that English football had a real problem developing talent because of the gap that exists between academies and the Premier League. With the exit of nineteen-year-old Brahim Diaz from Man City this transfer window, a player nurtured at the club since the age of fourteen, his scrutiny on the topic has been renewed. To remedy the situation, thereby promoting young talent, Guardiola called for an overhaul of the footballing pyramid by creating B teams to compete in the established competitive leagues.

His calls will largely fall on deaf ears, of course, as this would require a historic and fundamental restructuring of English football the likes of which has not been seen since the modern evolution of the game. However, the system he promotes is not at all unfamiliar, and though he did not specify the Netherlands, it represents the most developed example of his argument in Europe. In the Netherlands, the Eerste Divisie – the second of two fully professional leagues – contains a whole host of Eredivisie club’s youth teams within these professional structures. There is o better example of this system than today’s game which pitted Jong Ajax against fierce rivals Jong PSV, a match that potentially showcased some future Eredivisie stars.

What this means for young, talented players is huge. Not only are they exposed at an early age to professional standards of football, they are being tested against senior players, in big stadiums, with lively fan bases. The process is streamlined so that the jump from u19 to u21 (and all those prior) is natural and progressive, and then those who can make it at that level progress to the first team. Such is the standard of these young teams that Jong Ajax were crowned champions of the Eerste Divisie last season, albeit containing the most expensive team in the league that year despite of their average age and clubs famed academy.

Contrast this to England where players spend many years in a multitude of age groups and youth leagues, inhibited to controlled environments which often prevent players battling beyond their age group or experiencing any kind of atmosphere during games. In recent years the progression of many young talents has been stunted and they play in a limbo, with no real solution to this problem presenting itself. In recent years, however, many Dutch talents have flouted the above insinuation that progress is more achievable in their native country, and moved across to England in search of bigger clubs and bigger paycheques. To take a few who are all at different stages of their career, Man City’s Phillipe Sandler (21), Man United’s Tahith Chong (19) and Liverpool’s Ki-Jana Hoever (16) recently made their professional debuts in the English FA cup third round.

What’s indicative here is the setting. In England, winning is the be all and end all of football, and it is no surprise that the early round of a cup is the venue for these young players to make their debuts. Fundamentally, the stakes are lower, the opposition are usually of a lesser quality, and the expectation that youth should be given chances in these matches amongst fans and pundits is higher. These chances are so limited, though, that they provide no real mechanism for progression or growth, coming as they do no more than half a dozen times a season, depending on progression and other factors. Perhaps, then, Guardiola may have a point. Having the best young talent competing in the Championship or League One consistently would force the development of young players.

Yet recent advances in English football, like that which put development squads in a tournament alongside professional clubs have had mixed results at best. Chelsea’s development squad – which contains a number of young Dutch talents plucked from Eredivisie giants such as Ajax (Juan Castillo, Daishawn Redan) and PSV (Ian Maatsen) – were recently defeated by League One side Peterborough in the Checkatrade Trophy, despite the Blues being semi-finalists the previous season. As with blooding players in cup matches, this mechanism does not provide enough evidence to suggest youth players mixing with lower league professionals is necessarily the way forward.

Moreover, favouring a B league system overlooks the wider differences between football in the two countries. Beyond the key disparities tactically and technically, the biggest difference of all is the standard. As numerous loan players have found out, spending time in the Eredivisie, let alone the Eerste Divisie is incomparable to the Premier League. Vitesse Arnhem’s player of the season last year Mason Mount, who managed fourteen league goals and nine assists, is currently grinding away in the Championship and recognised simply as one to watch – matching a fraction of these figures in England despite playing much more frequently. Countless other players have found the Eredivisie much more forgiving than English leagues.

To go back to Guardiola’s original argument, then, what this suggests is that in the Netherlands the gap between academy level football and professional football is fundamentally smaller. Stating this clearer, but of course with a broad brush: making the step up as a young player to the Eerste Divisie is incomparably to doing the same in the Championship. Applying the Dutch footballing pyramid to England would not solve this gap. To address the important issues Guardiola raises, which have indeed served incredibly well in promoting Dutch talent, much more is required – an entire grassroots approach akin to that undertaken by then Netherlands manager Louis van Gaal would be a good place to start .

As such, while looking abroad – particularly to the country of Cruijff, van Basten, and total football – can only be a positive for developing football in England, at this moment in time it seems unconvincing to rip up the fabric of British football on the grounds that Guardiola struggles to give youth a chance, but laments their development in his club’s state of the art academy.




George Smith (60 Posts)