“(the) long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is past the ocean is flat again.” John Maynard Keynes
THE urge to implement youth-orientated investment strategies has been fashionable with football clubs for as long as any memories can be tested. Not just in football, but in politics, in life, the nurturing of the young with an eye to future benefits has always been a received wisdom. Look after a nation’s youth and you protect its future. Give me a child at seven and I will show you the man. And all that jazz. Banging the drum for investing in youth and building for tomorrow is always going to get a solid round from the gallery. It is a brave leader figure who flies the flag for short-termism and eschews the future. It’s counter evolutionary to a degree.
Football lore trots out two time-honoured clichés where youth development is concerned. Firstly, and obviously, that young players are a team’s future, but secondly, that nascent talent must be handled carefully and not rushed precipitously into a harsh and unforgiving limelight. Erstwhile Liverpool Football Club ledge and professional TV pundit, Alan Hansen once infamously (and erroneously) prophesied that football teams ‘win nothing with kids’. The case study he was referring to was the young Manchester United team of 1998, which duly embarrassed Alan by actually winning lots of things. That crop featured baby-faced versions of Beckham, Scholes, Giggs, Butt and the Neville brothers, and it ripened overnight.
Hansen might have recalled that he was a member of a very young Liverpool side that also prospered ‘with kids’ as part of Bob Paisley’s youthful 81/82 side. That LFC vintage started the season badly but clawed back a handicap that saw them mid-table at Christmas, to storm to the title with a team shorn of veterans like Clemence, Case, Kennedy and McDermott, but spearheaded by under 23s such as Rush, Whelan, Lee, Johnston, Lawrenson and Grobbelaar.
More recently the efficacy of a proactive youth investment policy has born spectacular fruit for Tottenham Hotspur. Their gamble of a relatively substantial £5m on an 18-year-old Gareth Bale now looks like the game’s most successful punt of all time; the nigh on 100 million euro return on that investment making the much-maligned Damien Comolli’s stock soar once more.
Abroad, Barcelona’s stellar team is seen as a vindication of their investment and commitment to their La Masia youth academy. There are other heralded examples too. What doesn’t ever get the air space though, is when backing the kids appears palpably to have failed. No journalist rushes to write that story, so getting a real balance on the efficacy of investing in young players is hard to find.
FSG put down a marker that they would be primarily targeting young talent. Getting the age of LFC’s squad down was seen as an early priority of their take over in 2010. They had an investor’s zeal for getting a return, and saw in mature players assets that were already and inherently declining in value. Their unbreakable logic was that a player bought young is a player bought below his peak value. That the loss on youth failing was nothing compared to that if an older player under delivered.
Although it would be wrong to characterise all Liverpool investment under FSG as about buying kids, there has remained a heavy accent on youth throughout their tenure. From Jordan Henderson and Andy Carroll in 2011, Borini and Allen in 2012, Sturridge and Coutinho in 2013, and more recently Alberto and Ilori , there has been a willingness to throw substantial sums at under 22s with apparent potential. These major eight signings cost Liverpool Football Club around £110m. As things currently stand, just three of these eight get a regular game in Liverpool’s first team, and the average age of these players is now at a level where most can be considered past their development phase. Liverpool look to have two of these eight signings spectacularly right (Sturridge and Coutinho), one, record-breakingly wrong (Andy Carroll), and five of whom the jury remains very much out on.
At Arsenal, Arsene Wenger has been the architect of perhaps the most sustained commitment to youth in high level modern British football. When his club committed to tying down its financial resources for the best part of a decade to build a new stadium, Wenger all but abandoned the club’s established transfer market and resolutely stuck to a programme aimed at bringing through a group of young players who he gambled would all mature simultaneously.
Over recent years, Wenger has nurtured youngsters such as Ramsey, Gibbs, Djourou, Walcott, Wilshere and Oxlade-Chamberlain. Some of these kids are now growing up fast and vindicating Wenger, but the process of getting to where Wenger wanted to be has been a slow and often fraught one.
Before the crop above, he brought through talents such as Cesc Fabregas, Nasri, Flamini, Diaby, Alex Song and Robin Van Persie. As some of these players flowered and bloomed and emerged as top class footballers, he concurrently blooded the likes of Walcott, Gibbs, Ramsey and co. to work alongside them.
During this process, Arsenal remained competitive and Premier League top four mainstays, but they were no longer the magnificent title and trophy winning machine they had been in the previous era. Developing youth on the job proved a wonderful way of maturing playing assets into valuable saleable ones, but it did not bring Arsenal closer to recapturing former glories. If anything, Arsenal continued to decline over this period. Up until the eve of the current campaign, the Arsenal manager remained a target for a growing number of critics within their own increasingly disgruntled fanbase.
The evidence of the current season is suggesting that Wenger’s stubborn commitment to his youth policy may finally be bearing fruit. This needs to happen, and happen soon though, if Arsenal aren’t to re-enter a cycle that they seem to have defined. If they tail off this term, and don’t contest the title until next May, then what effect will that have on their latest line of emerging superstars? How patient will Ozil, Ramsey, Carzola, Wilshere, Walcott and co. be when the Barcelonas, Monacos, and PSGs and Manchester Citys come knocking, offering not just major trophy-winning potential but fatter pay packets?
Wenger’s unwavering faith in bringing through crops of blended young footballers remains clearly admirable on one level. The question that remains for his philosophy and in turn acolytes of it such as FSG, is that can it ever reap dividends swiftly enough to keep the generation one stage older (than the emerging younger one) content? At Liverpool, how happy will a Coutinho or a Sturridge be, as they approach their mid-20s, to wait for Sterling, Ibe, Teixera, Wisdom, Suso, Ilori and Alberto to reach their level? Will they be satisfied to play roles as co-nurturers or will they seek more instant and guaranteed rewards at established clubs? Are they destined to take the Fabregas, Van Persie, Nasri and Song route to sides built on more solid foundations?
As time ticks on in another transfer window, Liverpool have being linked with prodigies such as Will Hughes at Derby, Halmstad’s 17 year old striker Valmir Berisha and an apparent Scottish version of Messi, Ryan Gauld of Dundee United. The money being talked in some cases is substantial. So too was the £14m Liverpool have only recently paid to have youngsters Luis Alberto and Tiago Ilori not play for their first team. Ever more resources potentially being poured into the dream of a golden tomorrow that may never arrive.
The Arsenal experience, which witnessed great results in terms of youth promotion, but not in terms of achieving the desired sporting goals, begs serious questions about the nature and wisdom of slavishly backing young players as a cost effective way of building a winning team. The sad reality is that it is perhaps only the very richest clubs who can truly afford this indulgence.
Chelsea, at present, look a reasonable example of this. Their ability to tie up substantial sums in waiting for talent to emerge, has seen them comfortably able to carry the burgeoning careers of players such as Lukaku, De Bryune and Courtois. Likewise, Barcelona may seem on the surface to be the template for backing youth, but have in reality been able to do so with the aid of a substantial transfer and wage budget that has allowed them to always surround precocious talent with established stars.
The current incarnation of Liverpool Football Club aren’t Chelsea or Barcelona. They are not really yet at Arsenal’s level, so can they afford to invest limited transfer and wage allocations on players like Ilori and Alberto, or consider a £10m plus investment in a fledgling like Will Hughes? These are footballers that cannot enhance an already under resourced first team squad (of say 15 players) and for a good while yet, represent extravagances, given the universe the club currently inhabits. Would it be even going too far to suggest that waiting for the likes of Ibe, Sterling, Wisdom and Suso to mature is a luxury when all could be cashed in on now for decent money, that could be quickly exchanged into tokens to buy more established ‘stars’ with?
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers has, like Wenger, positioned himself as an advocate of putting faith in youth. At the start of his Liverpool career he rushed teenagers into the first team with a haste that even his Arsenal counterpart may have found indecent. Results weren’t good, but Rodgers’ boldness was roundly praised and time was bought. The youth project does this for managers. A cynic might say that it will always buy them more than a par allocation of grace. With youth, a coming together, a maturing, is always possibly just around the corner. A setback is explainable, justifiable and perhaps even necessary (as part of the learning curve) when a manager frames his project in this way.
Of course in football, one story is good until a better one is told. The Wenger that had lost the plot/outstayed his welcome/been stubborn beyond reason is, at the time of writing, a king about to be re-crowned. His journey looks to be on course to reach a happy destination. A place where all the angst about Fabregases and Van Persies leaving is another country. What effect Arsenal’s renaissance is having on Liverpool’s strategist leaders in Boston remains to be seen. Once the January transfer window closes we will undoubtedly have new information.
It will remain hard not to admire a commitment to producing an exciting batch of golden children for a silver laden LFC of tomorrow, but it is to be hoped that one eye remains, at the very least, as keenly focused on the here and now, where need remains, eternally, the greatest.
This feature originally appeared in The Anfield Wrap’s free digital magazine. Click the yellow banner below to find out more.