Monday, 23 June 2008

Is Manchester United’s Youth System Redundant?

Posted at Red Rants on 23 June 2008.

[Warning - this is a longer than usual post, since this is too big a topic to cover in a few snappy paragraphs. Still, I think it's an important area, so if you have a few minutes then settle in for a read and a think.]

There’s no doubt that we have been spoilt in the past. In the nineties, our youth system produced a quite extraordinary series of top class players. I don’t need to list them, but I will anyway because of the memories they bring back: Sharpe, Giggs, Scholes, Beckham, Gary Neville, Phil Neville and Nicky Butt. All effectively “free”, and all of whom played their best years for United.

But the next generation we all prayed for has never arrived. The only graduates of the youth system since the Golden Generation are Wes Brown, John O’Shea and Darren Fletcher. All have been loyal servants, but hardly the stellar talents we were blessed with before. These days, we hear good things spoken of a young player, maybe glimpse him once or twice in the first team, and then hear he has been sold off to a lesser Premiership side or a Championship team.

I want to look at why that has happened, and whether it means our youth system is now effectively redundant as far as the first team is concerned.

Why are so few youth players making the first team?

There are two main reasons for this:

1. Lack of opportunity
Quite simply, the Premiership is much more competitive than it used to be, and so there are very few chances to blood young players.

Back in the nineties, there was a far larger gap between the top four or five teams and the rest. It was very plausible to play five or six second string players against any team in the bottom half of the table and come away with an easy 2-0 win. We had an easy way of trying out youngsters and seeing if they made the grade. Not only that, but the number of points required to win the league allowed for a bit more margin for error, for a few off days when the rotation didn’t work.

Contrast to the present day. Access to cheap foreign (mainly African and Eastern European) talent and plentiful loans has allowed almost every team in the league to be competitive on their day. Fielding a weakened team, for example, at home to Middlesbrough would be a risky undertaking. Similarly, increasingly high standards are expected at the top of the league - witness Arsenal’s Invincibles and Chelski’s extraordinary unbeaten home record. Each season, records are broken for the standard at the top.

Off days aren’t an acceptable risk any more, they are too high a price to pay for learning about a couple of promising youngsters. You need a big, battle-hardened squad, with two players who could play all season in each position. Playing Wes Brown in the centre of defence instead of Pique in March and April was a classic example of safe not sorry. How will Danny Simpson ever get a run in the right back position when Brown, Neville, O’Shea and Hargreaves can all do a job there?

These days, the best we can hope to do is loan our young players to lesser teams, and see what we can tell from their performances from their loan clubs. This is pretty unreliable, though - what we need to know is not whether a player can nail down a place is a worse team, but whether they have the pedigree to live with the big boys. There’s only one way of finding that out, and that is the baptism of fire.

[The only light at the end of the tunnel here is substitutes. From next season, teams will be allowed to name seven subs - that would allow for a mixture of impact players and youngsters. If we're 2-0 up with twenty mins to go, we can bring on Welbeck and Simpson for some experience. If it's 1-1, call on Nani and Tevez to get a goal. O'Shea, Hargreaves and Foster can shore things up and cover injuries. Previously with only 5 spots available, obviously Welbeck and Simpson are the ones sent to sit in the stands.]

2. The new system
If you want chapter and verse on this, you need to read this fascinating interview with Brian McClair which RR linked to a while back. I really can’t recommend highly enough that you read the whole thing, but for the purposes of this article (and since I can’t improve the journalism there) I’m going to quote three passages from it:

The basic principle of the academy system – that clubs can only recruit boys up to the age of 11 who live within an hour’s travel of their academy base – is one for which Ferguson has a long-standing antipathy.

If the current academy system had been in place in the late 1980s United would not have signed Beckham, who grew up in Essex. McClair does not believe they would have signed the Nevilles either, as they would have been snapped up by Bury at an early age and a prohibitive price put upon them. Scholes, he says, would have been at Oldham Athletic’s academy. Giggs would not have had the chance to leave Manchester City for the club he supported. United might have got Butt; they might not.

McClair: “If you look at that group of players who won the 1992 FA Youth Cup for United, nearly every single one of them played at the highest level because they were the best from Northern Ireland, they were the best from Wales, the best from England, the best from Scotland. You can’t compare anything to the Beckham, Butt, Scholes generation with what happens now. It’s impossible to do that now.”

So is our youth system redundant?

To me, it is not redundant, but it has a very different role. It will never be a regular direct source of first team squad players, never mind first team players. However, it has a number of important functions in the modern era:

1. Panning for gold - What we must now hope for from our youth system is to find one big player every five years, one absolute superstar. A Wayne Rooney, a Cesc Fabregas. Those players are out there somewhere, and we need to give ourselves every chance of being the ones to sign them on. We must keep dipping our sieve in the river for the one time that we find a nugget of gold in our hand.

2. A source of income - selling off unwanted youth team players is a valuable income stream. I’ve gone over all our transfers since the Treble season, and come up with the following stats:

Total revenue from selling youth team players*: £66.7m (£35.7m**)
Total revenue adjusted for inflation***: £85.16m (£42.71m)

* Includes players bought at a young age to be developed for first team, eg Rossi
** Not including revenue from sale of Beckham, Butt and P Neville, who arguably fall outside the scope of this article
*** Assuming transfer price inflation of 10% per season

So from selling players who came through our youth system, if you accept my inflation adjustment, we have paid for Rio, Rooney, Ronaldo, Vidic and Evra. Even if you choose to discount the revenue from Beckham, Butt and Phil Neville (on the basis that they played their best years for us, so we had already had value for them by the time they left), we have paid for Rooney, Ronaldo and Vidic. So what we are effectively operating is a glorified part-exchange system, where we trade in five or six players who are good enough for the Premiership but not good enough for us for one first team regular. Note: I have included full details of how I got to those numbers at the end of the article for those of you who are interested - I thought it would disrupt the flow unnecessarily to include the full list here

By the way, a flipside of the loan system is that it is making it easier than ever for us to get value for our not-quite-good-enough players. For example, Sunderland would pay several million for Jonny Evans, and Stoke would like to pay us a couple of million for Frazier Campbell - before we’d have had to sell them into the Championship for much less. The indirect benefit of developing decent young players is increasing.

3. A finishing school - a major part of our transfer strategy now consists of buying up talented foreign players in their mid-teens and bringing them to Old Trafford to develop. Rossi and Pique were part of that system, and now we have players like the Brazilian twins and the young Italian striker we have just signed. A strong, competitive youth team set-up is obviously very valuable for helping those young signings realise their potential.

I don’t feel our youth system is redundant — far from it — but it’s role has changed significantly since the days of the Golden Generation. What are your views?

Youth team transfers since 1999
Richardson - £5.5m
Rossi - £6.7m
Pique - £5m
Bardsley - £2m
Shawcross - £1m
Total - £20.2m

McShane & Steele - exchange for Kuszczak, est £5m
David Jones - £1m
Spector - £0.5m
Total - £6m, adjusted for inflation £6.6m

P Neville - £3.5m
Total - £3.5m, adjusted for inflation £4.2m

Butt - £2.5m
Total - £2.5m, adjusted for inflation £3.25m

Beckham - £25m
Total - £25m, adjusted for inflation £35m

Rachubka - £0.2
Total - £0.2m, adjusted for inflation £0.3m

Healy - £1.8m
Greening - £2m
Total - £3.8m, adjusted for inflation £6.08m

Curtis - £1.5m
Higginbotham - £2m
Notman - £0.25m
Total - £3.75m, adjusted for inflation £6.38m

Mulryne - £0.5m
Cook - £1m
Nevland - £0.25m
Total - £1.75m, adjusted for inflation £3.15m


Wednesday, 18 June 2008

The Wayne Rooney Debate

Posted at Red Rants on 18 June 2008.

In an attempt to move on from the Ronaldo saga, I want to go back to the topic that was getting most “blog inches” (if that’s a phrase) before we descended into the current quagmire. What’s the deal with Wayne Rooney?

I’ve tried to phrase that as openly as possible, because the spectrum of opinion is broad. To some, Rooney is a maestro who had a bad season. To others, he’s a good player who hasn’t quite lived up to his billing or his potential. I know that after a sub-par performance in the CL final, most of you were leaning towards the latter — decent player, great to have him in the side, but not as stand-out amazing as we had hoped. I disagree, and here’s my take on things.

The ultimate team player

Rooney, to me, is team spirit embodied. There are two things that make him enjoy his football — playing in the team, and the team winning. Contrast to Ronaldo, who (whatever he said in post-match interviews) is all about his own performance first, and the team second. He will play wherever he is asked to, for as long as he is asked to, without sulking or whining. The only time you’ll find him sulking is if he is substituted when he still feels he has something to offer the team.

This stat doesn’t show up in any tables. It’s not quantifiable in assists, tackles, metres run, shots on target, or any other stat. It just is — he is prepared to subjugate his own desires and achievements for the good of the team, and has done so from the moment he walked in the door.

That’s why he’ll be at United for life, driving the team forward long after any of our continental imports have moved on. And if you don’t appreciate him for that, especially after the hullaballoo of the last few weeks, then you should damn well start.

Out of position

This is a subset of the above, but the most important one. Let there be no doubt, Rooney’s best position is just off the front man, with a roaming brief. He should be allowed to drop off into midfield to pick up the ball, or move out onto either wing when he sees space, or to push past the front man when he sees an opportunity. Teams should (Fabio Capello take note) be built around him.

But at Old Trafford, for one reason and another, they haven’t been. Last season’s team was as close as I’ve ever seen Fergie go to building the team around a single player — admittedly it was around one of the best players we’ve ever seen playing at the peak of his powers — but it usually doesn’t work like that. Prior to that, Ruud was the key man, and Rooney had to play second fiddle.

Set against that, look at where Rooney played last season:

1. up top, as a lone striker — he’s not tall enough for that role, and does his best work facing goal. Still, he worked hard and made life as tough a possible for defences, in turn creating spaces and gaps for a certain other player.

2. on the left — often he and Tevez alternated, but it was clear that they should be where Ronaldo was not, thereby stretching defences as much as possible.

3. as a wing back — remember the first Barcelona game? I don’t know of many other players of Rooney’s status and talent who would not only accept that role but really take to it.

There was only a short period where he played as part of a traditional front two, and if you buy a season review DVD (which I am currently glorying in) you will remember some of the sublime interplay between Rooney and Tevez through the centre.


Another criticism levelled against Rooney is that he doesn’t score enough goals. Well, I agree that his finishing isn’t as lethal as it could be — certainly not good enough to be our main striker. But then who said he was our main striker? He certainly hasn’t been very often yet. Nor does he loiter around the six yard box for tap ins, and he isn’t even in the area for corners.

Rooney should be compared, in the grand scheme of things, to the likes of Cantona and Sheringham. That’s the sort of player he is. Le God never banged in 40 goals in a season, but he scored crucial goals in crucial games, went on hot streaks, and had that aura which generally improved the performance of everyone around him. Sheringham was the ultimate dictator-from-deep, gaining a yard with his brain rather than his pace, and chipping in with occasional but important goals. There are even shades of the strength and combative nature of Mark Hughes, with the same ability to score stunning goals from distance.

I am honestly not exaggerating when I say that Rooney has the best bits of all these legends rolled into one, and so to judge him on the number of goals he has scored alone is laughable. How dare anyone condense the contribution of one of our best team players into an analysis of the most crude stat? Most people here know more about football than that, and should know better.


I’ll keep this short, because I’ve covered it in a previous article. Rooney is even more valuable to us because he will be with us for the rest of his career, unless we choose to sell him. There’s a good reason why British players come at a premium (Carrick for £18m, Rooney for £25m, Rio for £30m) — that’s because if you’re United, you’re buying that guy with a view to keeping him until he retires. I was variously called narrow-minded and a racist back then, but I reckon a few more people see my point now.

Nowhere in the various Ronaldo threads have I seen the comment “don’t worry, we have Rooney”. Well, I’m making it now. Build a team around Rooney, and we won’t regret it.


Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Playing Devil’s Advocate on Ronaldo

Posted at Red Rants on 11 Jun 2008.

By that, I mean Ronaldo’s advocate. I don’t view him as the Devil, but some of you do so I thought you’d like the connection.

A lot has been written on this blog alone over the last couple of weeks about the Ronaldo situation, culminating in Red Ranter’s superbly passionate piece. I have stayed out of it in the comments, firstly because of the lack of hard news on the subject and secondly because of the level of emotion running through. In the midst of it all, I don’t think anyone was prepared to step back and think it through more fully.

Maybe you’re still not, and I expect, if not flaming, then some strong contradictory opinions to this post. But what I’m going to do is explain why the Real move is good for Ronaldo, and point out some silver linings for us. Then, just to maximise the controversy, I’m going to give a super-long-term view of the situation that most of you will hate but which I think we should hope for despite ourselves.

The Case for the Move

We have established, I think, that Ronaldo’s first priority is Ronaldo. I also think we always knew that was the case, even if we tried to ignore it. So here are the arguments for why Ronaldo should join Madrid:

1. Last season was the peak. Last season, as we all know, CR scored 42 goals, won every award going, and we won the PL and the CL. Hard to see how it can get much better than that. Say next season Ronaldo scored 25 goals and we win the Premier League but lose in the semis of the CL. Good season, not great. But a huge comedown for CR - and you all know how much the English media love to tear down someone they have built up. Start a line of questions with “was 07/08 a flash in the pan”, and you’ll get the idea.

2. The referees. Referees in England have a permanent downer on Ronaldo. There’s no two ways about that - there will always be four or five blatant free-kicks or penalties a game which are not given to him because of his reputation. Massively frustrating for the fans to watch, but even more so for the player himself. In England, more than in any other league in the world, diving is hated and physicality is applauded and encouraged. It is quite the reverse in Spain, where diving is seen as “cleverness” and players are protected by officials from roughhousing tactics.

3. The playing conditions. Similar to the point above, but in Spain Ronaldo will rarely find a man up his arse whenever he receives the ball. Nor will that many wingers track back to double up on CR with their full back. Far more often than in England, he will have time to take a touch and turn, and when he does that he doesn’t often need support. Also, no winter away games at Blackburn on a mudbath pitch - weather/pitch conditions will favour CR’s game far more often than here.

4. The hero worship. We love (or loved) Ronaldo. We thought he was superb, and adored having him play for us. But nobody at United is bigger than the team - nobody has been allowed to be whilst Fergie is around. You can tell that CR wants the hero worship, the iconic status, the unreconstructed worship from everyone. He will never get that at United, because the adoration has to be spread round a lot of players. Madrid are buying him to be bigger than the team, to be their brand leader - and nobody’s going to be allowed to say a bad word about the most expensive player ever in the world.

5. The money. Say no more. It’s a factor, and love for United (I don’t doubt that he has lots of this, by the way), when balanced against his desire to play for Real, isn’t worth £100k a week after tax to him plus increased endorsements to him.

[End Devil's Advocate mode.] Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like the situation any more than the rest of you. The thought of the team running out in August without our number 7 leaves me feeling empty inside. But I understand why it makes sense to him, and that makes me not hate him.

Yep, sorry - I don’t hate him. Can’t - I love watching wingers more than any other type of player (Giggs, Sharpe and Kanchelskis all rate at the top of my list of players I enjoyed watching), and in Ronaldo I’ve had the chance to watch possibly the best there’s ever been in my team’s colours for five years. I loved watching him even when he was mind-blowingly frustrating. I’m just unspeakably disappointed about the situation.

The chasing pack

I’m not going to try to pretend that it can be a good thing if Ronaldo goes. It can’t, and it isn’t. One big factor in damage limitation is getting another year out of Ronaldo to give our youngsters a chance to come through and the management a genuine chance to plan for life without him.

But even if he goes straight away, I don’t think it’s as bad as all that in terms of winning things. Not because we’re going to have £x million to spend on great players, but because you have to look at where the chasing pack is.

Arsenal — have already lost Flamini, will almost certainly lose Hleb and may lose Adebayor. Will not sign any proven, top class talent.

Chelski — will almost certainly lose Drogba, will probably lose Anelka and are going to have all their best players (other than Ballack) relentlessly linked to Mourinho at Inter, probably with good reason. Will bring in expensive and high profile replacements, but you need a coach as good as Mourinho to bind them into a top class side, and given Abramovich’s shoddy treatment of JM and then Grant, they’re not going to get anyone good enough.

Liverpool — may not lose any big players, but they only have two to start with. Clearly have to sell to buy big (especially with their owners in crisis), and are overvaluing their players as a result. £10m for Scott Carson? £15m for Peter Crouch? Don’t be silly. Most high profile signing could be…Gareth Barry.

Barca — likely to have another season in transition with a new coach and some big players leaving.

AC Milan — didn’t qualify for the Champions League.

Inter Milan — who knows what Jose can do? Dark horse for the CL.

Real Madrid — could only be strengthened by Ronaldo, but still likely to underachieve in Europe.

Bayern Munich — wouldn’t dare comment with some knowledgeable Bayern fans around, perhaps they could give us a short assessment of Bayern’s chances next year in Europe.

I could go on. But we have some great players who are likely to get better next year, and as the best side in Europe we can attract exceptional players for whatever money we have to spend. We will go backwards with Ronaldo gone, but no further backwards than anyone else we are competing with.

I want him back again

Here, just to give you one last thing to chew on, is something I haven’t seen anywhere in the comments but I really believe. If he goes to Real, there’s a good chance it will go wrong for him for all the reasons RR mentioned on Saturday. And if that happens, I want him to come straight back to us, having fulfilled his boyhood dream and realised it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Reach back into your memories, and remember Mark Hughes - it can be like that.

By mixing hope and reality, I would like CR to play one more season for us, then go to Real whilst he’s still worth gigabucks, underachieve there for 2 seasons and then come back to aid the post-Fergie rebuilding process. As I said, I can’t hate him, and I don’t want to. We can fall out with Madrid, but let’s not fall out with Cristiano too.