“Create a good second league and you will see how many players make it to the Premier League,” he said. “Perhaps then managers in the Premier League will have more courage to play them.”
Those were the words of Pep Guardiola – let’s face it, probably the best manager in Britain, if not the world – when recently discussing the departure of Brahim Diaz to Real Madrid. He was referring to introducing b-teams into the Football League:
“Play against real teams. Against guys who are 24, 25, 26, 27 years old. Compete really every, every, every single weekend with real games. Fighting for survival or to be relegated, create that.
“I think the reserve league for the young players is not good enough,” Guardiola said. “They compete in these second teams but it is not a good league, the consistency is not physically strong. In Spain, the second teams in Barcelona and Madrid play in front of 40,000-45,000 people in Barcelona, Madrid. Here, they play with no spectators. It’s not strong enough and that’s why it’s so difficult for the English players sometimes at big clubs like City.
“I think it’s a real problem for English football. So why can we not create Man City or Man United second team and not play in the Championship against Newcastle? They’d play for the second team of United, City, Tottenham and they compete with Newcastle playing in front of huge [numbers of] fans. That is the future of English football.” [emphasis added]
At the moment, the b-team debate is academic: the EFL ruled out the introduction of Premier League b-teams into the English football league structure back in September 2016. However, the financial muscle of the Premier League must not be underestimated; how many of us expected b-teams would enter the Football League Trophy in 2016/17? The promise of financial reward could, one day, persuade enough EFL teams to back the plan, so it’s always worth re-affirming why the argument is not only arrogant, but also utterly wrong.
Delusions of grandeur
Firstly, the thought that a Premier League b-team has the right to play in the Championship is cute to say the least. Once the under-23 clubs start to dominate the Football League Trophy on a regular basis – not that they should even be allowed to enter the competition – you can start thinking about one or two of them possibly being good enough to appear in the Championship for a season or two at a time. In a more realistic scenario, they’d regularly feature in the bottom two leagues, on the quality of pitch that Premier League managers constantly complain about.
Just take Barcelona B and Real Madrid Castilla: the former have played in the third tier of Spanish football (or lower) for 13 of the 19 seasons this decade; for the latter that number is 15. These sides are – allegedly – made up of the best young players in the world, and yet they struggle to compete in what are, to be frank, very weak leagues. To say that the top b-teams in England would play in the Championship on a regular basis borders on delusional.
The attendance argument
Enough with the hypothetical questions. Let’s break into the detail of Guardiola’s claims and the b-team debate in general, beginning with the part of that statement that is easy to quantify and disprove: Guardiola’s claim that the reserve teams play in front of more than 40,000 spectators. In 2017/18, Barcelona B – playing in the second division of Spanish football no less – averaged a home attendance of 2,653. The season before, playing in the third tier, they averaged 1,656. Real Madrid Castilla, playing in the third tier in 2017/18, averaged 995. Nowhere near that 4,000 mark, let alone 40,000.
It says a lot that the one of the two biggest b-teams in Spain, playing in the second tier of Spanish football, with only three of 21 home matches taking place on the same day as a first-team game, failed to pull in an average attendance above that of Forest Green Rovers in England’s fourth tier.
Even across the league in its entirety, factoring in away games, it’s not exactly a great total. Last season, Barcelona B played in a division averaging an attendance of 8,645, just above the average attendance of League One (7,805). The year before they played in a league averaging 1,224. Real Madrid Castilla themselves played in a league averaging an attendance of 1,067. The highest attendance Barcelona B played in front of last season was 21,358 at Sporting Gijon.
By comparison, in the top division of last season’s under-23 Premier League – remember, a youth tournament, not professional football against professional clubs – the average attendance across all clubs was 700. Manchester City averaged 512, but Manchester United and Liverpool both averaged in excess of 1,500 fans. For a reserve league. Not a professional league; a reserve league. Guardiola compares Manchester City U23s to Barcelona B as if the difference in attendance is tens of fans to tens of thousands: the reality is much closer than he claims.
The attendance argument put forward was a pitiful reason to force through the introduction of b-teams into the Football League structure anyway. How many of England’s young players have failed to break through because they were not used to playing in front of a few-hundred more fans every week? Would Gillingham’s Dean Parrett – touted by the Daily Mail in 2007 as an England star of the future – have been an international footballer had he been afforded opportunity to play in front of that mighty 2,654 attendance? Oh wait, he played in front of 3000 fans with Aldershot. This is awkward…
B-teams versus the loan system
Moving onto the real substance of this debate: do b-teams create top players that go on to enjoy unrivaled success at the top levels of football? In short: no. Not by a long shot. The reality of it is that the maxim is true: if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. The best players spend scant time with the b-team and are rapidly promoted to the first-team. Those who spend years with the reserves often never make it.
Where Guardiola is right – whether he was being metaphorical or literal – is that the U23 Premier League is not physically strong. Consistent complaints about the reserve league are that, though it further bridges the gap between academy and professional football, it is not strong enough or competitive enough to consistently prepare players for the real thing. Of that, there is little debate. Professional game time is always preferable.
To that end, the question is this: how do you source that game time for your first- second- and third-year pros.
Depending on the country you are in, you have three options: start them in your first-team; loan them to another club; play them in your b-team. Going with Guardiola’s logic, these players need to demonstrate success in professional football before they can be afforded an opportunity in the first-team. Therefore, the question we must answer is this: does b-team football significantly benefit young players more than joining a club on loan?
The obvious downside to the loan system is that players often end up jumping from club to club, moving to different locations and playing under managers whose tactical approaches to games affect the player’s output. The loan system works fine for players who are in need of a single spell of football to demonstrate their potential and spend some time on the pitch. You can depart to another club for a half- or full-season, but moving to a different club on loan is a risky move.
Therein lies the advantage of the b-team, which can offer players game time in a settled team over a longer period of time. You can play with the same teammates, manager and tactics for at least 18 to 24 months, thus maximising your chances of proving that you can succeed in the first-team. Therefore, an easy way to determine that b-team method is better than the loan system should be that players are more likely to break through in a b-team because they have been afforded more game time than a standard loan. If the time spent in the b-team is the same (or less) than a brief loan spell, then this would suggest that the benefits of b-team method are no greater than the loan system.
The numbers don’t add up
Take Barcelona, Madrid and Bayern Munich – since they are the three in world football who are financially and structurally comparable to the top clubs in the Premier League yet operate within league structures that allow b-teams. Over the past ten years (2007/08 to 2017/18), they have collectively promoted 62 players from their b-teams to the first-team. Of those 62, 28 have been afforded a run of appearances in the team. For some that constituted sporadic appearances, for others a series of consecutive starts.
Already, this is a bad sign. Three clubs, ten years, all operating with b-teams, and yet only 28 have been afforded extended runs in the team. More than half (15) came from Barcelona, a team that is forever promoting youth; Madrid count for 8; Bayern 5. A rate of 45.1% across all three.
This is where things get interesting. Of those 28, a quarter (7) actually achieved success on loan before they broke into the first-team. One point to the loan system! However, even more damning is that, of the remaining 21, a further 9 made fewer than 40 appearances for the b-team before being promoted to the first-team. These players cannot be considered successes of the b-team method if the experience they gained (less than a season’s worth of football in the third division of Spanish football) could have been achieved in a loan spell.
That leaves 12 players. Out of the hundreds who played over the ten years for feeder teams of these three clubs, 12 played more than 40 games for the b-team before moving directly into the first-team. Alvaro Morata; Jese Rodriguez; Nacho Fernandez; Pedro; Jeffren; Thiago Alacantara; Martin Montoya; Marc Bartra; Sergi Roberto; Sandro Rodriguez; Thomas Kraft; Holger Badstuber.
We can strip these numbers back even further though. Taking away those who started fewer than 30 first-team matches before departing the club leaves just seven: Nacho Fernandez; Pedro; Thiago Alacantara; Martin Montoya; Marc Bartra; Sergi Roberto; Holger Badstuber.
Do these seven constitute proof that the b-team method works? Would these seven not have had successful careers without the b-team method?
The international picture
A similar picture is apparent at an international level. You’d have thought that Portugal, Germany and Spain – the three major states to allow b-teams within their league structure – winning five of the past six major international tournaments would be a vindication of the system. Yet, looking at their squads – in particular, the members of their squads who made at least two starts in each respective tournament – and you can see what a marginal impact b-team football had on their success.
|Portugal 2016 EC||Germany 2014 WC||Spain 2012 EC||Spain 2010 WC||Spain 2008 EC|
|Patricio (0)||Neuer (29)||Casillas (30)||Casillas (30)||Casillas (30)|
|Pepe (14)||Howdes (15)||Xavi (55)||Pique (0)||Marchena (3)|
|Fonte (59)||Hummels (42)||Pique (0)||Puyol (89)||Puyol (89)|
|Gurrieiro (55)||Khedira (21)||Torres (0)||Iniesta (54)||Iniesta (54)|
|Carvalho (1)||Schweinsteiger (34)||Fabregas (0)||Villa (36)||Villa (36)|
|Ronaldo (2)||Ozil (0)||Alonso (39)||Xavi (55)||Xavi (55)|
|Moutinho (30)||Klose (65)||Ramos (26)||Torres (0)||Torres (0)|
|Mario (109)||Muller (35)||Busquets (25)||Capdevila (45)||Fabregas (0)|
|Vieirnha (38)||Lahm (63)||Arbeloa (100)||Alonso (39)||Capdevila (45)|
|Danilo (0)||Mertesacker (16)||Alba (18)||Ramos (26)||Ramos (26)|
|Carvalho (0)||Kroos (13)||Silva (14)||Busquets (25)||Senna (0)|
|Gomes (17)||Gotze (0)||Pedro (121)||Silva (14)|
|Sanches (34)||Boateng (24)|
|R. Silva (1)|
|A. Silva (0)|
|Average: 20.1||Average: 27.5||Average: 27.9||Average: 43.3||Average: 29.3|
Those members of Portugal’s squad who started at least two games had made an average of 20.1 appearances for a b-team – though that drops to 14.9 when you remove Joao Mario’s 109. Only one side had an average of more than 30, and that was Spain’s 2010 World Cup squad. Removing Pedro’s 121 drops it to 36.3. In total, the average number of b-team games played by these International competition winners was a grand total of… 28.3. Only ten players made more than 50 b-team appearances and five of those (Xavi, Puyol, Klose, Lahm and Fonte) were approaching the end of their careers.
The physical experience of professional football that Guardiola refered to, which is so needed to prepare players to make the leap from the academy to the first-team was, in essence, the length of a loan spell.
If you’re good enough, you’re old enough
This brings us to the crux of youth football: if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. Let me revise that: if you’re thought to be good enough, then you’re old enough. Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi – the two players who have largely defined the past decade of world football – made just 2 and 22 b-team appearances for Sporting CP B and Barcelona B respectively. From 2009-2018, the top five nominees for the FIFA Ballon D’or have only featured seven players who have played in a b-team; only two (Xavi and Iniesta) for more than 40 games in a reserve team.
That really sums it up: the best players are not created by b-teams. The best players experience consistent professional football – especially top flight football – at an early age and progress because of it. B-teams sometimes help the facilitate that early experience of top flight football in the exact same way as the loan system works. It is not superior system, just an alternative one. Regardless of whether you have played on-loan or in a b-team, the choice of a young player is essentially as good as a game of chicken: wait for the manager to give you a chance or depart the club for consistent game time.
What is holding the Premier League back isn’t lack of quality, nor a lack of opportunity. It’s a mentality. It’s an idea that a young player cannot be trusted. The thinking is that you’re always better off spending the money on a player who has been given an opportunity and taken it rather than affording that opportunity to your own player. If any tweet summed it up, it was this one:
Chelsea are signing a 20-year-old Christian Pulisic for €64m, which may well force 18-year-old Callum Hudson-Odoi to seek a move for £25m. Both are extremely highly-rated. You do wonder if the two players were switched around whether exactly the same would happen.
— Daniel Storey (@danielstorey85) January 2, 2019
The Premier League is different to La Liga
Don’t get me wrong, there are strong sides outside of the top two in Spain, Germany, Italy and France. It’s just that, for years now, the finances of the Premier League have allowed ever more teams in the division to build larger squads of higher quality to last the duration of the season. Barcelona, Madrid and Munich can afford to put out weakened sides and afford youth a chance against the cannon fodder of the division; the Premier League has had few sides that fit such a label.
This has only further driven an attitude of mistrust towards youth products. At the top of the League, the amount of money spent by each team on their squad, the financial benefits of the Champions League, and the hiring of results driven, title winning managers helps to fuel a results driven attitude. For the rest, the spectre of relegation, the difficulties of being promoted from the Championship again, drive a survive at all costs mentality. It’s a toxic atmosphere that makes it harder for managers to want to introduce young players into their teams for an extended spell.
There is no shortage of talented young British players who have proved they can handle themselves in the Championship, one of the most competitive leagues in the world. Last season alone, 31 British players aged between 18-23 were loaned to Championship clubs from Manchester City, United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham and Everton. Eleven made at least 30 appearances. The average across all players was 19.4 appearances. What will be the reward of those to have demonstrated they can cut it, physically, in the Championship – a league far more competitive than that which Barcelona B play in?
- Ola Aina: loaned to Torino
- Angus Gunn: sold to Southampton
- Josh Onomah: loaned to Sheffield Wednesday
- Joe Williams: loaned to Bolton
- Cameron Carter-Vickers: loaned to Swansea
- Callum Connolly: loaned to Wigan
- Barsant Ceina: sold to Swansea
- Jeremie Boga: sold to Sassuolo
- Kieran Dowell: loaned to Sheffield United
- Jamal Blackman: loaned to Leeds
- Antonee Robinson: loaned to Wigan
It doesn’t matter if a player demonstrates that they can physically compete in the Championship. Top Premier League clubs simple do not care. They have so many young players coming through their academies (players who have swept up from academies all over the country) that if a player isn’t a world beater, they can write them off and move onto the next one.
Even then, if they make it in the Championship, they’re often shipped off to a Premier League club to see if they can perform as well there, under different circumstances in a more difficult league. England have been producing incredibly talented young players for years. Back in 2014, Jose Mourinho boldly proclaimed that if Dominic Solanke, Izzy Brown and Lewis Baker don’t play for England, then “blame me”. They should blame him.
Baker is a prime example. He was loaned out, loaned out and loaned out some more, succeeding in two major season long loan spells with Vitesse and yet only ever played three minutes of professional football for Mourihno in an FA Cup tie. Had he played for Barcelona B, Real Madrid Castilla or Bayern Munich II, he would have undoubtedly been offered a run in the team. No such luck in the Premier League.
I won’t go into the list of young players who, like Baker, haven’t been afforded an opportunity despite jumping through the hoops required of their continental comrades. It’s a long, tedious and mind-numbingly repetitive list. If you’re interested, you should be able to find at least 50 in half an hour just between Chelsea and Man City alone before getting bored (that’s what I did).
The difference between the Premier League and La Liga is that in the latter clubs are willing to give minutes to young players and allow them to sink or swim. In the Premier League, they don’t. In fact, they actively attempt to sign the young players given a chance by clubs who are more willing to do so. There are only a few exceptions, the main ones being Tottenham, Everton and Liverpool.
Pochettino again giving young academy players debuts..there’s opportunities to give minutes you just have to want to give them!!
— Jody Morris (@morriskid) January 4, 2019
Don’t tell me about feeding into any agenda…I know what opportunities have been available for the last 6 years
— Jody Morris (@morriskid) January 4, 2019
When trusted, these young players have demonstrated that they can play for the best teams: Jesse Lingard at Manchester United; Trend Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez at Liverpool; Jordan Pickford at Sunderland and then Everton; Harry Winks at Tottenham; Jadon Sancho at Dortmund. There was little difference between these players at youth level and the ones to go out on loan but never enjoy a spell in the first-team. The ones to progress tend to be the ones who were exposed to the top divisions, who played with better quality teammates, who trained with better quality coaches and who improved because of it.
Understand this, Pep: managerial cowardice among the top Premier League clubs – Manchester City and Chelsea in particular – is a far bigger factor than the lack of b-teams. You wouldn’t even start Phil Foden against Burton Albion! A midfield of Kevin De Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan and David Silva? Two World Cup winners against Burton Albion! No wonder Sancho left. No wonder Hudson-Odoi is trying to escape Chelsea. You are the problem, not the lack of b-teams.
And this is all without getting into the hoarding of youth players by the biggest academies in England. A main reason why b-teams are appealing to these rich clubs is that they can exploit the system to stockpile players and guarantee them professional game time. It’s just another power-play designed not to progress these players so much as it is to allow them to hoard the best young talent from their rivals and – as Chelsea have done so well – monetise their potential. But that’s an editorial for another day.
The Premier League has created its own model of financial reward for short term success. However, this reward is a double edged sword – a Sword of Damocles if we are to extend the metaphor. With the financial rewards comes the demands of instant gratification. Tying footballing success to financial security has created this toxic mess. English football is a victim of the greed of the Premier League.
B-teams do remarkably little to help the top players reach their potential, thus defeating the main argument behind them. The issue is not b-teams, or the loan system: it’s the Premier League. Looking back at those titans of the game who have emerged because of the biggest b-teams in the world – the likes of Nacho Ferndandez, Martin Montoya and Sergi Roberto – tells you all you need to know about why their introduction would do nothing to deal with the elephant in the room.
Yes, those young players – the Nick Powell’s, the Ben Amos’, the Josh McEachran’s and the Jay Spearing’s of the world – may have gone on to be players with slightly longer Premier League careers. Maybe they’d have made an England appearance or two. So what? Are we willing to sacrifice English football’s soul for the sake of a system that would change nothing?
Author: Nick Saunders Smith
Nick leads on Argyle Life’s strategy and administers the website while writing and editing our analysis articles. He also features on the Green & White podcast.