The takeover of Manchester City by the Abu Dhabi United Group has sparked fears that their thriving academy may suffer and inevitably it will be much more difficult for the next generation of footballers to break into the first-team. The question being asked is can a more effective method of bridging the gap between the reserves and the first team be developed? The question threw my memory back to last year when Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez was criticised for suggesting that "I would like to see reserve teams of the big clubs like ourselves [Liverpool] playing in the Football League.” Based on the Spanish league structure that allows reserve teams to play in the lower divisions, could the same principals succeed in the Premiership?
Initially I was very dismissive of the idea, but my opinion has swayed slightly since then – are the needs of the English powerhouses more important than the 72 members of the Football League? It would be arrogant and foolish to place the needs of one football club ahead of another regardless of their division, but I have a greater understanding of why Benitez would raise such a possibility.
Having managed the second string of Real Madrid, Rafa Benitez has witnessed first-hand how the participation of reserve teams in lower divisions can be beneficial for the development of youth players not only for the club’s first team, but also for the nation. With England having a low pool of talent to select from, allowing the Premiership reserve teams to compete in the Championship or League One could ensure their youth players receive the experience that they otherwise would not get. The reserve set-up in England has been criticised, with the current structure meaning that reserve teams compete against each other in their own league and so young players do not have the opportunity to play against more experienced opposition. Benitez argued “That will bridge the gap between the youngsters and the first team. If you do not give young players the chance to play competitive football and to learn things, things become impossible. Our young players may have the quality but not the experience for the first team.”
Real Madrid Castilla have produced footballers who are sufficiently experienced and talented enough to have an impact on the first-team, much to the contrast of the dormant academies of Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea. Of course with more success and a higher calibre of players it will be much harder for youngsters to make it into the starting eleven often, but if Real Madrid among many others can do it then surely looking into a similar setup in the Premiership would be worthwhile. Rivals Barcelona have the best academy in the world in terms of renowned players it has produced: Lionel Messi, Iniesta, Bojan Krkić, Cesc Fabregas, Mikel Arteta and Xavi being just a few names on their successful production line. Equivalents are absent in the English game, it is difficult to find more than a couple of examples where the academies of the ‘top’ teams have produced world-class footballers. It could be that teams like Barcelona have a much more adequate scouting network than Manchester United or Chelsea, but could a more significant role for reserve teams be one way of improving the quality of youth players?
In the other side of the ring are the representatives of the lower league clubs, who I would greatly sympathise with should any changes be made to the current structure. The ever-increasing gulf between the Premiership and lower leagues means promotion and survival in the top-flight is more difficult to achieve than ever. So on that basis, why should Premiership teams be involved in the Championship, when it will only strengthen their first-teams and cause a greater divide? For reserve teams to play in the Championship would ultimately only result in the division being devalued and losing significance. There is no reason why second-tier clubs should help out the development of youth players in other teams.
Peterborough director of football Barry Fry labelled Benitez's suggestion as absurd, saying that “No-one would want to watch the reserve teams of any club” and “The Football League is a thriving, 72-club competitive competition which is one of the best supported in the world.” The most logical step has been pursued by football clubs as they use the loan system, allowing individual players to join teams on a temporary basis. "If Rafa Benitez wants his young players to get competitive games then all he has to do is loan them out to clubs like us."
The conclusion in this debate would be to try and find a middle ground, if there is one. Any move to implement reserve teams in professional football leagues would be too controversial and it would be unjust on the lower league teams. The current reserve structure appears to be ineffective and the most attractive alternative for clubs is to loan out their players to the Championship, League One and League Two. Many loan deals also allow clubs to make the switch permanent, so there is the opportunity for the youth player to develop at another club where they will gain more first-team experience. The loan system should be used more regularly by clubs and it is the most sensible approach, even though the reserve structure in English football does not effectively bridge the gap to first-team and there is truth in Benitez’s claims.