Over the past few years, spending on transfers and wages by football clubs has increased dramatically. 7 of the 10 most expensive transfers have taken place in or after 2009, 3 of them occurring in this (incomplete) transfer window. Higher fees, and the greater brand value of every star footballer has also led to an inflation in the wage rate for footballers. While this is all good news for the players, it gives the boardroom staff a right old head-ache. The higher costs lead to lower profits (if any), leaving a number of clubs closer to insolvency. In order to stem the rot, UEFA introduced Financial Fair Play, a scheme that prods clubs to live within their means. So, with a sort of cap enforced on their transfer spending, clubs are forced to look inwards for their supply of players, as a result of which, greater emphasis is suddenly being placed on youth academies, and academy products.
This shift in focus, however, has been seen only in the media. The smart, and as an extension successful clubs have always utilised this source very efficiently. Cast your mind back to some of the successful outfits of the past, and you’ll always see a large contingent of home grown players, or players from the home country. Think of Ajax, led by Cruyff, or Bayern, full of the likes of Beckenbauer, Muller, Roth, Maier and Hoeneβ. This team won 3 consecutive European cups in the 70′s, and also formed the core of the West German side that won the World Cup in 1974, the Euros in 1972, and finished runners up in 1976. Moving forward a few years, the Manchester United team of the 1990′s and early 2000′s dominated English football, and pulled off a spectacular treble in 1999. At the core of the side were players like Beckham, Butt, Giggs, Scholes and the Nevilles, all academy graduates, along with a few other Englishmen like Cole. More recently, the dominant force of the last 8 years or so has unarguably been Barcelona, and no prizes for guessing where key players like Xavi, Iniesta, Pique, Puyol and Messi are from. Going a little further back, all of us are aware of the Celtic team that humbled Il Grande Inter back in 1967. The fact that stood out about that team managed by Jock Stein was that all of their players were born within an 11 mile radius of Glasgow.
So what is it about these home grown players that makes their teams so good, and so successful? A number of different factors really. Some of which are:
Cultural Factors: As we all know, most clubs across the world have a few non-local players. So, when players from different parts of the globe congregate to play together, as part of the same team, there are bound to be cultural and communication gaps that need bridging. However, this is easier said than done, and is an aspect that we overlook more often than not. Even if the player does settle, and manage to grasp the basics of the new language, he can never truly adapt his thinking to align it with that of a foreigner. According to Dr. Ranee Kaur Banerjee, an expert in the field of communications (you can view her excellent blog on the subject here), this is because our language most definitely influences our thoughts and our actions, and some linguists believe that language moulds thought, and by extension, actions. A simple non-football example would be the way Germans and Spaniards refer to keys. In Spanish, a key is feminine, and in German, it’s referred to in the masculine gender. As a result, we see keys made in Spain that are designed with a lot more flair, and a lot more attention is paid to aesthetics, whereas German keys are designed with function kept in mind, and hence, a lot less attention is paid to aesthetic details. The same is seen with regard to bridges. You can read the entirety of this research here, in an excellent essay by Lera Boroditsky, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Neurology and Symbolic Sciences at Stanford University.
The implication of this phenomenon on football is profound. We’ve all noticed the difference in the play of international teams that come from countries that speak Romance languages (Spain, Italy, Brazil, Argentina) and teams from Northern Europe (Germany and England). The former play a game with a lot of importance placed on style and flair. We almost always see intricate passing patterns, and beautiful moves. With the latter, we see a style that places greater stress on functionality, and as a result, the physical aspect is given precedence. Moving the ball forward quickly is also seen as effective, and therefore prioritised over possession by most clubs.
How is this related to home grown players being more effective? The aforementioned differences, are found between Spaniards and Germans, two countries very close to each other geographically. Most club sides have to integrate players from not only different countries, but from across the world. A typical European top division club has players from South America, Europe, Africa, and sometimes even Asia. Think of how difficult it can be to integrate these elements and get them on the same page, to co-ordinate well, and be effective as a team. The lack of synergy is startling when contrasted with synergy shown by a club with a large contingent of home grown players, like Barcelona.
The key to overcoming this difficulty would be to have players who think in the same language together. Of course, Shinji Kagawa could learn English and get along with his mates, but if he doesn’t think in English, he wont be on the same page as say, Welbeck, whose thought process will be very different.
Acclimatization: This is yet another simple, but oft overlooked factor. Players moving from abroad face a lot of trouble with settling down in a new place. It’s a problem that can be put in perspective if we look at it through our own eyes. Imagine moving to a new country, where you don’t speak the language, don’t know the people, aren’t used to the weather, and don’t eat the food. It can be hard enough moving within a country and adapting to cultural changes (I can personally testify). Moving across continents, often suddenly, can be very difficult. Add to this the stress of dealing with the media, high expectations, training, and family issues. This process is equally difficult for both young players, and older ones. A lot of youngsters, especially South American ones, often move abroad, to Europe, during or just after their teenage years. At this age, it becomes tough for them to settle down in their new homes, and the percentage of successful exports is quite low. When we consider this, we should probably applaud Neymar for his decision to delay his move, and the decision to move to a club that will focus on his holistic development, in a country which is quite similar to Brazil in terms of language and culture. In light of these facts, our admiration for Ronaldo must increase immeasurably, as he moved across to PSV at the age of just 17, and made a legend out of himself. Secondly, players that can have problems are the older lot, who bring their families along with them. This shift, often sudden, can be difficult for the family to adapt to. The player’s children may have trouble adjusting to their new school, and the wives/girlfriends are also sometimes slow to adapt. They have a lack of company, unlike their spouses, and trouble at home can often affect a player’s performance at work. Manchester City know this well. Both their Argentine strikers have struggled in the past because of this. Tevez, famously took a 6 month vacation and asked to leave City to be closer to his family. He also lamented the weather in Manchester, and the culinary problems he faced. Despite spending a number of years in England, he simply couldn’t adapt, and one can only hope that he fares better in Italy. Of course, the other side of the argument is that Tevez may have been making noises just to get a new contract, but that doesn’t explain the problems Sergio Aguero faced in his second season, with his life behind the scenes adversely affecting his on-field performance. The third type of personal problem a player may face is isolation. When players are new to a club, they don’t tend to have too many friends already at the club. This means that for the first few weeks at least, the player can end up feeling a bit isolated and lonely. This, again, seems like something of a trivial issue to many fans, but it’s not. These things affect your performance regardless of your pay.
Often, the source of discomfort, apart from personal issues, is something very small, like a drastic change in the sensory inputs. A lot of Indians, for example, tend to struggle when they move abroad, because it simply doesn’t smell like India. This is a transition that is difficult to make, as it is a sub-conscious push out of one’s comfort zone and environment. Due to the fact that it’s sub-conscious, there’s not too much that can be done about it. It has to be given time. This may not be so applicable for players moving within a continent, but is a serious challenge for players jumping continents.
Similarly, lack of knowledge about the new country is a huge barrier. Most immigrants have a fair idea of what they need to do in their new home, courtesy of their embassies, but what they do not know is how to go about doing it. An Indian/Ghanian/Colombian may learn from his embassy that he needs to obtain his social security card, but probably has no clue about how to go about the process.
Until recently, most big clubs didn’t really pay attention to these details and help their stars settle down. Didier Drogba spoke in his autobiography about how no one really helped him out with basic things like finding a house and settling down. He describes how the likes of him and Gallas used to joke about living in a hotel even months after the making the move to London. A lot of us seem to have the “they get paid so much, they should just get on with it” attitude, but unfortunately, the lack of fulfillment of basic needs like a home are always going to take first priority in the mind of any human (Maslow’s need hierarchy theory). Recently though, clubs seem to have realised this, and focus a lot more on helping their new transfers settle down. This undoubtedly helps in improving on pitch performance, but is a problem that can be avoided altogether by promoting from within, or at least minimised if players are recruited from within a particular country.
Transfer Market Inefficiencies: As pointed out by the excellent Soccernomics, the transfer market is essentially a very inefficient market. This means that buyers more often than not, tend not to get value for money spent. What this means is that some buyers get more than what they should, given the amount they spend, and some get less than what they should, given the amount they spend. We all know this simple home truth. If the market for transfers were an efficient one, Fernando Torres would be 25 times the player Michu is, and so on. As we know, that doesn’t really happen. So, the direct implication is that some teams take advantage of these inefficiencies and over-perform in the transfer market (Arsenal) and some are exploited and under-perform (Barcelona).
There are two ways to counter this problem. Firstly, start beating the market. This is easier said than done, and very few managers have been able to do so on a consistent basis, and even the greats like Wenger aren’t without their fair share of flops. The other way to avoid the inefficiencies is to stay away from the transfer market. Of course, this means that a club would have to look primarily at its youth academy to supply new players. A club that practices this philosophy very well is Barcelona. They look to stay away from the transfer market as far as possible, partly because it’s part of their DNA to give youth a chance, and partly because their record on the market is so poor (think Chygrynskiy, Ibrahimovic, Hleb etc.). This has turned out to be a great strength for the Catalans, as some of their best players have come through the academy, and shone after being thrown into the deep end while they were still young. It’s fairly reasonable to think that players like Pedro may not have got the opportunities they did, if Barcelona were as good in the market as, say Chelsea. The established stars at the Blues often block the path of young players into the team.
So, in a way, Barcelona took a weakness, and converted it into a major strength. This has not only saved them millions, if not billions in transfers, agents fees, wages, and signing on fees, but also led to a strong, stable, unified and competitive unit. These savings could be ploughed back into the club, and utilised to further develop their youth academy, leading to a higher level of academy graduates, and continuous improvement to the first team, without risking inefficiency, or enormous payments. This is a situation of self sustaining success. It works well, in theory, and based on the example of Barcelona, practically too, to an extent.
Playing Style: The two club sides in world football that have profited most from home grown talents are Ajax and Barcelona, and there’s more than just Johan Cruyff that ties them together. Both these sides have an inimitable style of play, one that requires a lot of co-ordination, team-work, practice and knowledge. So, at both these clubs, the playing style and philosophy is trained into players from their younger days. All the teams at these clubs, from the youngest age level team, to the first team, play with the same formation and same tactics. This creates a sort of uniformity in the training of the players, enabling youth players to make the transition from youth teams to senior teams very smoothly. It also minimises the loss of, and in many cases adds to the synergy of the unit.
Another method of training used at these clubs is putting the players out of position. This serves a dual purpose. Firstly, it helps the player understand the role of the new position. This is beneficial to him when he goes back to his old position, as it gives him an insight into his team-mates thinking and needs. It also allows the player to understand the thinking of an opponent in the same position. It’s why Dennis Bergkamp was tried out as a right back in his younger days. The second rationale behind standardizing such pratices is to create skill uniformity. Total voetball, tiki taka, or any other name that suits your fancy requires players across the park to be proficient in all the basic football skills. So attackers must be able to tackle, or defend, and defenders must be able to pass and shoot when required. By standardizing, and training in different positions, clubs add to the skills of footballers.
Obviously, there are many other very successful youth academies at many other clubs too. These may not necessarily use the same methods, or play with the same tactics. So, when you buy a player from what is possibly a different system and training, the new signing will take time to acclimatise (assuming he does so successfully, not always the case). During this time period, results are obviously affected. If the player doesn’t adapt successfully, it’s a permanent dent on the team’s synergy and finances.
Other factors pointing in the direction of the advancement of home grown players include a better understanding of the club, its culture and environment, and greater love and passion for the home club.
Most of the given examples speak about teams which have at their core players who have come through the academy together. But historically, these tend to be freaks, random occurrences, as it is rare that so many top class talents emerge from a particular academy in a particular period, and stay at the club to see it to success. For example, think of a team like Ajax, which consistently produces excellent talents. It would be difficult for them to keep the team together, as a number of their young talents would move to clubs with bigger brand-names. Also, Ajax would be unable to pay these players the kind of wages they might receive at a club like Chelsea, Barcelona, Juventus or any other big name. Take Dortmund for example. Their group of players has been falling apart, due to the fact their players move away, and are unable to stay content at the club. Over the last few seasons, important stars like Sahin, Kagawa, Barrios, and Gotze have left for greener pastures, while Lewandowski will move to Bayern at the end of the upcoming season (Not all players are home-grown, but I use Dortmund to illustrate the fact that it is difficult for a ‘smaller’ club to rise, like Celtic did in the past) . Even big clubs will always have trouble keeping their upcoming talented players satisfied. This is because a big club already has star players occupying places in the starting 11, which means that it will always take the young academy graduates longer to displace them at said big club, than it would for them at a ‘small club’, where they would get an automatic starting slot. Therefore, a number of these academy graduates move away. Think of Paul Pogba (didn’t go to a smaller club, but left due to lack of chances), or all the talented players to emerge from the Chelsea academy in recent times, only to ply their trade elsewhere.
The solution to this problem seems to be to recruit the best national talent. Italian teams have pioneered this method, and enjoyed tremendous success for many years. The current Juventus team boasts of full Italian internationals like Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini, Buffon, Pirlo and Marchisio. It is a popular saying in Italy that the national team does well whenever Juventus do well. Even the two most recent great Milan teams have had a strong Italian core, though not all these players have been from their academy. The team that featured in 3 Champions League finals from 2003 to 2007 was built around Maldini, Nesta, Inzaghi, Pirlo, and Gattuso. The double European Cup winners of 1989 and 1990 boasted the likes of Maldini (again), Costacurta, Tassoti, Albertini, Baresi and Ancelotti in their side. Bayern Munich today, have a large German contingent, not entirely from their own academy, with Gotze being the latest addition to this category.
The Alternate View
Despite all their advantages, the use of home grown/national players may not always be the solution for a club. It’s easy for teams like Barcelona and Ajax to field players like Messi, Iniesta, Bergkamp and van der Vaart, but what if the produce isn’t quality?
Let’s assume that the aim of every football club is to win as many matches as possible. In order to do so, they need to have the best team. The best team is the team with the best players, holding factors like tactics and motivation constant (even if we allow for these variations, the winning team is often the one with better players). So it makes sense to buy in the event that foreign players are far better than the ones available from the academy, or nationally. Consider the dilemma that United possibly face. They currently have Wayne Rooney, who is a national player, and quite possibly the best English exponent of the ‘Number 10′ role. If we were to assume the innate superiority of home grown/ British players, United would stick to Rooney, rather than chase after any of Mata, Oscar, Gotze, Totti and so on. Assuming that these are undoubtedly better than Rooney, and can all be signed by United, wouldn’t United make a rational decision and sign any of these players up? And since they are better, it would lead to United winning a lot more matches too.
This leads us to conclude that in nations where the quality of domestic players is not so high, it makes much more sense to import. Of course, the only way to develop the quality of the domestic players is to promote them through the youth ranks, and give them chances, so this buying leads to a sort of vicious cycle.
So we see that the best way to move forward in the long run seems to be through the development and promotion of youth players. These players tend not to be affected by the trouble with transfers, and offer a route to sustainable success, the wet dream of every club owner today. The key seems to be to give them chances, and let them gain experience (it would be very easy for Guardiola to sign someone instead of giving Pedro a chance). Even international teams (Spain, Germany and now France) seem to benefit from the investment in youth. Historically, this leap of faith has generally been rewarded handsomely.