The Greatest Love of All

By ‘#ABW Chief Blogger’ The Other Geoff (@Hollefreund)

Rotterdam – June 20th, 2000: Sérgio Conceição’s hat trick against Germany in the final group game condemned the mighty Nationalmannschaft to an embarrassing exit from Euro 2000. It was the end of the road for a team that enjoyed so much success in the nineties. Even more troubling for the DFB – the German version of the FA – there were no apparent heirs to the throne coming through the youth set-ups at the Bundesliga clubs.

Where do you go from there? How do you improve the performances of the National team in both the short term and for generations to come? How do you prevent another Rotterdam incident?

Fourteen years on, and it could be argued that whatever direction was taken – it worked. Germany are World Champions after sweeping most of their opponents away in Brazil this summer. It had been coming too; a third place finish in South Africa in 2010 and a semi-final loss in what had been an impressive Euro 2012 gave hints of what was to come. Even more telling was a completely dominant U21 Euro championship win against England in 2009 – a team that consisted of now household names that make up the majority of the current World Champions.

So what exactly did they do?

As a federation, they made the strong decision to revamp their academies at the Bundesliga Clubs. They mandated that all clubs in these divisions must have an academy, while pumping money into those clubs to help establish a minimum level of quality. As part of this, they introduced standards, including better coaching and restructured scouting networks. They also openly encouraged better educations for graduating players. As a second phase, they introduced a certification process for the academies to help improve and level-set the academy experience.

If you want to learn more about what the DFB did, and their findings (some of which are quoted below), I would recommend their 10 Years of Academies report produced in 2011 for more information.

One thing I found very interesting is on the subject of street-football. I’ve long had a theory that developing countries will continue to pump out great footballers since many of their youth are still playing some form of street-football as opposed to the distractions of Playstations and iPhones. Many of the world’s greatest players learned their trade on the streets; often competing against kids twice their age and size.

The Germans seem to have recognized this as well. Their FA installed over 1000 mini-fields across the country in order to stimulate impromptu “street” games. It’s unclear what the utilization of these fields has been like but it certainly is a check mark beside that theory. Additionally, I read an article last year (forgive me – I cannot find the link) that talked about the Crystal Palace Academy introducing street-football into their programing as a regular activity. I’ll be curious to see how that influences the quality of their graduates.

I’ve heard the argument that there are not enough technically gifted players being produced in England to make the first team set-ups of the major Premier League clubs. That might be true – and something that the Bundesliga saw as well in the late nineties and early noughties. In fact, since the Bosman ruling, which banned restrictions on foreign EU players within national leagues in 1995, the percentage of Germans playing in the top tier of German football dropped from 81% to a low point of 50% in 2002-03.

That ruling saw the market increase – a new global pool of players were available and the argument at the time too, was that more technically gifted players were being produced outside of German borders. Now the Bundesliga is seeing a steady upsurge of German players in the league. Increasingly, due to the changes in the academy systems, the technical maturity of “homegrown” players’ argument is becoming null – with the prowess of German players steadily increasing.

More importantly, the number of academy graduates playing in the League (German or otherwise) has increased to about 15 players per team. These are players that graduated from one of the academies that are staying in the league. On top of that, about 20% of the players in the Bundesliga are playing top flight football at the same club they graduated from.

Realistically, we’re talking that in a squad size of 25 players, 5 are direct academy graduates, with a further 10 coming from another academy within Germany. That’s astonishing.

To put that into Arsenal terms (and I think I have this right based on my read of the excellent Jeorge Bird’s Arsenal site), we currently have 3 academy graduates directly involved in the first team in Gibbs, Wilshere, and Szczęsny. Additionally, Bellerin and Gnabry have been on the fringes of the first team over the last season or so. On top of that, we have a further 5 players (6 if you count Jenkinson) who have come from other British academies (Ramsey, Walcott, the Ox, Chambers, and Welbeck). That’s just over half of the average German equivalent and represents a significant gap between the respective set-ups.

So how do we proceed from here? Is it the right thing to invest and overhaul the Arsenal Academy?

Arsenal clearly thinks so in the hiring of Andries Jonker – the new head of the Academy. Jonker comes to us after spending the last 5 years in none other than the Bundesliga with both Wolfsburg and Bayern Munich. If that isn’t enough, he had a previous stint at Barcelona where he would have seen firsthand the inner workings of La Masia – Barca’s fabled academy.

Jonker has already started to analyze our set-up. He’s started with new instructions to Steve Morrow – who oversees scouting at Arsenal. I suspect we’ll see restructuring continue through all ages of the academy to include a more complete educational background, develop more technically skilled players, and improve the quality of coaching.

Beyond footballing reasons, it also makes business sense to invest in our youth set-up; and this is likely what makes our Board members sit-up and take notice. With player salaries and transfer fees sky-rocketing, we’re quickly approaching a glass ceiling in terms of player costs. Introduce the restrictions on spending with Financial Fair Play (FFP) and that ceiling gets lowered. Quite frankly, the current way of building teams is unsustainable from a business perspective.

Any company in the world would look at rising costs in two ways – increase revenue and/or decrease costs. Producing first team players internally, rather than participating in the ludicrous transfer market is a way to lower costs over the long term – despite the initial injection of money needed at the outset (something we have).

Don’t get this wrong, this isn’t about the romanticism of playing a local boy in the FA Cup Final, at least not at the level where these decisions are being made. It’s about gaining a competitive advantage in an evolving business landscape with increasing external financial pressures. All of this in order to win football games – don’t lose sight of that in all of my business/financial mumbo jumbo.

Of particular note is the difference in approach by Chelsea; who buys as much young talent as they can and loan them out. There have been several articles on this approach as a way to increase their revenue stream through player sales (Lukaku comes to mind) while still producing first team players (Thibaut Courtois). In essence, they are outsourcing their Academy – despite the fact they also have an Academy that tends to be competitive at their respective levels. I think time will tell as to which approach is most effective.

Part of this discussion too, is adjusting how we think of local players. We’ve seen this with the “British Core” – they are the new local reality. With the Bosman, like the advent of the internet, the market grew and the world shrank. Like it or not, local is likely Britain now; not just lads who grew up playing football off Gillespie Road.

I’d also like to pick up on a subtle nuance that’s going on here – there’s a difference between British players and Academy graduates. My argument, and this is something you may disagree with, is that I don’t care where the graduates are born – as long they help us win titles. That perspective is a little different from that of the DFB – although they did note benefits to immigrants integrating into German culture.

In reality, and because we don’t have unlimited scouting resources, I suspect the majority of graduates will remain British. Further, we’ll likely never field a team of entirely Academy graduates in the Premier League. Those days are gone. But, we could all likely agree that we could do a better job of producing our own internal talent – and that is something we should be striving for.

The future of the Arsenal is an interesting one – from our current manager’s legacy to pushing on for trophies. It’s a topic that kicks up all types of debate over the best way forward. Whether you agree or not, it seems that looking inward at the way we develop and produce elite players will be part of that conversation and debate for the foreseeable future – especially with so many gains to be made. I believe that decisions made today will impact a great Arsenal team of the future: you know – the one that wins the 2021 Champions League Final with 15 academy graduates in the squad.

Finally, if you’re unsure of the connection to my blog title this week – I’d recommend you Google it.

You know it!

By ‘#ABW Chief Blogger’ The Other Geoff (@Hollefreund)

I had promised a goals special blog this week but it just didn’t end up the way I wanted it. I’ll wheel it out for discussion at some point in the future. In the meantime, thanks to Grant Copeland (@grant_copeland) for a recommendation on that article – go give him a follow.

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