EPL: 7 Things New U21 Premier League Means for English Football
As our summers are currently filled with constant updates on new world records being broken in the London Olympics and with incessant transfer rumors that come hand in hand with the European summer transfer window, perhaps slightly under the radar is a piece of news that might have huge implications for the future of English football.
Last Friday, August 3, the English Premier League officially announced the start of the Barclays U21 Premier League, which will commence this season on Friday, August 17.
This new competition, which will replace the former region-based Reserve Leagues, is part of the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) that was proposed in early 2011, agreed in late 2011 and will be in place by the start of the 2012-2013 season.
With a new structure and competition in place, what should we come to expect in the coming years?
Let’s look at seven things the new U21 Premier League means for English football—and feel free to have your say in the comments below.
Long Overdue Overhaul of English Youth Development
For years, pundits and observers have been crying for a change to how England approaches its youth development, and now there seems to finally be a system and league in place to address its existing shortcomings.
And it’s a much-needed change, too.
Because as we saw the B teams of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich (etc.) play competitive matches in their domestic football tiers, all England had was a region-based Reserve League, in which reserve teams were relegated or promoted based on the league performances of their respective senior teams.
The emphasis was always on the senior teams—and no matter how well their reserves performed, they would be relegated if the senior team was.
Now the grading and auditing of youth academies (and subsequent U21 Premier League placings) are based on the EPPP, whose grants system provides incentive for clubs to upgrade their youth programs, which makes the youth game separate, theoretically, from the senior game.
A refreshing start for English youth development, and a long overdue overhaul as well.
Clubs Will Think Twice About Signing Foreign Non-Youngsters
Not only was the youth system not good enough: English clubs were peppered with “experienced” foreign players who weren’t good enough either.
This, of course, was a vicious cycle: The underdeveloped youth programs meant that a high premium would be placed on promising English youngsters, which in turn forced clubs to look abroad for bargain buys with more experience at the top level.
Needless to say, a fair amount of them never worked out on English shores, and they were left to toil in the reserves or sent abroad on loan.
Now that the U21 Premier League only accepts three overage outfield players and one overage goalkeeper, clubs will need to think twice about signing foreign players who don’t belong in the U21 category.
With the homegrown player quotas in place in senior-team level, and now with the age limits in reserve-team level, in the long term, we should expect to see both a higher percentage of promoted youth and a higher net quality in foreign imports.
The Cups Might Still Be Seen as a Youth Breeding Ground
Make no mistake, though: The U21 Premier League, while an interesting concept for competitive football for young players, will not provide the first-team experience that they will need to make it for their senior teams.
So don’t expect clubs—big Premier League clubs in particular—to all of a sudden reverse their policy of blooding their youngsters in competitions like the Carling Cup and the FA Cup.
Because while the U21 league is all well and good for providing a constant outlet for playing time and a certain level of competitiveness that echoes tournaments like the U21 World Cup, youth football is still a ways away from first-team football.
Just because you are good enough to make a splash in the U21 league doesn’t make you good enough to cut it at the top.
An Unmistakable Jump in English Youth Quality
The good news is that Carling Cup or not, the new youth system will yield a jump in English youth quality.
And this goes beyond the implementation of the U21 Premier League and right to the conceptual roots of the EPPP.
This is a plan that will revolutionize the funding of English youth academies and the strategic approaches toward handling young players.
With a revision to the compensation and “poaching” policies that is based on the grading of youth academies, the principle is clear: The Premier League is placing a much stronger emphasis on youth development than ever before.
Expect a Proliferation of the Loan Market
A side effect of the youth-development revolution will be seen in the coming transfer windows.
As a culmination of the points already mentioned, there will be a group of young players who are at the top of the tree in the U21 Premier League but not yet armed with the necessary competitive experience to play for their senior teams week in, week out.
So other teams are likely to benefit from this pool by taking them on loan.
Big clubs will hope to see their hot prospects get more playing time possibly in a midtable Premier League side, who in turn might farm their youngsters out on loan to Championship teams, and so on.
In the long run, the English domestic leagues will see a greater proportion of players who have “graduated” from the U21 Premier League, and the loan market will witness a huge boon.
Now for an Overhaul of the English Coaching System
Now that we’ve considered the possible immediate implications and improvements that the new U21 Premier League will bring, let’s further look at how this can be made even more effective.
The influx of foreign investment and massive prize winnings into the English game has inevitably attracted high-caliber coaching teams to impress their strategies and tactics onto English clubs.
The overhaul of the youth system should see more and more interest and necessary investment in the structures and coaching systems of youth academies.
Not only that: To make full use of the U21 programs that should encourage youngsters to graduate into their senior teams, the coaching teams across the senior and youth teams should approach their games as a unit, preparing young players for the step up and possibly integrating training sessions.
The much-lauded grassroots and academy efforts in other leagues across Europe provide a useful benchmark for the English game.
The U21 Premier League is an encouraging step toward meeting that benchmark, and the coaching system should see some exciting developments in the coming years.
Is This the Start of an “English Way”?
And then we can start to return to the essence of football: that football is all about a philosophy.
Just as Barcelona’s La Masia academy prepares its youngsters for the tiki-taka football its senior team plays and is much admired for, and just as Ajax’s De Toekomst trains its youngsters to play in its ubiquitous 3-4-3 formation, the youth-program overhauls can present a shift in focus on establishing club-wide philosophies in the English game.
An ambitious and far-reaching idea that recently saw Brendan Rodgers arrive at Liverpool with a view to bringing his passing style to all levels at Anfield.
And going beyond implications for individual clubs, the U21 Premier League could also mark the start of an “English way” to approaching youth development.
Perhaps the opposition to including reserve teams in competitive domestic leagues—currently the system used in Spain and Germany—will never end.
Perhaps there will never be a Chelsea B or a Manchester City II playing in the English League One.
But if the U21 Premier League approach also yields results on a Premier League level—or even a national team level—then perhaps England will have found another way to make youth development work.
This is all very exciting, and yet these are all conjectures made before a U21 ball is kicked in anger.
How do you see the U21 Premier League—and the EPPP—panning out?
How will the Premier League, and English football in general, benefit from the new approach? Or will it end up not helping at all?
Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.