Welcome to Bleacher Report's Weekly Why, a place where we discuss world football's biggest questions that may go neglected and/or avoided. Ranging from the jovial to the melancholic, no subject matter is deemed off limits.
Why Aren't Young Footballers More Protected?
I'm not sure whether I just noticed this, but are young footballers a major storyline every season?
Last year we received the emergence of Harry Kane, but this term feels exhaustibly intertwined with clubs (whether by choice or compulsion) initiating the process of introducing burgeoning, promising youngsters.
2015/16's first matchday started with an introduction from West Ham United's Reece Oxford. Playing 79 minutes against Arsenal, the now-17-year-old bossed midfield—removing world-renowned Mesut Ozil from proceedings. West Ham shocked the Gunners 2-0, and the list of names has only grown.
Tottenham Hotspur outlasted several clubs last January (including Bayern Munich, via BBC Sport) for Dele Alli's coveted signature. Signed from Milton Keynes Dons for £5 million, the now-19-year-old finished the last few months of 2014/15 in Buckinghamshire, then started his Spurs career last summer. Alli's potential was obvious, hence the race for his services, but nothing like what's transpired was expected.
In 29 Premier League appearances, the England international has directly contributed to 16 goals—the most for any midfielder not named Ozil or Riyad Mahrez. Combined with last season's PFA Young Player of the Year, Kane, Alli has aided Spurs in their UEFA Champions League qualification and Premier League title ambitions.
As defending champions, Chelsea wouldn't have entered 2015/16 thinking they'd be relying on five under-21s, but due to a confluence of circumstances, they have. Kurt Zouma, Baba Rahman, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Kenedy and Bertrand Traore have become the hope of an overall pathetic Blues title defence.
Traore has usurped the veteran coalition of Loic Remy, Radamel Falcao and Alexandre Pato to become Chelsea's second-choice striker behind Diego Costa. The Brazilian-born Spaniard is an unreliable character. Not pardoning or forgetting his seeming reluctance to play centre-forward under former manager Jose Mourinho, the 27-year-old is prone to muscle injuries, yellow-card suspensions and/or retrospective bans.
Under such conditions, Traore is now one of interim manager Guus Hiddink's preferred attacking pieces.
Scoring four goals and assisting once in two starts (from all competitions), the 20-year-old Burkina Faso international appears a promising player for the next decade. For comparison's sake: Eden Hazard has played 1,787 EPL minutes and hasn't scored, Traore has played just 194 EPL minutes and scored twice.
Perhaps the season's most surprising genesis is that of Manchester United's Marcus Rashford. A virtual unknown to those unfamiliar with the Red Devils' youth academy, the 18-year-old has entered Louis van Gaal's first team due to injuries elsewhere and hasn't quite established himself, but he is certainly trending upwards.
Rashford has given United's fading 2015/16 a much-needed boost. Three goals in four Premier League appearances was the difference vs. Arsenal and Manchester City, and his goals in those games claimed six vital points. As the youngest-ever goalscorer in a Manchester derby during the EPL era, the teenager's rise has been dramatic and has saved Van Gaal's floundering, injury-ridden regime from utter embarrassment.
Mahrez Player of the Year.— Alex Shaw (@AlexShawESPN) March 5, 2016
Alli Young Player of the Year.
Marcus Rashford Ballon d'Or 2017.
Wherever we travel, young footballers are being called upon.
Manchester City's 19-year-old phenom Kelechi Iheanacho has rescued six points for the Citizens in stoppage time this year. More recently, Arsenal up-and-comer Alex Iwobi (also 19) scored his first senior goal in what proved to clinch three points at Everton's Goodison Park, and Loftus-Cheek won Chelsea a crucial penalty vs. West Ham United, earning the west Londoners a late draw.
My worry with these young professionals earning chances is them receiving too much hype too soon. Where praise is warranted, they should receive every accolade possible. Scoring goals, finding passes, making tackles, saving shots and downloading the Premier League's pace/style should be applauded, but we tend to take things and aggrandise them—meaning it's not so much them, but us who bear responsibility.
For example, according to BBC Sport: "England manager Roy Hodgson has left the door open for Rashford to make his Euro 2016 squad." From anonymous to England's 23-man European championship squad in under five months? I find the possibility incredible, almost from Hollywood, but what is the benefit?
Firstly, should a teenager (with less than a full season of senior experience) be one of England's top three centre-forward options, no hope exists for the Three Lions in France; Hodgson's cupboard had best not be that bare.
Second and most importantly, this proposition highlights the hyperbolic lens we view life through. Symptomatic of humanity at large, many would rather be first than be correct. They would rather call a young player world-class than take time to watch the development.
It's been called a microwave society, and I'm wary to see that mentality take hold in football (if it already hasn't).
I would prefer protecting younger players, allowing them to fully grasp what being a professional footballer means, then thrusting them onto whatever pedestal—not handing them the proverbial keys at success' first sign and hoping they don't crash. That feels dangerous, heartless and short-sighted—too much too soon can stunt growth, the same way not having opportunities does something similar.
There are few things better in football than watching "one of your own." Players who start young and craft themselves into crucial first-team members are often heralded as "club legends" and/or "cult heroes." Though that potential is usually apparent, this process takes time (certainly longer than one season).
In our rush to see potential transform into talent—however much it strains—measures of caution, care and guardianship should come attached.