A Generation Lost: Manchester United’s Failed Youth Policy

Sir Alex Ferguson was a firm believer in youth and investing in academy talent. His all-conquering Manchester United team of the 1990s was based on this, but towards the end of his reign, his focus seemed to change and he let players slip through the net.

Paul Pogba has been the most high-profile example of this, but United’s recent pursuits of their academy graduate and Burnley centre-back Michael Keane, show that he was not the only one.

With Pogba back at Old Trafford, Keane supposedly being courted too, and with Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford breaking into the first team, have United now learnt their lesson? And if so, at what cost?

If Pogba’s transfer (back) to Manchester United tells us anything, aside from the major role that agents now play, it is that the club have lost their way when it comes to promoting and retaining youth and academy players.

As well as being notable for the sheer number of trophies that were won, the reign of Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United also featured a clear footballing culture; a commitment to developing youth, bringing through homegrown talent, and keeping a British, if not a local, spine to the team.

The tactic seemed to be: a) promote the best and brightest academy stars (Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Phil Neville, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, etc), b) support these with British talent bought from other teams (Roy Keane, Andy Cole, Rio Ferdinand, Michael Carrick, Wayne Rooney, etc), and c) add a sprinkle of world class foreign superstars (Cristiano Ronaldo, Eric Cantona, Jaap Stam, Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic, etc).

It was a model that worked well, proof of which comes from the extensive trophy cabinet at Old Trafford. Ferguson’s reign at Manchester United brought a golden age to the club, and during his time at the helm, he delivered 13 Premier League titles, five FA Cups, and two Champions League titles.

Such a method of building a squad, however, was not a new development. Over the decades, there have been teams across Europe who have taken a similar approach and found similar success.

Bob Paisley’s great Liverpool team of the late 1970s and early 1980s followed such a model also, sweeping all before them, winning six league titles, three league cups, one UEFA cup, and three European cups in the space of just eight years.

Barcelona are the most obvious, and most recent example of achieving success through this model. Under the guidance of Pep Guardiola, himself a Barcelona academy graduate, there was a core of homegrown Barcelona La Masia talent who were supported by proven international talent.

For some, this collection of players and the mesmeric way they played football has earned them the title of “the greatest team of all time”. It was during this four-year period, with Guardiola at the helm, that Barcelona won three league titles, two Copa del Reys, and two Champions Leagues.

As well as being Manchester United’s opponents in the final of the Europa League this season, Ajax are another of Europe’s illustrious clubs that have followed this footballing model.

Rinus Michels all-conquering team from 1965/66 to 1970/71 claimed four Eredivisie league titles, three Dutch Cups, and one European Cup using a core of Ajax academy graduates to drive them on to success.

In 1994/95, Ajax scaled the heights of European football once more, winning the League and European Cup double, and not losing a single game in either tournament. Once again, local and homegrown talent was at the core of this achievement.

Of the starting eleven to play in the European final against AC Milan, which Ajax won 1-0, just Danny Blind, Finidi George, Jari Litmanen, and Marc Overmars were not academy graduates.

And this tradition of trusting in young blood to bring success has persisted, continuing even to this day. The current crop of Ajax academy stars have contributed in helping Ajax to attempt a repeat of past glories, reaching the final of the Europa League and challenging for the Eredevisie title.

Not only does this model make sense in terms of the football culture with local and homegrown talent continuing proud traditions and retaining the image and playing style of the club, but it also makes sense economically. A popular tweet around the time of the Europa League final highlighted the vast difference in spending at United and Ajax, with the Manchester club having spent more on transfers in the last three seasons than Ajax have since the end of World War Two.

As a way of comparison, since 1945, Manchester United have won 18 First Division/Premier League titles to Ajax’s 26, 11 FA Cups to Ajax’s 16 KNVB Cups, and three European Cups/Champions Leagues to Ajax’s four.

With Ferguson’s era at an end at Old Trafford, and a period of relative turbulence engulfing the club, the culture which brought so much success to Manchester United throughout the 1990s and beyond appeared to have been abandoned.

It is almost inevitable that great clubs will produce great players, and there is no doubt that some of these players will slip through the proverbially net, but no club seems to let this happen so regularly in recent years as Manchester United.

Since July 2010, the Manchester United academy has seen Tom Heaton, Danny Drinkwater, Paul Pogba, Joshua King, Danny Welbeck, and Michael Keane graduate and then leave the club. All of these are now full internationals and between them they have won a Premier League title, four Serie A titles, three FA Cups, and in King there is a striker who has only been out-scored by Romelu Lukaku and Harry Kane in 2017.

The difference between Manchester United and the other top Premier League clubs is that the rest don’t seem as willing to allow their best young talents to leave prematurely. Those that do leave are either a) never good enough to make it anyway, having played a respectable number of first team games and failed to reach the desired level, or b) sold for a high transfer fee.

In the same time that United lost the six academy graduates mentioned above, Liverpool’s most notable departures were Tom Ince, Daniel Ayala, Andre Wisdom, Suso, Martin Kelly, Raheem Sterling, and Brad Smith. And from this list only Sterling could be seen as good enough to stay, but his loss was softened by the transfer fee received, some £49m from Manchester City.

The same is true at Arsenal. The most notable academy graduates that have left the Emirates since 2010 have been Cesc Fabregas and Carlos Vela, with Fabregas, himself poached at a young age from Barcelona, heading “home” for around £30m and Vela never quite reaching the required standards.

Chelsea likewise, and although they are making repeated mistakes with players they buy and then let go (Nemanja Matic, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin de Bruyne), their academy graduates do not instil the same sense of regret as those at Manchester United. The most notable to leave Stamford Bridge are Jack Cork, Ryan Bertrand, Gael Kakuta, and Scott Sinclair.

Whether it is because of a high transfer fee or the knowledge that the player will not make the grade, at Liverpool, Arsenal, and Chelsea, academy graduates can leave the club without the fans worrying whether they will be buying them back for tens of millions of pounds a few seasons later.

The same is true at both Man City and Tottenham Hotspur also. City’s academy graduates include the likes of Daniel Sturridge and Kasper Schmeichel, but neither of these can be seen as lost opportunities for the Manchester club, and outside of these two there is only Stephen Ireland, Nedum Onuoha, Shawn Wright-Phillips, and Micah Richards.

Tottenham are a team that are now embracing the Ferguson-era-United-ethos of having a spine of British youth supported by overseas talent, and the London club are benefiting hugely both on the pitch and off of it due to this. The only academy graduates allowed to leave White Hart Lane are those that will never make it in the first team – Steven Caulker, Jake Livermore, Kevin Stewart, Andros Townsend, Ryan Mason, and Tom Carroll.

Perhaps more worrying than the fact Manchester United are losing their academy stars and then replacing them at great expense, is that these graduates are not getting the opportunities in the first place. Of the six notable losses (Pogba, Keane, Drinkwater, King, Welbeck, and Heaton), only Welbeck had a prolonged spell in and around the first team, with the remaining five boasting a total of just four first team league appearances between them.

Having discovered the cost of losing and then reacquiring young stars (Pogba), it now appears that United are finally learning from their past mistakes with Rashford signing a new deal until 2020 and Lingard extending his stay until 2021. Even Jose Mourinho, notoriously opposed to blooding young talent, appears to be changing his ways giving debuts to a host of youth players this season. If this trend continues, we could well see a return to the policies of the 90s as United attempt to bring back the glory days to Old Trafford.


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