The transition from youth to professional football requires not only talent, but also the right support in player development. For clubs and associations, the final phase of player training is a challenge, but it also offers enormous opportunities.
Arsene Wenger has seen many players come and go in his coaching career. The Frenchman used 222 players in 22 years at Arsenal. He cultivated a reputation for placing his faith in youth and handing raw talent the chance to shine. Players like Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry became world stars during his time as coach, while many others matured into regulars in the Premier League in their early 20s.
Every year, countless talented players try to make the transition from youth to professional football. In addition to purely sporting aspects, personal qualities also determine whether players establish themselves or not – such as motivation, stamina or even the ability to overcome setbacks. Quite a few are denied the dream. Also because there is a lack of support in this phase.
“This transition phase is the crucial mental hurdle in a player’s development,” says Wenger, who has been FIFA’s Chief of Global Football Development since 2019. “At 17, you have all the tools together to become a professional. Then it’s up to the players. But to progress, they need the opportunity to play,” says the 73-year-old, adding: “At the moment, we don’t help players at that age well enough.”
Missing strategies in a delicate phase
These statements are underpinned by the latest FIFA Global Report, which analyses the talent development ecosystem and looks in detail at the roles of the various stakeholders in this area. A survey of FIFA associations revealed that only 43 per cent of the top 100 associations have their own strategy for the transition of players from youth to professional football. This should, for example, address the individual requirements of the players in their development or optimise the opportunities to prove themselves at competitive level.
A look at the club level shows how difficult it is for talented players from top nations to attract attention in their home countries. In the top ten leagues, domestic players between the ages of 18 and 21 get 30 per cent less playing time than players from abroad. Bringing youth players up to the professional level has an extremely positive effect on their development. It builds their confidence in their own abilities and gives them additional motivation to establish themselves at the highest level. To drive this process forward, these players need playing time in competitions. “But too many talented youngsters waste their time on the bench of top teams instead of gaining experience on the pitch,” says Wenger.
What successful academies focus on
In the transition phase, the attention of talents is divided between different teams with different interests, which can quickly lead to losing focus. Clubs are therefore challenged to find individual solutions for their players in this age group. Specific strategies over two or three years help to take the right steps during this time in order to prevent negative effects on the players’ development. Successful clubs rely on their own mentors in this context. These personal contact persons make sure that talents are not ground down between results-oriented professional football, personal development and school education.
The foundation for a successful leap from youth to professional football is laid in the academies. In a study of more than 1,000 academies, FIFA identified various quality characteristics that distinguish successful youth centres. These include a stronger focus on the individual development of the talents. Successful academies achieve this primarily through the integration of supporting technology, with the help of which more efficient scouting and the training of individual players’ play and cognitive development can be accurately promoted and closely monitored. However, 69 per cent of academies worldwide do not yet use video analysis in the individual development of their players. The integration of technology to support the development of individual players is a key call to action from FIFA when it comes to improving youth development.
Which clubs successfully integrate their own young talents?
The success of the transition from junior to professional level can be measured by the percentage of minutes played by club-trained footballers. In a recent report by the football research group CIES Football Observatory, teams from 27 European leagues are ranked according to their playing time for players who have trained at their own club for at least three years between the age of 15 to 21.
Teams that will rely mainly on players from their own junior squad in the 2022/23 season are the absolute exception. There are only two from the top five leagues in Europe: Athletic Club from Spain (56.5 per cent) and Olympique Lyonnais from France (52.1 per cent). The highest figures from the other top leagues are provided by SC Freiburg from Germany (30.9 per cent), Brighton & Hove from England (26.9 per cent) and AS Roma from Italy (17.7 per cent). The three clubs that have achieved the highest transfer fees in the last five years also offer a particularly large amount of playing time for players from their own youth teams. These include SL Benfica from Portugal (25.7 per cent), AFC Ajax from the Netherlands (39.6 per cent) and Red Bull Salzburg from Austria (38.3 per cent). 33 teams in the list do not have a single player from their own youth in the professional squad, including teams from the top leagues such as Olympique de Marseille, Union Berlin or Bologna.
The figures show that clubs of all sizes and leagues face challenges when it comes to enabling young players to make the transition in such a way that they are then sustainably successful at professional level. Many clubs, but also national associations, still attach too little importance to this phase. Time spent at the highest level has a decisive influence on a player’s development. A successful strategy, however, must start earlier and accompany players individually, for example in the form of a mentoring programme, in their final steps on the way to becoming professionals.