Josh Hobbs looks at the impact of Premier League 2 for developing talent within English football.
The development of young players is always a hot topic in football. Clubs are constantly seeking that elusive model which will result in the best success rate for producing first-team ready players. Meanwhile, fans are caught in a halfway house of wanting their clubs to spend millions on new signings to make them competitive while at the same time ensuring that there are minutes available to develop their best young prospects.
Recently, Tottenham Hotspur sold 20-year-old Dilan Markanday to Blackburn Rovers for a fee believed to be around £500k. On social media, many Spurs fans lamented the loss of a player who had scored 12 goals in Premier League 2 (PL2) at the halfway stage. Yet Markanday had seen no realistic first-team chances on the horizon and, therefore, chose to leave.
Over the course of five seasons, Markanday had played over 4,000 minutes in PL2, and whilst he would surely have longed for an opportunity to make it in the Premier League, he would have been aware that many players can get stuck playing academy football for too long. Knowing he would be turning 21 at the start of next season, he took the chance to move and start his senior career in earnest.
PL2 is a competition that divides opinion. Some argue that the more traditional reserve league provided better preparation for senior football, whilst others will point to the better technical footballers England has produced since the PL2—an U23s competition (with allowance for three ‘over-age’ players plus a goalkeeper)—was established in 2016/17.
Phil Foden, Bukayo Saka and Trent Alexander-Arnold are three examples of players who have starred for club and country. Their highest level of experience before competing in the Premier League was PL2.
In the case of Markanday, he had also picked up all his minutes in PL2. He had not gone out on loan and was a long way off playing any Premier League minutes. The three players mentioned above all got their Premier League debuts as teenagers. Seeking a permanent move was perhaps the best choice for him.
Is there such a thing as playing ‘too much’ in Premier League 2?
This summer, Tino Livramento left Chelsea at the age of 18 off the back of only one full season in PL2. He has now played 1,616 minutes in the Premier League so far. Contrast this to other players who stick around in their club’s academy for a long time, delaying their senior careers or never really getting them going at all. The recent trend of players following Livramento’s path by seeking ever earlier moves into first-team football begs the question: which method is better for a player’s development?
To look into this, we’ve gathered data on every ‘developing’ under 23 player making their debuts in the Premier League since 16/17 to see whether they have been able to maintain their place in the division since making their debut and whether they have managed to play relatively regularly.
To investigate our question more accurately, our definition of ‘developing’ players will exclude players with more than 1,000 minutes of senior experience and who have been transferred to a new team as a permanent signing. This means Crystal Palace’s Marc Guehi and Michael Olise are not in the data set, whilst Livramento is. Players who have moved for over £5 million have also been excluded. In addition, players with more than 1,000 minutes in teams who won promotion to the Premier League and, thus, made their debut in the division the next season have also been excluded.
The graph above shows PL2 minutes plotted against Premier League minutes. As you can see, it’s rather messy. The data includes a large number of players who have played very little in their Premier League careers. Some of these are from the last season or so and are just being given their first opportunities as Premier League players, whilst others are from several seasons ago and simply came on as late substitutes, never appearing for the club again.
Then there are some players like Harry Winks who have played a lot in the Premier League but have no PL2 minutes. They made their debuts in the competition in the season that PL2 was established but never played in it themselves.
Despite the messiness of the data, there is a clear negative correlation overall. We can also see that there is a real drop-off in Premier League minutes after players put up over 3,000 minutes in PL2.
It should be noted that, with the competition only being launched in 2016/17, some of the players debuting in the Premier League in the early seasons of our research may not have had the chance to accrue minutes in the competition. A player like Leicester’s Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall, on the other hand, first played in PL2 the season the competition was established, giving him a chance to rack up a high number of minutes. He has also had senior experience on loan but is now getting his Premier League chance with his hometown club this season.
The graph also identifies whether a player has had loan experience before breaking into the Premier League. This is denoted by colour with blue dots indicating that a player has not had a loan and orange dots indicating that they have.
Interestingly, there is a cluster of orange dots between 1,000 and 2,500 PL2 minutes who have all played around 4,000-5,000 Premier League minutes. These players include Ben White—who had multiple EFL loans—Conor Gallagher, Reece James, Robert Sanchez and Sean Longstaff. Just above them, extending above 6,000 Premier League minutes, are Mason Mount and Harvey Barnes. All of these players look likely to have years of top-level football ahead of them. This appears to be an indicator that a blended approach to their development may have been very helpful.
The Three Approaches to Concluding Development
As we explored the data, it appeared that there are three different approaches taken by clubs to develop players reaching the end of their ‘professional development phase’:
Early Senior Experience
Firstly, there is the approach to player development in which exposure to early senior experience is adopted. This approach can be broken in two: clubs either utilise loans or pick up young players still in their developmental phase after a short spell in senior football at an EFL club.
As noted by Mark Prudhoe, one of Jordan Pickford’s coaches in his youth days at Sunderland, sometimes an early experience of senior football is necessary for the player to make a leap:
“Believe it or not, Jordan couldn’t get in our youth team – he was actually playing more games for England’s youth teams than Sunderland’s at one stage.
“Craig Liddle [manager] at Darlington got in touch and asked if we had a keeper they could have on loan. We offered them Jordan but just imagine that sell to a non-league manager.
“‘Has he played in your reserves?’ ‘No’. ‘Is he playing in your youth team?’ ‘No, he can’t get in it.’ It’s not very appealing is it?
“Craig trusted me, though, and then you started to see Jordan develop more. Suddenly he was accountable for everything he did, accountable for points, results and keeping a manager in a job.”
To explore this set of players, we selected only players who have had early senior experience, filtering out any players who have played 1,000 or more PL2 minutes. This resulted in a set of 37 players who averaged a meagre 344 PL2 minutes between them.
Since making their debuts in the Premier League, 43% of them are still at Premier League clubs and they average 1,977 Premier League minutes with an average of 28 appearances in the competition.
Here are a few notable success stories of this approach:
Loaned to Huddersfield Town before breaking through at Leicester. Went on to make a £45million move to Chelsea. 10,992 PL minutes.
Loaned to Northampton Town from Sheffield United before he got a small number of appearances for the Blades. Subsequently bought for just over £1m by Everton after 1,000 mins in the EFL. Played half a season in PL2 before making the step into Everton’s first team. 9,710 PL minutes.
Loaned to Hull City whilst on Arsenal’s books where he played 860 Championship minutes. Picked up by Newcastle on a free transfer. 8,402 PL minutes.
Had loans to League Two and League One before making his PL debut for Bournemouth in 19/20. Bought for fees of £18.45million and £25.2million over the course of the two seasons since. 8,280 PL mins.
Everton paid a fee of just over £1 million to take him from Barnsley after 20 League One apps as a teenager. Given PL debut a season and a half later. Loaned to the Championship two seasons later. Now 25. 7,818 PL minutes.
Jarrod Bowen is also worth noting in this group, although his career progression is more convoluted than most. The West Ham forward began his career as a teenager playing in what is now the National League for Hereford United. Hull City then picked him up and he made his Premier League debut three seasons after he’d been playing for Hereford. Hull were subsequently relegated and he amassed 9,845 Championship minutes across two and a half seasons before being bought by West Ham. At the time of gathering this data, he has played 5,265 Premier League minutes.
The balanced approach features players who have senior experience, either gained young and then bought by a Premier League team or on loan, as well as a minimum of 1,000 PL2 minutes. There was a set of 38 players in this category with an average of 2,204 PL2 minutes. In these instances, 61% of players remain at Premier League clubs. They average 1,596 Premier League minutes and 25 appearances.
It’s notable that, in this case, the percentage of players still on the books of Premier League clubs is higher, whilst the average of minutes played is lower. This may be because the previous set of players with low PL2 minutes was skewed to the older seasons in the data set when PL2 had only just been established. By contrast, this approach seems to pick up more players who have more recently made their debuts and not had chances to rack up a high number of minutes in the top tier.
Notable players here are:
1,686 PL2 minutes as well as highly successful loans at Vitesse and Derby County before being given his chance at Chelsea and becoming a star player. 7,013 PL minutes.
1,717 PL2 minutes along with loans to League One with MK Dons and the Championship with Barnsley and West Bromwich Albion. 6,082 PL minutes with Leicester City.
1,804 PL2 minutes and a full season with Wigan Athletic in the Championship. Now Chelsea’s first choice right back. 4,991 PL minutes.
2,054 PL2 minutes. Loans to League Two with Newport County, League One with Peterborough United and the Championship with Leeds United before playing one season in the Premier League for Brighton. Subsequently sold to Arsenal for over £50million. 4,726 PL minutes.
1,884 PL2 minutes and loans to Blackpool and Kilmarnock before breaking through for Newcastle. 4,310 PL minutes.
Other players worth mentioning in this group are Emile Smith-Rowe, Robert Sanchez, Max Kilman and Hamza Choudhury. Aston Villa’s Jacob Ramsey, who is in the midst of a breakout season right now, is also in this group, as well as Leicester’s Keirnan Dewsbury-Hall, although he isn’t hitting quite the same levels as Ramsey.
Another player from this group I have not mentioned yet is Conor Gallagher. The Chelsea midfielder played 1,427 PL2 minutes before loans in the Championship with Charlton Athletic and Swansea City, where he impressed enough to gain a Premier League loan with West Brom. He’s now starring in Crystal Palace’s midfield on his second Premier League loan in a row. He has played 4,016 Premier League minutes without any of those being for his parent club. Whether or not he ever plays for Chelsea remains to be seen but clearly, a Premier League quality player has been developed.
Premier League 2 Only
Finally, we have the PL2 only approach. These players had no prior senior league experience before making their debuts in the Premier League. This provided a group of 116 players with an average number of PL2 minutes played of 2,085. Of these 116 players, 53% of them remain registered by Premier League clubs and they average 965 Premier League minutes with an average of 17 appearances in the competition.
Here are the most notable players from this group:
1,980 PL2 minutes before making his Premier League debut for West Ham as an 18-year-old. One of the most highly-rated central midfielders in the league. Now played 12,346 PL minutes.
1,237 PL2 minutes. Also made his debut at 18 playing for Liverpool where he is regarded by many as the best attacking right-backs in the world. 11,918 PL minutes.
Made Premier League debut for Manchester United at 20 after 1,795 PL2 minutes. 6,596 PL minutes for the Red Devils.
Played 1,356 PL2 minutes before making his Premier League debut for Arsenal at 17. Has now played 5,713 minutes in the competition despite having only turned 20 in the summer of 2021.
3,141 PL2 minutes as a Tottenham Hotspur youngster and made his league debut at Spurs. However, the vast majority of his 5,321 PL minutes have come since he moved to Southampton.
Head of Youth Development for the Premier League, Neil Saunders, referenced the Elite Player Performance Plan—the policy programme that led to PL2 being formed—as one of the reasons behind England’s run to the final of Euro 2020.
“The EPPP was launched to ensure our clubs continued to develop more and better homegrown players.
“We have a generation of young English players who are exceptionally talented. These are certainly exciting times and it’s a culmination of a lot of hard work by club Academies.”
Interestingly, whilst the average age of the debutants in the previous two groups was over 20, in this group, it was only just over 18 and there are some other names worth mentioning who weren’t featured in the top five for Premier League minutes.
Firstly, Phil Foden, the poster child for in-house development. With Foden, Manchester City resisted any approach to loan him out. Instead, Pep Guardiola kept him close to the first team throughout, so much so that he only played 810 PL2 minutes, despite initially only playing a small number of minutes. Even now as an established Premier League and international star—thanks to Guardiola’s rotation policy and City’s depth of quality—Foden only has 3,784 Premier League minutes to his name, despite making his debut in 17/18.
Other names from this group to note are Mason Greenwood, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Joe Willock, Tariq Lamptey, Tyrick Mitchell and Japhet Tanganga.
It should also be pointed out that in the graph referenced earlier, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Dwight McNeil and Harry Winks were three of the players with some of the highest Premier League minutes. Their league debuts came in the Premier League. However, they never featured in PL2 so they haven’t been included in any of our identified development groups. They are excellent examples of players moving straight from U18 football into the Premier League and thriving.
From this season, the big breakout star from the PL2 only group is Tino Livramento, mentioned earlier in the piece. Notably, he is an outlier amongst those from the PL2 only group to have made their debuts in the last two seasons. At the time of collecting the data, he had already played 1,616 minutes in the Premier League, whereas Ki-Jana Hoever of Wolves—the player with the next highest minutes—is almost 900 behind with 761 Premier League minutes.
So, what’s the best approach?
If we’re just comparing the averages for Premier League minutes played since debut, the early senior experience approach comes out on top with 1,977. The balanced approach is second with its average of 1,596 and the PL2 only approach comes in third with 965 minutes.
However, concluding this research by just comparing the averages doesn’t seem the best way, for several reasons. Firstly, the sample sizes are very different. Secondly, as mentioned earlier, the latter approaches feature more players to have made their debuts later, meaning we have yet to see how many of those players really cope in elite-level football. Most of them have only had their first tastes recently.
Interestingly, whilst the PL2 only group is the lowest in terms of average Premier League minutes, the three players with the highest minutes played in the division in the data set are players who came straight from youth football in Rice, Alexander-Arnold and Wan-Bissaka.
In all of these approaches, there are more examples of players who have had fleeting Premier League careers than those who have maintained their Premier League status. 65 of the 207 players are still part of Premier League squads today, equating to 31%. This demonstrates the fact that most won’t ‘make it’ in the longer term.
Some of these players were even perhaps given their debuts in the competition before they’d really earned it. One example is Harvey Elliott. He was given his debut by Fulham at 16 in what was likely a last desperate attempt to keep him at the club. Perhaps inevitably, he chose to sign for Liverpool, instead. From there, he spent time in Liverpool’s PL2 squad before being loaned to the Championship with Blackburn. After an impressive season in Lancashire, he looked set for a breakout season for the Reds this term before picking up a serious injury in his fourth Premier League appearance. Many were given early opportunities which won’t come back around as quickly as Elliott has. He is still only 18.
As we have shown, then, each approach has had real success stories with elite quality players being produced. Amongst those players, there are Premier League, Champions League, Europa League and FA Cup winners.
In light of this, it’s very difficult to conclude on a ‘best’ approach for youth development. Each player is different and development is not linear. Instead, it often looks more like this:
There are some players who are ready to make their Premier League debuts as teenagers who will thrive and stay there for many years. There are others who will seem ready but when given their chance they don’t grasp it and fall down the leagues. Some will be released, others will be loaned out and get second chances which they may or may not take.
That being the case, clubs will be best served in tailoring the approach to the player based on what they know about their ability, mentality and adaptability, alongside the needs of their own teams, rather than attempting to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach.
Header image copyright IMAGO / Action Plus