A simple solution to an age-old problem

In a week that saw Bayern and Dortmund brush aside Spanish giants Barcelona and Real and all but secure an all-German Champions League final, the topic of player development has inevitably resurfaced.

In timely fashion, the CIES Football Observatory published their Big-5 Weekly Post, which showed that – last weekend – the Germany Bundesliga boasted the highest percentage (10.7%) of minutes played by U21 national team players of the top leagues (Vs England, Spain, France and Italy). By comparison, on the same weekend England had only 0.7% of their U21 national talent gracing the Premier League, raising questions about whether the pathway is being blocked or if talent is simply not being produced. Gary Neville, the England Coach, is in little doubt: ”for me, it is because the pathway is blocked [by expatriate talent].”

This perspective is worth considering, but the theory is challenged by others who suggest that if England was able to cultivate better players then there would surely be less need to splurge extortionate transfer fees on foreign stars in an attempt to bridge the talent gap and compete at the top level.

Many point to Germany’s overhaul of their youth development system at the turn of the century now coming to fruition and English football will hope that the recent investments in St Georges Park and Elite Player Performance Plan will yield similar results over the course of the next 15 years. The challenge of course is that that facilities don’t necessarily breed success and history has shown that throwing money at a problem doesn’t always fix it.

There is a much simpler solution of course.

Most involved in elite football are very familiar with the Relative Age Effect (RAE) – otherwise known as The Matthew Effect or the Birthday Effect. Authors such as Matthew Syed, Malcolm Gladwell and Rasmus Ankersen have already done a great job at demonstrating how sport’s selectors have a tendency to pick teenage athletes whose birthdays occur in the first few months of a given sport season as they appear to be head and shoulders above the other emerging talent. Of course they normally are – because they’ve had more time to develop physically and technically. In other words we often confuse great talent with older talent.

I was somewhat reluctant to revisit what is now become an established phenomena. The problem, of course, is that – at a practical level – we continue to make thda sames mistakes and overlook potential talent.

Prozone’s statistical whiz @OmarChaudhuri recently shared with me the following insight: nearly 50% of all players picked for the U17s England squads over the last 10 years were born between January-March.

England U17 Squads between 2002-2011

A similar pattern exists at U19s, albeit less pronounced (38% – but still significantly higher than the 25% of players we would expect if the players were equally distributed across months).

A great case study for overcoming RAE tendency lies in Belgium. The current star-studded Belgium national team shown below (which is actually just a snapshot of the depth of talent now prevalent in the squad) is, in fact, not an accident.

Belgium 'Futures'

Image source = BBC Sport

Recognising that players with birthdays earlier in the year had a development advantage, in 2000 – after a poor showing at the Euros, which they co-hosted with the Netherlands – the Belgian FA introduced a simple adjustment to their system. For each youth age group they simply created a second team for those players who just needed more time to develop. The nickname for these ‘reserve’ players? The ‘Futures’.

I recently spoke to the flamboyant George Leekens – Belgian’s national team manager until May 2012 – and he pointed to a “simple strategy” during his tenure: creating an environment of “trust, belief, positivity, hard work and professional organisation around the team”. Leekens also recognised the “talent, intelligence and right mentality” that he inherited. Incidentally, from the ‘gold mine’ team above, six of the players were born in the second half of the calendar year.

Club sides have also introduced similar changes to their youth development systems in an attempt to grow their talent pool. For example, Simon Wilson – Manchester City’s strategic performance manager – told me that they also have shadow teams up to age fifteen.

The case for foreign player quotas is spurious (not to mention discriminatory), while new facilities are expensive. Of course you could objectively analyse the performance of youth players to remove any human bias, although the older players would still have an advantage as they’ve had more time to mature.

If you want a better future, you really need to develop more homegrown ‘Futures’.

9 thoughts on “A simple solution to an age-old problem

  1. Great post, Blake. The relative age effect reveals a classic leadership problem: our tendency to misread success. We think players are talented, but really they just have a temporary physical advantage over their peers. The question is how many “late developed” player we actually lose in the system because of this? But maybe even more important: How many “early developed” players become complacent because they think they are talented, but really they just have a temporary advantage? To solve this problem I think we need coaches who not only have the courage to pick the “late developers” for the future (for example on a shadow team), but also have the guts to challenge the “early developers” away from complacency.

  2. The research is flawed from a IK perspectve as club and school teams are picked based upon the school year groups which start in september(therefore sep is oldest and aug is younges)

  3. Thanks Rasmus.
    Hi Iain – yes, the academic year also plays a part… in fact with the U19 and U21 data, you actually see the impact of the academic cut-off (not only the Uefa calendar year). The underlying principle/outcome is still the same though… Thanks for the feedback

  4. Hi
    I am really enjoying many of these articles but I have one “terminology ” problem that keeps appearing again and again. That is the term “Talent Identification”. For me this is very much an out of date term and to explain new thoughts and concepts in longterm player development I like to use ” Talent Observation “.
    I believe that talent identification at grass root levels in general refers to identifying the best talent now! which can be for many reasons that are explained in many of your articles.Talent ID is a short term model.
    With Talent Oberservation we use a more long term approach.We see and encourage potential. This also means that those players who are ahead in their physical development dont get used merely for their physical advantage just to win games , their development is also longterm.

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