When an e-mail arrived from the organisers of the Next Gen Series – a Champions League style of competition that pitted against each other some of Europe’s football academies – I was expected confirmation of an interview with the tournament’s organisers that I had been trying to set up for some weeks.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t the case. Instead, it was a notice of a brief press release that the tournament was being suspended for a year because it had been unable to guarantee the funding that it required. The fact that some months earlier UEFA had announced the setting up of the Youth League, a similar competition involving youth sides of clubs in the Champions League –thereby potentially taking away some of the most attractive names in the competition – might have played a part.
Regardless of the reason, it will be greatly missed. As Bryan Jones, academy director of reigning champions Aston Villa, said “the competition is one of greatest development tools for young professional players in this country, providing as it does elite competition against some of the best clubs around Europe, and it will be lost to us this season. It's shameful and it's hugely disappointing.”
And well they should be disappointed because suddenly, a competition that was seriously assisting clubs in the development of talent is no longer there. For English sides, this means that they are left with the increasingly inadequate Under 21's league.
There is the perception that what was wrong with this league the lack of games played by each team and, to an extent, it is a significant issue. But it isn’t the main one.
Where the reserves league was and the Under 21 league is failing players is in the overall level. Kids are playing against other kids which, inevitably, limits the extent to which they can progress. In his book The Little Book of Talent, Daniel Coyle argues that improvement happens when one stretches for something that is slightly out of reach.
It is why the NextGen tournament had been so widely appreciated by coaches. In it they got to play against teams from different countries and with different tactical approaches: it provided a tougher challenge than usual and allowed the players to grow.
In the Under 21's, players might get to face teams that contain slightly better individuals but in truth everyone is at the same level of experience.
Indeed, there is research that seems to back this up such. Earlier this year, the Journal of Applied Sports Psychology published an article by Lyndell Bruce, Damian Farrow and Annette Raynor titled “Performance Milestones in the Development of Expertise: Are They Critical?”. This involved looking at the training history of fifty-seven female netball players to examine whether there were certain achievements in their development which might be indicative of the eventual level of expertise. In other words, they were looking for factors which might be indicative of an athlete’s eventual performance level.
As with any such study a number of results came out. Interestingly, one of these was that expert players – those who go on to compete at international level – tend to have competed at an adult level earlier than those who do not reach this level.
To an extent, this is simply down to the fact that those who go on to become experts are those who had more natural talent. Yet playing at a higher level at an early age allowed them reach developmental milestones earlier. Their motor skills develop more, they understand how much harder they have to work and they get a better appreciation of the tactics.
That is not to say that this is a conclusive argument in this respect, but it is certainly indicative*. There certainly is enough anecdotal evidence to support this theory. Is it perhaps coincidental that Spanish and German football is having greater success at developing players given that the B sides of most major teams are allowed to play senior football in professional leagues?
That is why the demise of the Next Gen series will be felt more in England: it gave players at English teams the opportunity to experience a new challenge. As Daniel Coyle would undoubtedly put it; it gave them an opportunity to stretch to achieve more.
It now remains to be seen what kind of an impact the UEFA organised competition will have. Given that not every club in the Champions League places the same level of attention to its youth system, it will undoubtedly result in a number of mismatched games. That much has been acknowledged by UEFA itself, albeit indirectly through its decision allowing teams not to take part if they didn’t want to.
Arguably, UEFA’s competition is a knee-jerk answer to the success of the Next Gen series and is fuelled more by its desire to stop any other organisation from getting a slice of the pie than it is by any particular wish to offer a development opportunity for clubs’ youths. Which, it goes without saying, is a huge pity.
*In coming months I will be looking through additional papers and studies that might have carried out research in this area to see whether there is a greater academic body of study to support these theories.
This piece originally appeared on Blueprint for Football Extra. Sign up for your free copy.