Some thoughts on the new U18 and U21 format

BLACKBURN, ENGLAND - MAY 09: Chelsea players slide on the turf as they celebrate victory against Blackburn Rovers during the FA Youth Cup Final 2nd leg match between Blackburn Rovers U18's and Chelsea U18's at Ewood park on May 9, 2012 in Blackburn, England. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

This morning Chelsea released some specifics of the new U21 league that will be replacing the reserve league next season. The article is lengthy and certainly worth reading, but here are a few highlights:

  • All 92 league football clubs are being broken into 4 tiers. Clubs will only play other academies in their own tier in U18 and U21 league play. What tier your academy falls into will be evaluated every 3 years.
  • Games will no longer be played at Cobham. U18 home games will take place at Staines Town FC (capacity 3,009), and U21 games will be played at Brentford's Griffin Park (capacity 12, 763). The U21's will also play 2 home games a year at Stamford Bridge.
  • Games must now be played between Friday and Monday to better coincide with the first team schedule.
  • U18 league games will no longer allow 3 players who lost eligibility the previous year to participate. U21 games will allow 3 over 21 players in the squad and 2 on the pitch at any given time. The NextGen series will still see the U18's able to include a trio who are ineligible by a year.
  • All teams are required to participate. We're all staring at Daniel Levy right now.
  • Top youth will be encouraged to play for the best academies, and compensation guidelines for those players leaving has already been addressed.

I'll share some of my thoughts about what all of this means after the jump.

  • I'm a big fan of moving fixtures to the weekends. The club should have a good idea who might be needed by the first team squad before either the U18 or U21 leagues tire out potential bench players, so we should see a little more of guys on the bubble getting to play in the lower fixtures than when they were midweek.
  • I love the stadium deals. I always hated the Cobham games, as it really felt like a training ground. Now we've got a small stadium for the U18's, a larger one for the U21's, and the Bridge. They'll still likely be mostly empty, but it's an improvement.
  • I like the fact that games will now be played on a national basis. As an American, I never understood why the distances required to be traveled in England forced regional play upon our youth, as better competition wasn't all that far away.
  • I LOVE the fact that top youth players will now be encouraged to congregate at the best academies. This should definitely see better top end youth being produced, something that will be necessary at both the club and national level. As the panel has stated, those that don't make the cut will still likely end up at the lower levels anyway.
  • I don't think the "changes" to the U21 format are nearly enough. The biggest obstacle we've faced is between graduating the U18's and breaking into the first team, and frankly the basics of the U21 league barely changed. This is pretty much the same old reserves with a pretty new hat. It's a nice hat though, they can keep that going forward as they dress the system up more.

Overall, this is certainly an improvement on the system that we had in place before, but I still think it needs to be worked on before we'll truly see results. The FA has time though, as the benefits of increased training hours and better coaching really won't start to show up for a few years. The FA seems willing to revisit the format going forward, and is acknowledging that this is but the first in a long series of moves to improve youth development in England. England as a whole seems very reluctant to allow "B" squads to play, so hopefully they'll find a viable alternative in the next several years that allow big clubs to successfully bridge the gap to the first team as well as other countries do. Frankly, that's the area in which I still expect the new league structure to struggle.

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