Joe Tweedie – what attributes, besides talent, determine whether Player X becomes the next Gaël Kakuta or the next Ousmane Dembélé?
SC – Before talent, the most important parameter is being motivated to play football. That’s something players develop while looking at older kids playing, or playing themselves. As long as there’s a will to play, there’s a pathway to get better. And obviously, the path is so hard that one can’t imagine getting all the way to the top without that self-motivation. Coaching is obviously an important aspect of player development, but players will naturally climb the ladder and be invited to join better clubs (with better structures) if they don’t feel like they can improve anymore in their current club.
I’d say the other key aspects is how the player is being surrounded and advised, and that is the factor that can make the difference even when the player looks to tick all the boxes. It’s sometimes hard for families to deal with the frenzy and find the right people to get advice. There’s so many people trying to steal a living on talented players, expecting future paybacks or commissions on transfers.
Dembélé was quite late to figure in French top flight precisely for that. At Spring 2015 I was attending Tours-Rennes for an obscure round of the (nevertheless renowned) Coupe Gambardella (U19 Youth Cup) and he was playing on the right wing. His agents were refusing to sign pro terms and were trying to finalize a deal with Red Bull Salzburg, so the club decided he wouldn’t play until his advisors would sort his situation out.
JT – at what age do you feel a young player is ready for the rigours of first team football?
SC – I believe in the “if you’re good enough, you’re old enough” motto. Which leads us to define what “good” means. There are different components in it: being physically capable to deal with the intensity of the duels, the rhythm of the game, being able to play even with good players closing you down, and delivering. There are a lot of young players able to deputise in a one-off game (because of injuries, suspensions). But it’s not really the whole thing, the most important thing is to be able to be consistently good (and deliver) over a string of games.
The main obstacles to it are: players unable to adapt straight away to the rhythm (getting injured on the 3rd straight outing), and being unable to deal with the increasing expectations and attention from the surrounding media/players/fans. Those are the main reasons why managers don’t rely on some young players because they’ve had enough reasons to think they wouldn’t be up to it over a few games on the row. Experienced players are prepared to be consistent. But when you look at Martial, Mbappé, Rashford, those are deemed to be prodigies from a young age and look to have received an education which has led them to be prepared for it.
Age isn’t really the key aspect there. Nor is intrinsic quality. It’s all about being able to be consistent from a young age. There are your good players and those not quite there yet. Mbappé, Dembélé can already be regarded as top players, they just happen to be young. Football management is incredibly hard for managers. There’s no way a competent manager would jeopardise his chances to win more games by playing someone who isn’t ready, or benching someone good enough.
JT – in terms of developing players between the ages of 18-21, what is more beneficial? Training with higher quality players (i.e. exclusively training with the first team) or playing regular adult football at any level? Why?
SC – Training with top players is beneficial, because (depending on the quality of the training), there can be even more intensity than during games which is the best way to be prepared. I’m quite sure that when you’re in a small sided game with Ballack and Lampard, facing Terry and Drogba, it automatically raises the concentration level and the young players input to be as good as possible.
It’s good to face proper adversity, top players kicking players, coming through all over the place, setting the standards (staying after training etc…). Conditions to make players ready for the first team also rely on context. In England, the number of professional clubs and divisions obviously make it impossible to fit reserve teams into the pyramid. That’s what happens elsewhere in Europe. In France, reserve teams can play up to 4th division (geographical seeds) and they play against real teams, real clubs, trying to avoid relegation or beat the pro club’s reserve side.
It’s a hard conundrum to solve. One thing for sure is that players can reach the point where the artificial, clean and nice youth leagues are too small for them. In my opinion, the right balance has to be found between cameos in first team training and loans in clubs offering the conditions for the player to play. There’s no way a Championship manager would waste a spot in the starting XI to help a 6-month loanee develop. It’s only about being good enough right now, for a certain period of time. So, it’s not necessary to spend time on someone the other side of the country to stay in a motel.
At the same time, living 24/7 with the first team can sometimes be detrimental for players because they won’t have the will to play for the U21 and yet they’re still miles away from a spot on the bench let alone the starting eleven. Maybe Loftus-Cheek is lingering in that limbo right now.
JT – what is the ideal development strategy for a promising 18-year-old at a club the stature of Chelsea? Loan or in-house development?
SC – Top clubs have an edge over other clubs because they’ve better facilities and conditions to train, recover or get medical treatment. They have better coaches as well. That’s probably why sometimes top clubs decide it’s not worth loaning out a player when there’s more cons than pros when you look at the full picture.
JT – which position is easiest for an Academy player to play at first team level? Why?
SC – There are specific positions on the pitch, such as goalkeeper, central defender and central striker. Those are really exposed roles on the pitch, especially in England where teams target goalkeepers on crosses, set pieces etc. Playing in central defence means you play against the very best there is for a specific role. It’s not just about the Agüero’s, Zlatan’s or Rooney’s but also Anichebe, Heskey, Kevin Davies who’re stronger, wiser and more experience when it comes to draw fouls, win headers, use their body and generally be a pain in the arse (elbows, shoves etc…). Jeffrey Bruma was too good for U21 football and has played Champions League games. Yet his afternoon against Emile Heskey was a literal nightmare back in 2011.
Pace is obviously a good asset, especially for forwards, but young speed merchants never get a chance to play alone upfront even in case of a striker shortage. Managers will prefer putting a midfielder upfront to get hold of the ball a bit, or someone tall to flick on what’s cleared in their direction. It’s probably easier to fit a young player in wide areas or in midfield (with enough midfielders behind them), because those are the positions where having 1 or maybe 2 passengers don’t automatically lead to losing the game. It can lead to not attacking at all.
JT – as a coach, is there an aspect of the game you feel is undervalued by the wider public when it comes to coaching and developing young talent?
SC – I think sometimes the mainstream football fans focus too much on intrinsic quality on a very limited span of time (a period of game, or a one-off game). The most important thing young players should strive towards is production and consistency. Those two aspects warrant players a starting role or not, age is a peripheral factor. Obviously, for the reasons mentioned above, it’s harder to be physically, technically and mentally ready at 19 than at 25 with 5 seasons of top flight football. It doesn’t mean it’s impossible when we look at Cristiano or more recently Dembélé, Mbappé. But it cannot be relied on to argue that whoever makes two stepovers in U21 football HAS to start games, because Mbappé and Dembélé do.
JT – what is something, in your experience, you wished the casual fan knew about coaching youngsters?
SC – I’d like the general public to be more aware of the big picture when it comes to putting young players on the grill in the first team. Some are almost ready-made for first team football but most aren’t. It’s just not fair to inflate the bubble with comparisons, expectations after a handful of games because when the bubble explodes, it’s very detrimental to the player himself. And nobody gives a shit about it because the next kid on the row will seek to get a chance and so on. The same people who were bashing Chelsea for agreeing to Lukaku’s transfer request because they thought he could realistically challenge Costa for #1 spot would have been the first to attack him after three games without a goal for Chelsea.