There is an infectious air of belief sweeping around Old Trafford this season that has been created by a new generation of young players. Phil Jones, Tom Cleverley and Chris Smalling, among many others, have shown nothing but promise in a positive start to the new campaign. The pair will be followed up by an even younger generation, featuring elegant Frenchman Paul Pogba and the unruly, yet talented Ravel Morrison. The future, it seems, is bright.
The big question, however, remains whether this side will ever be good enough to challenge Barcelona, a club that possesses some of the best players in a generation, and seems able to create more at will. There is, for the moment, no answer to this question. Not until Manchester United’s new crop enjoys success in the face of Barça’s sustained excellence.
On the face of it Sir Alex Ferguson is trying to emulate Barcelona in his approach by bringing young players through, together, and allowing them to develop as a unit. Only a team that has been reared in this way, it seems, can have the shared understanding required for the phenomenal teamwork displayed by the Catalan giants, which can boast ten home-grown players in the first team squad.
Barcelona’s youth system has produced not only outstanding attacking players, such as Lionel Messi and Pedro Rodríguez, but also many creative midfielders in the mould of Andrés Iniesta and commanding defenders, including Gerard Piqué. Even the goalkeeper, Víctor Valdés, is Barcelona born and bred. This success in youth production is largely attributed to La Masia, the centre of excellence that imbues its graduates with such a strong foundation.
Happily for United, however, new developments in the Premier League – the Elite Player Performance Plan, which was agreed last February and will come into force from next season – should allow the club to create just such an establishment in Salford: a private footballing boarding school for children. This will provide the kind of close contact that is needed to develop the attitude and ability that so many of Barcelona’s youngsters possess.
More crucially still, the current restrictions on training hours are to be scrapped. Under Premier League rules young English players between the ages of 9 and 16 can only be trained for less than five hours a week by their clubs. Dutch, French and Spanish youngsters can hope for ten to twelve hours a week. The perrenial failure of the English national team means that five hours is patently nowhere near enough a player’s formative years.
Under the new system, English players will receive three times more training before the age of 16, which will go a long way to redressing the balance between English youngsters and their European counterparts. United’s outstanding facilities and top coaching team, together with the new rules, means that the club will produce ever more gems from the academy, just as Barcelona does.
Another boost comes in the form of a new academy grading system that is sure to place United in the top band. This system will allow United to enlist any top youngster in the country from a young age, and not just those who live locally. Numerous youngsters from all over the country will, inevitably, join United due to the club’s reputation. The academy will, once again, have access to some of the top talent in the country.
These changes are sure to benefit United in the long-term and fans can hold genuine hope that a new wave of home-grown talent will lift the club perhaps beyond the Catalans and to European domination. There will, of course, be a long wait for the changes to deliver genuine results. In the meantime fans will have to make do with imports such as Jones and Smalling, who are beating the academy youngsters to Ferguson’s first team.