Premier League clubs: Money or Youth?

As Premier League clubs continue to spend excessive amounts of money on transfer fees, asks whether they should look to youth academies instead

Image: The Sport Review

Image: The Sport Review

In this season of twists and turns with unpredictability being provided in bucket loads, I think it’s important to try and look at the bigger picture at why this has been the case. With the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson from Manchester United and the arrivals of Manuel Pellegrini and Jose Mourinho at Manchester City and Chelsea respectively, the top end of the table has undergone some big changes.

Managerial changes have no doubt influenced the destiny of many Premier League clubs, top and bottom, both past and present. However, the recent emergence of big spenders in the league has caused some seismic changes and some meteoric rises in the destiny of these clubs. The investment of the Glazers into Manchester United in May 2005, Roman Abramovich’s acquisition of Chelsea in June 2003 and of course the investment of the oil-rich Sheikh Mansour in September 2008 into Manchester City changed the whole dynamic of how these clubs have grown and developed.

There has been an inevitable shift from investing in youth to buying expensive, big name players. Since the turn of the millennium, this has happened more frequently as the worldwide transfer record has been broken six times and the value of the world record transfer has increased from £35,000,000 to the recent £85,000,000 acquisition of Gareth Bale by Real Madrid in the summer of 2013.

However, there could be an argument that actually the most valuable type of player isn’t bought, but grown. Take the example of Fergie’s fledglings; in English football the case with Manchester United is that if you’re not a fan, then you generally hate or dislike them for their dominance during Ferguson’s reign. Now whether you’re a fan or not, you have to admire his desire to inject youth into his team during the early 1990s. He replaced five senior players with young upstarts like a baby-faced David Beckham and Manchester’s very own version of the Chuckle Brothers, Gary and Phil Neville.

What this injection of youth did offer United was longevity. They took players that grew up supporting the club, caring for the club and allowed them to ascend the ranks and put all their efforts into bringing success for the club. That desire to win for your childhood club or for the club that has given you the opportunity to enter the world of football is priceless.

Compare that to the policy of many top flight clubs today. The emphasis isn’t really on developing players for the future from their academies. The emphasis is more on buying young players who have partly proved themselves already and are therefore expensive to buy. Or these big clubs make marquee signings that can contribute to the team now and if the player is young enough, for the foreseeable future.

The problem with this though is that by buying these players, especially foreign players and especially for such a high fee, you expect an immediate return. However these players need time to settle in, sometimes to adapt to a new country, a new language and if they are young, they need time to develop and work on their game. These players might not have an affiliation or an affection for the club; their drive is often money.

Manchester City are a club that is a good example of this. If you look at their current team, the majority of the players including Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero have no affiliation to Manchester or the club at all. However, as a result of City’s new found riches they were able to move to the club, something that wasn’t possible before the arrival of Sheikh Mansour. Even if a club makes a mistake and lets go of a player it once nurtured through, with enough money they can buy that player back. A recent example of this would be Chelsea’s reacquisition of Nemanja Matic in January and perhaps the most well-known example of this happening would be Cesc Fabregas returning to Barcelona after making his name at Arsenal.

So what is better, money or youth? How does a Premier League club go about ensuring its success for many years to come, which one does it pick? Well I’m afraid I would have to pluck for a combination of the two. The ideal for a club is to have a team that wins competitions now but also have players waiting in the wings, learning from more experienced players, the blend of experience and youth is vital. A top club nowadays needs money in order to buy players and build a team quickly.

Once again take Manchester United, their current team is in dire need of repair and the recent additions of Marouane Fellaini last summer and Juan Mata in the January transfer window for £27,500,000 and £37,100,000 respectively have been bought with a view to come into the team now and contribute (even though Fellaini might have failed to significantly contribute to the team yet).

However, clubs also need to build for the future and the best way to do that is take some of those millions and invest in a good youth academy and a good youth recruitment network. Scouting the local area and indeed foreign countries for young talent allows a club to build up a pool of wonder kids who in five years’ time, provided their development goes according to plan, will be to become central to the club.

Players like Jack Wilshere and Kieran Gibbs, who both came through the Arsenal academy for the majority of their youth careers are good examples of how Arsene Wenger has been building the future of his club. He has spent time investing in these players and it looks to be paying dividends, as Arsenal now seem to have the left back and central midfield positions tied down for the next ten years, provided these players remain at the club.

Wenger, alongside Ferguson, is a manager that is always looking to the future of the club. This, for me, is a trait that every world class manager should have. The fusion of investing money in players to fill key positions now and the investment in youth for the future is difficult to achieve and takes time. However, this is why I’m an advocate of clubs sticking with their manager through difficult times. It allows the manager time to patch up any issues in the team at the moment and cast one eye to the future.

So, money or youth? Give me both please!


  1. Unfortunately investing in foreign youngsters or as you say ‘building up a pool of wonder-kids’ ruins more young careers than it does produce players that stay with the same club for ten years. Big clubs are now just making profits on the dozen youngsters they actually loan out every season to inflate their value before selling them so as to comply with FFP. No-one’s really interested in a Ferguson-type youth project anymore. The dominant teams now have bought all their talent.


  2. Hi Adam, I agree with your point in that most youngsters brought into the club are eventually loaned out and sold. However, I wouldn’t necessarily say that this ‘ruins young careers’. Clubs may look to buy certain young players in order to sell them on for a profit but the idea of nurturing a young talent is also clearly behind the club’s decision to bring them in. Also, a player spending time at a big club like Arsenal or Chelsea isn’t going to ruin his career, he might not make it at that club but his experience in that club’s setup will benefit him in lower leagues. However, the sad truth that you point out is that the Ferguson-type youth project is no more and that the big clubs have bought their talent, a shift that was always going to be inevitable. For me, I would just like to see more of an effort from these big clubs to nurture young players instead of importing talent for large fees, but I’m aware that this is looking less likely.