One of the bigger things that the Premier League has been trying to figure out for the past 15 years or so has been reserve football. In 2012, the Premier League disbanded the Premier Reserve League to create the U21 Premier League. In 2016-17 it rebranded to its current form — Premier League 2 — with the age limit moving from 21 years old to 23.
Part of the reason for the change was to prevent bigger clubs from stockpiling talent. It was also a means of getting younger players more playing time.
While those goals may have been achieved, the format has a major drawback: the lack of opportunity for young players to play against men.
This year alone we’ve seen how crucial a step that is in a player’s development. Teenagers Angel Gomes and James Garner have proven themselves too good for the U23 level, but their inexperience playing against bigger, more established, and more physical players means that they’re not yet ready for the Premier League.
England has no system in place to solve this problem other than loaning players out either to other Premier League clubs or clubs in a lower division. That’s not a perfect system as so much can — and does — go wrong with loans.
Once a loan deal goes through, the parent club has very little control over how much a player plays. Liverpool managed to include a clause in Divock Origi’s 2017-18 loan to Wolfsburg that increased the loan fee if Origi failed to play in 80 percent of the matches, but other than working in a clause like that, there’s not much a club can do.
It’s time for that to change.
A change would benefit every party; players, clubs, and the player development system as a whole. To come up with the best system to implement, the Premier League should look at what exists elsewhere.
Spain’s current system doesn’t have reserve leagues. Instead, teams such as Barcelona B or Real Madrid Castilla play in the lower divisions of the football pyramid. The youth teams are full participants in their leagues, albeit they can’t be promoted to the same division as their first team and their players can get called up to the first team at any given point.
Nobody wants that in England. The EFL trophy has done a nice job allowing the top division’s U21 sides to play against the senior sides of Leagues One and Two, but no one wants to see Fleetwood Town taking on Manchester United’s Reserves in a league match.
Speaking of Leagues One and Two, the COVID-19 pandemic has left many clubs in financial uncertainty. The situation only gets more dire as you move further down the football pyramid where clubs depend on match-day revenue for survival. Unfortunately the odds are very high that when this is over and football can resume, not every club will still exist.
That creates a great opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: Allow Premier League teams to partner with lower level teams, essentially creating minor league affiliates.
This system exists in the United States in baseball and hockey.
In MLB, teams own all their minor league clubs (which are also in jeopardy from the coronavirus fallout) and the rights to all the players on each team. That leaves the teams free to move the players up and down the tiers as they please. This isn’t a good idea for football and wouldn’t work for England.
But hockey’s system is different, and for the Premier League it’s certainly worth looking into. Like baseball, some NHL clubs own their affiliate team and thus are responsible for all the costs of the team.
But many other teams, however, simply sign affiliate contracts with independently owned AHL (lower division) teams. The rosters of those teams are made up of players assigned there from the NHL team, as well as players who independently sign with the AHL team.
(Occasionally an NHL team won’t have any affiliate and they’ll have to loan their prospects out to different AHL teams, and it gives the NHL team no control over playing time — essentially the same system as in the Premier League now.)
This is a system the Premier League and EFL should be looking at. Allow the Premier League clubs to sign contracts with clubs in Leagues One and Two. It should be more than just a “we’ll send you players” agreement, but not full ownership.
Under this arrangement, the Premier League clubs would take an active part in the day to day operations of their affiliated lower division clubs. They’d have a say in who the manager of the club is, and they’d supply some of the players. They’d also be contributing significantly to the costs of everything, easing the financial burden.
The number of players a team like United could send to their affiliate would be limited to say, six players. This would help protect the integrity of the lower division club and its league, by ensuring that the league remains one for senior football, and doesn’t turn into a developmental league.
It would also help ease the fears that many have about the size of football league squads going forward. Here’s what Accrington Stanley’s (League Two) Jobi McNuff told The Athletic:
“This summer will be the hardest of them all. You’re talking record numbers that will not be offered renewals. Every single player at football clubs will be affected. If it’s a renewal, that decision might be made for you because your club doesn’t have the finances. There’s already been talk about clubs lower down taking on smaller squads, so instead of having 24 or 25 pros, they might have 20 and make it up with kids. So it’s a very uncertain time out there at the moment.”
Adding six youngsters from Premier League clubs will be an upgrade over whatever kids these clubs currently have. Plus it would lift some of the financial burden off the clubs, allowing them to re-sign their veterans.
This would be a win-win for everyone involved. Most importantly, smaller local clubs that are in danger of going defunct would stay afloat.
The style of play in the Premier League has become more continental over the past decade. In turn, the quality has also risen — quality that, under an affiliate system, could now trickle down to teams in the lower leagues. If United and Liverpool have input into staffing at their respective affiliate teams, they’ll bring in coaches who employ the same philosophy as their first team coaches, as that would benefit the development of their younger players.
One of the reasons a more continental style of play hasn’t taken hold in the lower leagues is because of pitch quality — it’s terrible. But with a vested interest in the club, it would suddenly be beneficial for a club like Liverpool to upgrade the pitches and facilities at somewhere like Tranmere.
That’s a good benefit for smaller clubs! Better coaches would ultimately lead to better quality of football. That’s also good for the fans. It would also create a good staging ground to develop young coaches, an area in which England is painfully behind the other top European countries.
The system does have its drawbacks. With Premier League clubs focused on the development of their youngsters, it’s possible that winning for the affiliate club may become less of a priority. Obviously the fans won’t like that, but then again, many other teams in their league would be dealing with that same issue. A preventative rule could state that if your affiliate club falls out of the Football League, you’d have to wait another season before you can strike a deal with a new one.
Contracts between clubs and affiliates would be for multiple years, with the only major thing needing to be worked out is what to do if a lower division affiliate wins promotion to the league below (and then possibly to the same league) as their “benefactor.”
We’d also have to figure out the rules about calling players up and sending them down. I’d suggest there be three two-week windows throughout the season where clubs can call players up or reassign them. This would give the Premier League club more control over the handling of their young players over the course of the season, while reducing the instability for the affiliate club.
Clubs would also not just be able to randomly assign any player to the lower league team. At the start of the season, they’d designate nine players who can be sent down, with no more than six being down at one time. This way if a player gets called up to the first team during one of the designated windows, someone can be sent down to replace him, but not just any random academy player.
Is this system perfect? Probably not, but the Premier League needs to come up with something like it, because frankly, it already unofficially exists.
City Football Group, the subsidiary group that owns Manchester City, also hold ownership stakes in New York City FC, Melbourne FC, Yokohama F. Marinos, Montevideo City Torque, Girona, and Mumbai City FC. That gives them the ability to freely loan players around for various reasons (as they controversially did when NYCFC loaned Frank Lampard to Manchester City, or when City signed NYCFC’s Mix Diskerud to get NYCFC out of MLS salary cap issues).
An affiliate system may not be ideal for the tradition of English football, but if the alternative is many clubs going bust, isn’t this the lesser of two evils?