Soccer academies across the European continent are brimming with talent, full of potential future stars of the football world. Many fans will be able to identify the academies of AFC Ajax, Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona for their efforts in turning local talent into superstars.
But do club-trained players improve a team’s chances of winning big?
The CIES Football Observatory conducted a study to show the usage of academy players in first-team squads between the years of 2009 and 2017. The study showed that 57.7% of players fielded by Barcelona in their 2012 LaLiga triumph were trained in their academy, the most for any European team who won their domestic league between 2009 and 2017. Other notable teams who won their domestic league with a high percentage of club-grown talent in their playing squads are AFC Ajax, who won the Eredivisie in 2010 with a squad made up of 55.2% of club-trained players, and Malmo FF who won Sweden’s Allsvenskan in 2014 fielding a squad comprising of 50% of club-trained players.
Meanwhile, the study also reported the success of some European teams who opted against fielding club-trained players in their first team. For example, Olympiacos FC won the Greek Superleague in 2011 with a squad comprising 0% of club-trained talent. FC Porto won the Primeira Liga with just 3.8% of club-trained talent in their team, and Juventus won Serie A in 2015 with a mere 4% of the player’s in their squad being from their academy.
When reviewing the numbers, it’s clear to see that some of Europe’s biggest clubs have found success by using club-grown players and some of Europe’s biggest clubs have found success by ignoring club-grown players.
There isn’t one clear path for clubs. Having an in-house academy is an expensive proposition given the amount of investment and patience needed, as well as all of the expenses in hiring a pool of coaching and support staff to run the organization smoothly. At the same time, forgoing an academy program and spending big in the transfer market could be even more expensive depending on the success of a club’s scouting program.
Creating a winning academy can be worthwhile for the long-term health and reputation of a football club. AFC Ajax is proof of that. Ajax won the 2010 Eredivisie with a squad brimming with youth team graduates. Among them were Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweirweld, and Christian Eriksen; all of whom have gone onto play successfully in the Premier League and the World Cup. Ajax hasn’t won a Champions League title since the 1994-95 season but many in football still think of them as a superpower in the modern era because of their overwhelming ability to breed world-class footballers.
Reputation aside, a thriving youth academy can be economically beneficial for a football club. Jan Vertonghen moved from Ajax to Tottenham Hotspur in the summer of 2012 for a fee reportedly around £12 Million, a healthy figure for a club to receive for an academy graduate. Meanwhile, AS Monaco perhaps received the largest financial gain from their academy, selling in-house prodigy Kylian Mbappe to PSG for a fee reportedly over £150 million. Though keeping players can also be effective for a club’s bank balance, Barcelona achieved cost-effective success by keeping academy graduates like Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Lionel Messi in a team that won multiple domestic and European trophies, proving that keeping faith in club trained talent can pay long-term dividends.
Disregarding the finances, it is also important to note that fans love it when club-trained players become stars of their team, taking great pleasure in their success on the pitch and boasting the prowess of their academy and its staff. Tottenham’s Harry Kane is an excellent example of this, so too is Manchester United’s club grown “Class of 92.”
Though it is often easier to win by buying players and custom building a squad through the power of a checkbook, a successful academy can do wonders for a football club’s reputation, morale and, occasionally, its chances to win Europe’s biggest prizes.