We have now come to the last part of the “career path” for our young players, the delicate age between 19 and 21. This age, in real life football as much as in FM, is the critical moment in many players’ development. How many young players are touted to be the next “whoever” when they collect their first appearances on big stages and then ends up having a decent, albeit not very brilliant career? Keeping with my Human Resources metaphor, I will call this crucial phase Junior Partners programme. This is because it is now that a young and promising player will start taking a real and effective part into the first team. It is the last hurdle for youngsters, their make it or break it moment.
By the time a player reach 19, following our development programme, he now has played for two years in the Youth Team. During this time he underwent a first assessment of his strengths and weaknesses and received targeted training to address his weak-points and to help him integrate the club’s playing style and philosophy. He also has been tutored to accelerate his mental attributes and his development in general. Finally, he already played some matches with the First Team, probably some cups games or entering as a substitute in less demanding games.
JUNIOR PARTNERS PROGRAMME (19 to 21 years old)
It is now time for him to be tested in a real competitive context to gained invaluable and constant game time. This last phase is in fact all about match experience, because it is the single most important factor in shaping development on which you, as a manager, has almost complete control. It takes time and resources to have great Youth Facilities and a competent and professional staff. You can’t control your nation Youth Ranking, but you certainly are the (wo)man in charge to decide whether a player will play or not.
Determining where he will play
At each off-season between his 19 and 21 years of age, it is time to make another assessment to establish where and how much he can play in the coming season. I have a mental three tier system to evaluate junior partners:
- First Tier: The player is ready to be in the First XI;
- Second Tier: The player is ready to be in the First Team as backup;
- Third Tier: The player is not ready to be in the First Team.
There is no absolute criteria to determine to which tier you place a player, it depends of course on the level of your current First Team and First XI and whether there are spots available to be filled. But in general, if I have to choose between an aging back-up and an upcoming youngster, I will always choose the latter even if he is slightly worse than the first. The presence of a possible upcoming youngster could also be a factor in deciding whether to sell or not a player that is wanted elsewhere. It is also important to note that a player can (and actually should) evolve, at 19 he could be a Third Tier and after a good season out be called into the First Team.
This evaluation is important under two aspects. Firstly, regarding your team itself, you do not want to have players who don’t have the capacity to play at your club’s level. Secondly, regarding their development, good performances and good morale do influence the rate of a player development, because they factor the intensity and level of his training. To regularly play a youngster who is not ready you harm your club and hinder the player development. It is a lose-lose situation we want to avoid.
It is pretty obvious what to do with First and Second Tier players, you insert them as an integral in the First Team keeping a special attention to their performances. If at this point you think you overrated a player, there is always time to act at the winter transfer window, to loan him and/or to buy a new player. Whereas, Third Tier players are directly loaned out during the summer window.
To make a visual example, I will consider Lee Love, a 19 years old fullback of my Falkirk save. He just entered the last phase of his development and in the previous off-season, I have decided he is a second-tier junior partner and he will be the backup of our main left fullback.
You can see in his history that he is playing for the first time in our First Team on a regular basis and his progress has accelerated since.
In the FM world, there are many voices that state that they prefer not to loan out players, I disagree. If you use a step by step method, like the one I am describing you in these articles, by the age of 19 your youngster would have already spent 2 years (sometimes almost 3) taking advantage of your club facilities. There is so much a perfect academy and a professional staff can do, at one point a footballer needs to play in a competitive environment. Again, match experience is the most important factor in helping a player reach his full potential.
There are, obviously, some caveats that we have to apply and it generally goes in the trade-off between quality and quantity of match experience. Meaning that you must be sure your loanees are going to play regularly and that they are playing at a level suiting them – either higher or lower than that can be problematic.
You can easily make sure about the quality and quantity of your player match experience while negotiating and accepting a loan offer:
- Make sure the squad status is set at least as First Team;
- Check the league the club is playing: I tend to let my junior partners go only to clubs that are minimum one tier lower than us or in a league comparable to that level;
- Make sure he is to play in the position you want him to;
- Make sure he can be recalled.
With these simple precautions, you can be sure your youngsters will take full advantage of their period on loan. Since I don’t loan players that are younger than 19 and who already underwent focused training in the past, I am not putting limits to the loaning’s club training facilities. Obviously though, the better they are the better will be for your players. But again, this phase is mainly about giving youngsters some real football time.
FM gives us a useful monthly loans-report that appears in your inbox to monitor how much your youngsters are playing and their performances. Also, while a player is on loan, you can still have access to all his development screens just as any other of your players in the club. Like this, you can easily recall a player who is clearly underused, such as Mastorilli and Duff in the screen below.
By the end of our career path, a player will have improved considerably and by passing all the evaluation steps of his development plan, it means he is a quality player that can become an important part of your team or even be sold for a good profit. I confess I don’t have a Messi in the making to show you, mostly because I play in Scotland in my long-term save this year, but Lee Foran will do just fine. I signed Foran from a Youth Intake of an Irish club when he was 17 and he was then inserted into Falkirk youth setup and made all the steps described above. He is now 21 and he is my first-choice left fullback and has recently gained his first cap for Ireland.
At 19 I assessed him as being a Third Tier and was sent on loan for six months to St. Johnstone. He then became a backup in the First Team and finally reached First Tier status this year doing the job more than fine. In my save he is one of my favourite players, being the first youngster developed at the club during my tenure that entered the First XI.
The ones who didn’t make it
One final word regarding those players who didn’t make it and never evolved from their Third Tier status and even at 21 after having been loan out are not ready or good enough to play regularly for the club. Their faith is clear, you sell them and enjoy the profit you’re making that can allow you to buy new youngsters to put into your development path. In order to make sure that you make the most out of each player, even the ones who you let go, my two suggestions would be:
- Always put a “Percentage on next sale profit clause” while selling. If you didn’t let the player go earlier in his career, it means you saw something in him at one point and it’s very likely that his value will increase in time, make sure you profit this;
- You can also insert a “Buy back clause“. This is a something that I haven’t seen used that much in FM but that is quite an interesting tool. Just think of the case or real players like Morata, Deulofeu or Denis Suarez for Réal Madrid and Barça, it is a way to make sure you don’t miss on late bloomers. Remember that in FM a player continues developing until he is 24/25, there might be a moment in which you realize a player you sold could actually be useful to you and he will also probably count as a club-grown player.
There are of course many other facets of youth development in Football Manager, what I wanted to show you in this mini-series of pieces, is that having a clear path into which insert your young players give you a steady framework of actions that simplify your approach. Different phases and steps help you evaluate the many dimensions of a player profile, to compare players that are in a similar moment of their development, and to address in a coherent way the main factors of players development: training, personality, and match experience.
Thank you very much for reading and good luck in nurturing your next Balon d’Or player!