While big name transfers such as David Beckham, Thierry Henry and Kaká are the kind of players that the majority would associate with Major League Soccer, the majority of players in the United States’ top flight are drafted in from college teams.
However, the systems in place in Europe differ greatly. Colleges and universities do not provide much attention to sporting clubs or activities, with very few athletic scholarships available, and professional footballers tend to emerge from the many academies that have been set up by clubs across the continent.
Many of these academies are run by the clubs themselves. The biggest sides on the continent have spent billions trying to build a system that will act as a production line for their first-team for years to come, with those that fail to make the cut sold on to smaller clubs once they have matured.
These youth academies, which usually take in players aged nine and above, are viewed as the perfect way to mould players in the club’s image – teaching youngsters their history, values and expectations, in order to immerse them in club culture years before they are given an opportunity in the first-team, as explained by Manchester United goalkeeping prospect, Kieran O’Hara.
“People at the club constantly tell you what a privileged position you are in,” the 19-year-old explained. “A lot of it is just education, understanding where you are and the history behind the club.”
It isn’t just at Manchester United where soccer takes a back seat. Ajax’s academy is recognised as one of the best in the world, having produced the likes of Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten and Wesley Sneijder, yet under 12s spend just 55% of their time at the club with a ball at their feet.
The club’s focus is on developing an athlete, rather than a goalkeeper, defender, midfielder or striker, and believe that partaking in a number of sports and activities help youngsters to become better, all-rounded players. Youngsters are also encouraged to play out of their natural position, in order to learn how to best deal with their opposition in those areas.
Ajax’s youth set-up has always been a source of inspiration for others, and it is unsurprising that the majority of big sides now utilise a similar approach to youth training. In fact, the methods have proved to be so effective that even those at the top of the football pyramid have started to buy into these ideas.
According to the Republic of Ireland Football Association, who conducted a study on the different methods used in England, Spain, Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands, “Young players should have the opportunity to play in many different positions, only specialising when aged 15 or 16 and heading towards the adult game.”
Sweeper keepers are now desired and long balls up-field are becoming a thing of the past. Keepers must be able to play with the ball at their feet and it is therefore deemed important that they learn the fundamentals of playing football before they specialise in one area of the pitch.
It was big news in England when Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp threw on youth goalkeeper Shamal George as a striker in their pre-season game against Huddersfield ahead of the 2016/17 season, yet it was merely a sign of the times. George hadn’t spent the last seven year at Liverpool’s youth academy training to be a goalkeeper, but an all-round footballer and athlete, and his promising performance up front showed that these academies are certainly doing their job.