It’s been an exciting season so far in the Premier League. Big scorelines, VAR teething problems and huge upsets have all provided plenty of talking points after just seven gameweeks. Another, perhaps less expected trend has been an increase in the use of young players.
Years gone by have seen Premier League clubs decried for opting to spend big on transfers rather than trust in youth, blocking academy graduates’ pathways and damaging the national team’s prospects in the process. However, some clubs are beginning to buck the trend and are reaping the benefits of doing so.
The team at the forefront of the young player revolution is undoubtedly Chelsea, due largely in part of the appointment of Frank Lampard over the summer. Much was made of how Chelsea would perform this season, with the club’s transfer ban forcing the inexperienced manager to rely on the academy graduates. However, Lampard and his young guns have certainly silenced their doubters so far.
Tammy Abraham has been one of the standout performers this season, currently sitting joint top scorer with eight goals from eight games. Abraham was prolific in the Championship last season for Villa, but there are always doubts about a player’s ability to transfer that form to the top tier. Despite struggling in his first two games, Lampard’s faith in the young striker has paid off and he’s now looking better with every game.
Mason Mount, who worked under Lampard at Derby last season, has been another revelation for Chelsea. The 20-year-old attacking midfielder already has four goals and looks at home in the top flight. Fikayo Tomori, another who played under Lampard last term, has also broken into the team in recent weeks, while young right-back Reece James recently made his debut in the Champions League after returning from injury.
Then there’s Callum Hudson-Odoi, whose limited game time under former boss Maurizio Sarri caused plenty of frustration for Chelsea fans. The teenage winger has been injured for the start of the season, but has already been trusted by Lampard since his return, starting and impressing in the match against Southampton on Saturday
For Chelsea, a team notorious for preferring big money imports over graduates from their expensively assembled academy, Lampard’s use of young players is a breath of fresh air. While the transfer ban may have forced his hand in part, Lampard’s time at Derby, where he worked with Mount and Tomori, shows that he is a coach genuinely invested in exploiting the benefits that come with trusting young players. This is to the delight of fans, who have longed for an academy graduate to make it in the first team ever since John Terry did all those years ago.
Chelsea’s youth are certainly reaping the rewards of their manager’s faith, with Abraham, Mount and Tomori all making the most recent England squad. With the Blues fifth in the Premier League and just two points behind Manchester City, this could be the beginning of a very exciting time for Chelsea.
Across London, Arsenal is another club that has placed a lot of emphasis on youth this season. While the Gunners have generally placed more faith in youngsters than Chelsea over the years, this is a particularly youthful squad. Ainsley Maitland-Niles (22), Mattéo Guendouzi (20), Joe Willock (20), Reiss Nelson (19) and Bukayo Saka (18) have all become important members of Unai Emery’s plans this season.
While Guendouzi already made a big impression last season, this term has definitely seen a step up for the other four. Arsenal’s summer business showed a clear intent from Unai Emery to take the club in a new direction. The experienced Mohamed Elneny and Henrikh Mkhitaryan were both moved on, as well as Alex Iwobi. However, rather than spending to bring in similar experienced replacements, Emery has put his faith in the club’s academy graduates.
Willock and Nelson have mostly been used from the bench, but the two England youth internationals have both already started in the league and can expect to get more games as the season progresses. Maitland-Niles, naturally a midfielder, has done a decent job at right-back filling in for the injured Bellerin.
Saka is the latest to make the breakthrough and has been particularly impressive, outshining big money signing Nicolas Pepe when given a starting berth against Manchester United. All three currently seem to be ahead of Mesut Ozil, who Emery looks intent on freezing out.
There’s also 22-year-old signing Kieran Tierney, who has just returned from injury but is likely to have a big future at the club, having replaced the ageing Nacho Monreal. Brazilian Gabriel Martinelli, 18 and also signed this summer, has been used sparingly in the Premier League but has impressed in the cups, scoring in both the Carabao Cup and the Europa League.
So far, this philosophy has paid off for the Gunners. They are challenging at the upper end of the Premier League table, sitting in third place, and are also playing well in the other competitions. Where Arsenal end up this season will ultimately be decided by the experienced players tasked with keeping the backline tight, but the youngsters will certainly have a big part to play.
It’s common for newly promoted Premier League teams to spend big on new recruits in a bid to ensure survival – just look at Aston Villa this season and Fulham the season before. However, Norwich had a net spend of just under £3m this season. For manager Daniel Farke, that meant placing his trust in the young players that helped guide his team to the Championship title last season.
This includes a defence which is made up of two players aged 21 in Ben Godfrey and Jamal Lewis, as well as 19-year-old Max Aarons. There’s also young midfielder Todd Cantwell, 21, who has been particularly impressive this season. The Norwich academy graduate already has two goals and two assists, the highlight was scoring in the victory over Manchester City. Emiliano Buendia, 22, who has continued his excellent form from last season and been a real danger man on the right for the Canaries.
In many ways, Farke and his attacking philosophy are a perfect match for the young players he has at his disposal. It can be difficult for inexperienced players to thrive in the more conservative approach that teams like Burnley and Cardiff have adopted in recent years, but Farke’s emphasis on playing attractive, attacking football has helped Norwich’s youngsters flourish over the last year.
This was most evident in the brilliant 3-2 victory over current champions Manchester City. Norwich’s youthful exuberance was on show for all to see, with City’s defence struggling to deal with Cantwell and Buendia. Granted, the Canaries haven’t had the best of starts to life in the Premier League, but the win over Guardiola’s side showed just what this team is capable of. It’ll be tough, but this is a side that definitely has a fighting chance of survival, and Norwich’s youngsters will be key to that.
More than just a trend?
The big question is whether this new trust in young players will prove sustainable, particularly at the top end of the league table. While Chelsea and Arsenal have showed the benefits of trusting youth, Manchester United are an example of a less positive situation. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made it clear that his focus was on developing young players like Axel Tuanzebe, Scott McTominay, Daniel James and Marcus Greenwood, but United have endured a shocking start to the season and are clearly crying out for some top quality experience.
Ultimately, managers must feel secure in their jobs if they are to place their trust in youth. This is most evident at Chelsea, who have for so long placed huge expectations upon their managers, but it applies up and down the table. We’re still in the early stages of the season, but the likes of Lampard and Farke are showing the benefits that using youth can offer to football clubs.
The other major benefactors of this is national teams – England in particular are currently reaping the benefits of a talented young generation getting experience at the highest level. Gareth Southgate’s most recent squad features ten players aged 21 or under, with experienced names like Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard missing out. If the current crop continue their current path of development, the national team can only get stronger.