Jadon Sancho is blowing the doors off the Bundesliga. Callum Hudson-Odoi is sitting on the bench in the Premier League. The juxtaposition of the two has set off the latest round of an ongoing discussion about player development. How often should young prospects play? What is the best way to get them to fulfill their full potential? In short, how should development work?
It’s useful to ground this conversation in an awkward, but little talked about, fact. Most footballing prospects will simply never be good enough to play for a top European club. It doesn’t matter what magic sauce you sprinkle on them, how you mold, which kinds of tender loving care, or game time or training clubs devote to them. Pay them a lot early on, or pay them nothing, in the end for most prospects it doesn’t matter. Most prospects simply don’t have what it takes.
This isn’t surprising, but it can get subsumed by the visibility of the exceptions to that rule. The Class of ’92, the famed La Masia generation, players like Harry Kane, they may not quite be unicorns, but they are at the very least Sumatran Rhinos. The reality is that no matter how well a team develops their own in house talent it will always be easier, though not cheaper, to simply wait for everybody else to do the developing, and then pick the best of the crop.
Against that backdrop clubs are, in effect, trying to answer two questions at the same time. First, how good is this player right now, and second, both more importantly, and more difficultly, how good will this player become in the future? In effect, the answers to those two questions determine how a team should proceed.
This one’s easy enough, Many a player have tried and failed to break into a squad only to be sold to teams lower down the pyramid. The league is built on players who played a couple of cup games a couple of years ago and just never quite made the leap. Often times those players go on to have long and fruitful careers playing their trade in the bottom half of the Premier League, or in the Championship. Football doesn’t end at the shores of the top 10 teams in the world. Federico Macheda is only 27 and has had a long, respectable career, just nowhere near Manchester United.
There are, of course, complications. Teams will want to maximize the return on young talent it ships out, while the young players themselves will always be looking for playing time and the chance to increase both their profile and earning potential. Eventually it’s better for everybody if young players can find a new home, and the club that developed them can get paid but the path to that point is often rocky, and players can suffer, and have their development slowed during the process. One of the major iniquities in the player development system is that once it becomes clear to a club that a young player won’t have a future with them, then their interests (maximizing the value of a sale) and the player’s interests (getting playing time elsewhere and maximizing their contracts) diverge. Young players can often be hurt in that scenario.
And, of course, sometimes teams get it wrong. Projecting player performance is hard. Sometimes a player who looks like a dud has an unexpected awakening. Maybe it’s a growth spurt, or a coach that finally gets through to them, or they just needed more minutes at higher levels of competition, or warmer weather or a million other things, but it happens all the time. Projecting youth talent is hard, and sometimes players turn out better than they seem.
This is sufficiently weird and rare that it’s not particularly worth spending a lot of time on. It is conceivable that a team might be in a strange situation in which a young player is their best option, but that player isn’t expected to develop into much. Maybe there are a rash of injuries forcing the side to dig deep into the academy just to make 11s meet. Maybe a cash strapped team is getting purchased by a new owner, or otherwise expecting a lot of new investment in the side. These are mostly theoretical considerations of course. Perhaps a midlevel prospect getting minutes on a team promoted into a higher division might fit the bill.
Recently, maybe Jordon Ibe comes closest to mind. He was a young player that picked up minutes from Liverpool filling a role that they needed (especially after the sale of Raheem Sterling), while also not being a player expected to contribute heavily going forward. So, they did the smart thing and sold high and sold quickly. Ibe, as it turns out, isn’t even a starter at Bournemouth and certainly would not have developed into a meaningful contributor for Liverpool.
Still, this category of player is mostly an accident of circumstance, and not one that teams need to spend a lot of time worrying about.
Your unicorns. There are only a handful of these players at any given time in the world. They’re your Kylian Mbappes, your Wayne Rooneys, your Lionel Messis. They’re teenagers who are better, at 19, than anybody who plays their position. At the very top of the game there are really only a couple of players in the world who qualify for this moniker. But, at lower levels this is a frequent occurrence. When super clubs go out and buy the players of the future they are generally picking from the crop of talent that the rest of the world is displaying as both good enough to play for them right now, and also likely to become even better in the future.
This is, of course, also the struggle that young players face as they jump to the top teams in the world Memphis Depay was a star in the Eredivsie, and while he might have eventually developed into a player good enough for Manchester United, he wasn’t that yet when he showed up. Eventually the move didn’t work out. This happens frequently across the top of Europe. Malcom is going through it right now at Barcelona (and Ousmane Dembele almost succumbed as well). For teams that need to win now, they need to play players for what they are, not what they will become. Which leads us to the trickiest category of all.
The most difficult thing for an elite side to do is handle a prospect who they believe isn’t good enough to start for them now, on merit, but will be in the future. This is an area where a club like Borussia Dortmund, in the Bundesliga really does have a comparative advantage. Dortmund are talented enough that even in a down year they’re likely to make the top four. But, they’re so far behind Bayern Munich (usually anyway) that even in a good season they’re unlikely to challenge them for the title. So, they can take risks on young players. They can play players who aren’t quite good enough to merit minutes in the moment in order to develop them for the future.
Sometimes when you do that, you get lucky. Turns out that Sancho is not only a great prospect, but unbelievably good at a very young age. They thought they were getting a player for the future, turns out they also got one for the present (this is also what happened with Ousmane Dembele). Though even as City fans rue their luck with Sancho it’s worth asking, even knowing what we know about Sancho right now, even knowing he’s this good, how much would he be playing for them? Would he be ahead of either Raheem Sterling or Leroy Sane on the depth chart?
This developmental gap isn’t new, and it often leads to some very awkward decisions, where players get sold, develop and then are bought back by the team that didn’t have room for their growing pains. That’s the Nemanja Matic (and almost Romelu Lukaku) story at Chelsea, Mats Hummels at Bayern Munich, or even Mariano Diaz at Real Madrid.
So, now we return to the Hudson-Odoi problem that Chelsea have. The team seems to believe he will be a star. They’ve offered him a lucrative contract extension. He’s making appearances in cup competitions, and getting bench appearances in the league. But Chelsea are also involved in a competitive top four race in the Premier League and are not opting to give him a bigger role at the expense of one of their over 30 wingers, Willian and Pedro. Meanwhile, Bayern Munich keep loudly offering more and more money for the young winger.
There are two possible explanations for what’s going on. The first is that there is a difference of opinion about how good Hudson-Odoi is right now. Maybe Chelsea brass, and specifically manager Maurizio Sarri are underrating his ability. Maybe he’s just already better than Pedro and, for whatever reason, the manager can’t see it. If that’s the case, then obviously it would be a mistake to sell him, and Chelsea should just drop him on the field and let him learn on the job.
The second explanation, is a likelier one though. Maybe, despite his bright future, Hudson-Odoi isn’t better than Willian and Pedro right now. Chelsea are in the thick of a top four battle and can’t really afford to take the competitive hit that playing their young winger would entail. Furthermore, that type of situation is likely to continue. The top of the Premier League is crowded. Every point is valuable and wins are at a premium. Bayern on the other hand frequently have seasons where they have lots of developmental minutes available. This year, where they’re in a fight for the title is the exception, not the norm. It will be pretty easy for them to play a kid who isn’t quite good enough yet and give him the space to try and become a star. Given that set of factors it would be entirely reasonable for Chelsea to opt to take the money and spend it on a surer thing than Hudson-Odoi’s future.
Developing prospects is difficult. It involves getting two separate but important evaluations correct, and then maximizing your returns based on them. When trying to figure out the best course of action it’s important to be explicit about the costs and benefits both now and in the future of giving young players minutes. In Chelsea’s case that means being able to separate out discussions of how good their young winger is from how good he might be, and to then act accordingly.