Last year, I wrote the Emulating La Masia series to determine which factors would allow you to improve the quality of your youth academy. All in all, this was a rather theoretical series of articles. While articles were larded with examples from my club at the time, it lacked a proper case study of how such a setup would grow and develop. That’s where this article comes in. I will apply all that knowledge and tell you about how I turned West Ham United’s already formidable Academy into a European powerhouse.
When it comes to youth academies in England, West Ham ranks among the top. Even though Southampton have gained much acclaim in recent years for their prolific youth development, West Ham was probably the best in the 2000s and continue to remain among the best. Dubbed as the “Academy of Football”, West Ham have always been able to attract the best youth players from London due to them being more likely to earn a chance than their more illustrious London neighbours Arsenal and Chelsea.
Table of Contents
The various factors
If you break the whole system of developing youth players in FM down to its core elements, you come up with some prerequisites that should be met, absolutely necessary conditions one cannot do without. The first and most standard one of these conditions consists of the facilities you are using. Secondly and not very surprisingly, it’s the staff you have employed. I have mentioned tutoring as well as an integral part of player development. The other factors that contribute to the success are, in my eyes, the club DNA you have set or want to set, identifying your player requirements and guaranteeing first team action somehow.
West Ham’s facilities were pretty good, which was to be expected from a Premier League club rolling in money. That never implied I did not pester the board for constant improvements to our facilities. That has everything to do with the law of the handicap of a head-start, which suggests that making progress in a particular area often creates circumstances in which stimuli are lacking to strive for further progress. This results in the individual or group that started out ahead eventually being overtaken by others. In the terminology of the law, the head start, initially an advantage, subsequently becomes a handicap.
Roughly put, just because our facilities are already in order does not mean we should be resting on our laurels because if we did that, we might fail to innovate and adapt to new circumstances. Ludwig Wittgenstein once said “resting on your laurels is as dangerous as resting when you are walking in the snow. You doze off and die in your sleep.” Since our club’s stature was continually improving, facilities that were excellent one year were only deemed good or even average the next year as the club’s reputation and stature had improved.
Every three months or so, I was checking up with the board if there was an option to improve our facilities. Improvements cost millions, but they also gradually saw the average current ability of our yearly youth intake improve over the course of five seasons. Every year or so, the average current ability rose with a few points. Now that may not seem that important or even that impressive, but it means that the quality of players the academy is producing is also slowly improving. Instead of producing players who are only good enough for Vanarama Conference level clubs, a higher current ability might see them play League Three or League Two football in their first years as a professional player.
Mind you, it has no influence at all on their potential ability, but it means you might be able to make a few bucks selling your castoffs to League Three or League Two sides. While this is peanuts compared to the costs of all these improvements, all you need is one or two first-team assets to come through the academy to instantly pay off all these investments. Buying a first-teamer for a Champions League-winning side like West Ham usually costs 25 to 30 million, having one come through the ranks of the academy is a hell of a lot cheaper.
The second factor that influences and actively enhances the quality of your youth players is the staff you employ, both to run the daily training sessions and to help with the intake of new youth players. Consistently high-level training-sessions help you raise the attributes of your players, both in general and when you employ specific role- or attribute-training. That means you need to find as many good coaches as you can and use these coaches effectively, whereas the quality of the intake is partially determined by the Head of Youth Department, which makes him a quite important staff member.
For my West Ham team, I continually asked to employ more and more coaches, as many as I could possibly get. I wanted a large first team coaching staff and a large youth team coaching staff. My coaching setup, both for the youth squads as for the first team, always consists of a specific setup of specialists and universal coaches. Let me show you an example.
That is just an example of the way the training regimes for all the teams are set up. As the team grew in stature and reputation, I was allowed more and more staff members. Initially, I had far fewer coaches to use, which meant the workload was higher for all the training categories. I tried to lighten the workload, to stop players from complaining about it. I presume it makes the training sessions more efficient. This is how the schematics of the setup look like, including the basic attributes for each specialist.
For the youth teams, I was allowed even fewer coaches initially. Getting a full setup for the youth squads required some creative thinking. Eventually, I managed to make it work, by utilising every role available to me. Specialist GK coaches and specialist fitness coaches are available to both first team and the various youth teams, which helped lighten the load. It turns out that your own manager persona and the various youth managers can also double as coaches, as can the head of the youth department. Eventually, my setup for the youth teams looked like this.
In that specific setup, the specialists provide the high star rating for each training category, while the universal coaches keep the workload low. For the universal coaches, there are three general mental attributes that the game mentions as useful for any category and I believe it might be useful to look at these.
Determination: When a coach is determined, he is more likely to give it his utmost best to improve not only himself but others as well. Such a coach is more likely to take coaching courses and pass them in order to improve himself, as well as putting in 100% during the training sessions with the squad.
Level of Discipline: When a coach is strict during the training sessions, players get fewer chances to goof around or doze off, which means the training sessions become more effective. Having very strict coaches combined with a squad that casual or laid-back is generally a bad idea though, as it could lead to dressing room mutinies. On the other hand, most managers tend to go for players with a more determined personality when given half the chance.
Motivating: When a coach is able to motivate and inspire his players, they are more likely to perform well during the training sessions. It makes sense that you look for a coach who has the innate ability to fire up the troops during their workout. Motivated players tend to work harder after all.
Since this isn’t a generic training guide and I am seriously interested in improving the quality of my youth academy, I want to add another factor that is rather specific for a quality youth coach. Again, it’s a no-brainer, but I really want to mention it, in order to provide you with a complete story. The final generic attribute I look at for youth coaches is Working with Youngsters.
A final role whose importance cannot be underestimated is that of the Head of Youth Department. When you are the kind of manager that is kind of hands off regarding the youth academy, as in you don’t want to micro-manage everything, this guy generally runs the entire academy, from managing the teams to determining the intake to finding clubs to loan the youths to. My own HoYD was former West Ham player James Collins.
The highlighted attributes make sense and I tried to find a HOYD with a personality and tactical preference that suited my own. Initially, I played a 4-2-2-2(-0), before moving to a 5-2-3(-0)/3-4-3(-0) hybrid formation. While not perfect, Collins comes close in terms of his tactical preference. What can I say, it’s hard to find good help these days.
All in all, I think it took me a good three to four years to get the coaching staff as good as it was by the time I departed. Signing senior coaches is easy but persuading high-quality coaches to train the youth teams exclusively is a hell of a challenge, which involved paying ludicrous wages at times.
The club DNA
This step was definitely the easiest for me at West Ham. I already had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to win, how I wanted to play and how I wanted to recruit and retrain players. Defining my ideas was as easy as drawing breath.
I opted for an all-British squad when possible, any foreigners coming in had to be truly world class. I kept in that last proviso because I know how expensive English players could be. In this particular save, a hard Brexit had occurred which forced clubs back onto the domestic transfer market, making the prices rise astronomically for even average domestic talents.
In terms of chances, there were the far cheaper Scottish, Welsh, Irish and Northern Irish leagues to recruit from, but these players would be a long way off from breaking into the first team. I could recruit youngsters from these leagues, but not players ready for first-team action. Similarly, I opted to scout the MLS, the Australian A-League and the New Zealand leagues in the hopes of finding the odd dual-nationality newgen.
Tactics-wise, I had at the time two tactics set up to work with. On the one hand, there was the restyled Brazilian box and on the other hand the Wolfpack. This offered little difficulties in switching between the two since neither tactic relied on wingers or wide midfielders. The wingbacks from Wolfpack were always able to play in the DL and DR slots as well, whereas the defensive midfielders from the Box were always capable of either playing in defence or as regular midfielders.
Initially, most of my retraining was between these positions. Regular midfielders needed to be trained to play as defensive midfielders and vice versa, wingbacks needed to become more versatile and on occasion, wide midfielders needed to be trained to act as wingbacks. For the occasional striker present at the club, we went through the usual trajectory.
The young forwards could often be retrained, which was necessary because we needed every homegrown player we could get our hands on. Some of the older forwards were reluctant to move, which meant a series of short-term loan deals until their contracts expired. Not very profitable, but it usually covered the costs of their salaries. Some of the big-name forwards were sold off to some of Europe’s finest, creating a sizeable war-chest for the recruitment of replacements and reinforcements. We needed those, after a harsh summer of culling. My organisation had to be rebuilt from the ground up.
With restrictions in place regarding our recruitment-policy as well as even stricter Work Permit demands, I needed to improve the club’s finances as well. Selling off the majority of the foreign assets helped us raise money but if we were to attract quality English players, we were going to need the money badly. As detailed earlier, I also wanted to improve the quality of the facilities, again a costly affair. Our recruitment-policy could be summed up best as buy expensive British talent and supplement with homegrown talents flowing into the ranks from the Academy.
Our first season wasn’t a complete success transfer-wise. Ball, Bailey and Walsh came in as major signings but there were no other British targets available. Tolmasquím, Bastos and Opoku were needed to help the team grow. Calvo and Bonaventura were signed with the prospect of loaning them away for loan fees, as detailed in the Juventus Gambit I wrote earlier. Most outgoing transfers were British players who were not good enough, some foreign players and the odd striker who refused to be retrained. We sold heavily to clear some of the old debts and invest in facilities.
With the immediate reinforcement of first team taking priority here, we did little for the Academy this season. While the facilities were improved, we did not attract outside players into the Academy, instead relying on the players already at the club and new players coming in through the yearly intake.
Our second season proved a better one and much more in touch with our self-imposed policies. Only one of the new signings was a foreigner and Pourcelot was signed with the intent to loan him away again. All the other signings were British, with the big-money signings being first-team ready players and the others coming in to strengthen the youth squads. Our outgoing transfers saw a number of foreigners leave the club, as well as more paid loan-deals. Our financial future was also looking quite rosy, enabling us to invest heavily in the staff and facilities again.
For the Academy, we attracted a number of outside players. Ben Dean was touted as a five-star talent, whereas Appiah, Quinn, McGinn and Etches would also start in the Academy to work their way through the ranks. In order to accomodate these new signings, some players had to leave on loans, which works out just fine for me because of the aforementioned Juventus Gambit.
More of the same really. Big signings coming in to replace foreign stars departing. Players who had benefitted from the improved facilities and coaching staff yet were unable to break into the first team were also sold off instead of remaining on the fringes of the squad to protect the dressing room harmony. Guys like O’Hara, Baker, Coulton and Ali raised a pretty penny for us without costing us a single dime in transfer fees. The loan gambit was also bringing in extra funds, enabling us to take a punt on some youths.
This was the first season without major signings. Every single player brought into the club this season would start out in the Academy. Most of the outgoing deals were for players brought in to add depth to the squad. As soon as they complained about their role as backups, I had to let them go. Selling them usually proved easy, even if they barely saw any action. Winning the Champions League greatly inflates the values of every squad-member, which means we get a great deal on players on the fringes of the squad.
Take Samir Mehmeti and Samuel Zárate for example. Both were brought in to add squad depth, they held British passports and they had the potential to become decent Premier League players (which they obviously became, as evidenced by their respective new clubs… FYI; in 2050, Sunderland is NOT a laughing-stock).
These guys played on the fringes or not at all for our first team and as they became unhappy with being loaned away or sitting on the bench, I sold them on for a healthy profit. English clubs seem blinded by their first team and pay little attention to the players in their reserve-squad if they are not good enough for their own first team. My stance is different. If a player is not good enough for my first team, he might be good enough for a mid-table club’s first team, or a relegation battler’s first team. Since this is the Premier League, these clubs are still able to pay hefty fees for players that count towards their Home-Grown cap (YAY BREXIT!), so it’s a valid strategy to exploit.
My final season in charge of the Hammers saw a similar trend. With the conveyor-belt from the Academy in place, there was no longer a need to sign expensive first-team ready newcomers. The new lads were players for the U23’s. Talented youngsters released by Chelsea and Man City respectively, who could develop into decent Premier League players given some first team action, proper care and tutoring. The departing players were, as usual, players not content with their spot on the bench or players I could replace with up-and-coming youngsters bleeding through the ranks of the Academy.
In terms of financial growth, you can see how this strategy is quite profitable. It takes some heavy investing during the initial stages and you can’t go fully youth development straight away, not if you want to compete for the silverware as well, but in five season’s time, we have cut the need for heavy investments completely by setting up a conveyor-belt of talent into the first team.
As you can see, our finances have never looked better. Over the past five years, we have turned West Ham into one of the richer clubs in the world, with a squad consisting of only British players and a healthy core of players developed by our own academy. The player wages are a bit extreme and they do necessitate selling players every year, but when you have the Academy conveyor-belt properly set up, you can easily sell off a number of players every season.
In an earlier post, I explained how you sort out the training schedules for your squad. It was basically a four-step program, with possibly a fifth step when you re-assess what you’re doing or whenever you change tactics.
We’ve already established our tactics, which means picking roles for the various tactics is pretty easy. Just to summarise it all, this is the training schedule I use at the club. Masking/strengthening schedules are obviously not included as these tend to vary on a case-to-case basis. It will however show you the generic training regime.
As you can see, I differentiate between the youths (i.e. anyone not in the first team squad) and the senior team. The idea is that the younger players are given broad schedules, to try and develop as many attributes simultaneously as possible. By the time they reach the senior squad, I will have determined which role suits them best. I will use that specific training schedule for them to develop the attributes I need the most. The schedule above also details how I retrain specific positions and which trainable PPM’s are useful for a specific role and position.
Initially, the club had some raw talent at the club, but the Hammers lacked any way to refine and polish these raw diamonds into precious stones, assets to the club. During the first season, the British players I brought in couldn’t be relied upon to take on tutoring roles, as most were in their early twenties. The foreign stars coming in took on tutoring roles to help and speed up the development of the younger squad members.
As you could see, money wasn’t a real issue for me in this save. This also means that I wasn’t selling off older players if they made for fine tutors. As the foreigners departed or grew older, the British lads matured into quality players. Some of them even got to an age (around 30) where I would have usually sold them to make a profit. With the system in place in the way it was, selling them was not necessary from a financial point of view. If they were good tutors, they could stay with the club to help and further the development of the next generation.
First team action
When developing youngsters in a system like mine, they need to see first team action and preferably a fair bit of it. You can only use so many substitutes during your own matches, but the English league system and it’s short-term loan deals are helpful here. We also struck affiliate deals with clubs like Fulham and Bristol to ensure a fair few of our lads saw first team action before reaching the senior squad.
Naturally, this did not apply to everyone. Some players progressed so rapidly that they got automatic promotions to the ranks of the first teamers, others had the good fortune that their first team counterpart got a serious injury which forced me to promote them ahead of their time.
So how did this all work out for me?
Five titles, five Champions League titles in five seasons would indicate that we had the senior team under control, but the idea was to bleed through youngsters more and more and go for an all-British team. Well, let’s just have a look at the various West Ham teams when I left the club.
While there are a few foreigners still at the club, only Ivanovic has been an actual signing. The others came through the ranks during the yearly youth intakes. Some of the more obscure nationalities are all dual nationals, they all have English or Scottish roots. So in terms of creating an all-British team, we can safely say I succeeded.
What’s more interesting is the sheer number of players that actually counts as club home-grown players.
That’s nine out of twenty-eight first team players that were homegrown by the club, coming through the ranks of the Academy. Just to give you a sneak peak of the quality our youth setup has created, have a look at the homegrown lads.
Several of the others are also on track to become eligible as club homegrown players. We are slowly but steadily working to improve the influx of even more youngsters. These guys are sent on loan or they can lead the West Ham youth squads to glory. Take a gander at the Youth Champions League.
And these were some of the stellar performers in that UEFA Youth League tournament for us.