In our first blog, False Nine editor Hugo Greenhalgh looks at the benefits of the NextGen Series.
In the same week that the European elite await the draw for the Champions League, a host of young talent were playing out their own competitive ties across the continent. The NextGen Series, an Under-19 tournament now in its second year, aims to blood Europe’s youngsters in preparation for the most prestigious competition in club football.
Four English clubs have already been in action; Aston Villa lost 3-1 at home to Sporting Lisbon and 1-0 away to PSV Eindhoven, Tottenham won 3-2 away at Wolfsburg, Chelsea lost 2-1 at home to a strong CSKA Moscow side and last night, Arsenal kicked off their campaign with an impressive 3-0 victory against Marseilles.
There was a distinctly family-feel to Arsenal’s match. The club continued their long-standing agreement with Barnet FC to play reserve fixtures at Underhill Stadium, and the free entry and friendly atmosphere contributed to a decent attendance. The crowd was made up largely of children and parents, and the frequent use of players’ first names amongst the supporters suggested that quite a few parents were watching their own offspring on the pitch. Manager Arsene Wenger kept to his promise he would watch “every single NextGen game” and took his seat alongside CEO Ivan Gazidis, in slightly more humble surroundings than that of the Emirates Stadium.
It was also nice to see a large number of younger Arsenal players watching on, most of whom were slightly too old to make the U-19 regulation. Ignasi Miquel, Thomas Eisfeld, Conor Henderson, Craig Eastmond and Emilio Martinez, who are all on the fringes of the 1st Team, were there to show their support for their teammates.
It is testimony to the quality of Arsenal’s academy that many of the players who have featured in the Under-21 League, also played in the this U-19 fixture. 16-year-old Chuba Akpom kept his place as striker and gave a performance that completely warranted his selection. The England U-19 international set up the first goal for captain Nico Yennaris and scored one of his own before the break. In a second half where Arsenal really dominated, Akpom wrapped up the game with a superb left-foot finish to make it 3-0.
Other players who stood out were German winger Serge Gnabry, who recently travelled with the 1st Team to their pre-season camp in Cologne. Gnabry always looked dangerous down the wings, with pace and finishing being his two best attributes. Yennaris was the most experienced player on display and his quality stood out. The versatile player was utilised as a box-to-box midfielder and Wenger will surely have no qualms about calling on him again for 1st Team cover.
As for the opposition, Marseilles were largely disappointing. They hardly threatened goalkeeper Stuart Moore, on loan from Reading, and even struggled to string more than three passes together. Underhill is famous for its slope and Arsenal quickly capitalised playing downhill in the first half; when it was Marseilles’ turn to shoot that way, their tired legs were not so successful. Apart from a rather eccentric display from goalkeeper Ibrahima Sy, who was not afraid to head the ball out or tackle Arsenal players outside his box, the French side did little to excite. It seems for the time being, they will have to keep waiting to produce their next Samir Nasri.
This year’s NextGen Series sees the tournament expanded from 16 to 24 teams. With the likes of Ajax, Barcelona and Juventus all competing, it really is a great opportunity for English clubs to test their younger players against different styles of football. It also provides valuable experience of travelling aborad and playing in unfamiliar conditions; the free entry should also help the players adjust to playing in front of larger crowds.
For managers and scouts, the tournament is also a valuable resource. No doubt other European bosses will follow Wenger’s lead and attend games to check up on their junior players. Scouts who are traditionally used to observing young talent on training grounds and behind-closed-doors matches can now see how potential signings fair in proper stadia, in fixtures that have something important riding on them.
From an English perspective, results are also promising. 6 of the 24 sides in the tournament are English – more than from any other country. While time will tell how successful these academies will be in the competition, it is certainly encouraging to have such a strong presence. Early initiation in European encounters can only be a bonus for the National Team and the players’ progression through England’s youth sides . Coupled with the recent opening of the FA’s National Football Centre at Burton, could we be witnessing the start of a youth revolution in England?
Finally, the NextGen series gives something back to supporters. Some of us may spend our spare hours reading up on how the youth team is getting on, but now there are plenty of opportunities to see these players in action. We no longer have to rely on hearsay that ‘x’ is the next Thierry Henry – now we can get down to these fixtures and see for ourselves how good these players actually are. And for those who play a bit too much Football Manager, it’s a chance to do some real life ‘scouting’.
If this year’s tournament goes swimmingly, and it already appears to be doing that, then expansion to 32 teams (in line with the Champions League proper) appears likely. There is currently no Manchester United and Real Madrid, who will surely not want to be left behind by rivals Barcelona. Interestingly, the NextGen Series was the brainchild of Mark Warburton and Justin Andrews, who together run Cycad Sports Management. The pair have a background in coaching and media (Warburton was sporting director at Brentford and Andrew has worked with Sky). Free from the shackles of UEFA, the NextGen Series certainly looks like a promising contribution to the long-term future of European football.
Follow Hugo Greenhalgh on Twitter: @HugoGreenhalgh