Too Much, Too Soon

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Myself and my co-editor investigate the dangers of promoting youth too soon…

You could be forgiven for thinking that Michael Owen’s personal blog is nothing more than a sanctuary for the unremarkable.

His tweets may be some of the most mundane around, but a blog he wrote for his personal website on the 7th December made national headlines and offered up considerable food for thought. The former Liverpool, Real Madrid, Newcastle and Manchester United centre-forward is the archetypal example of ‘too much, too young’, and that is precisely the topic he covered with such authority. Citing his spell at Liverpool, which he regards as the best of his career, Owen concedes that he was naive and played too much.

It is a pertinent dilemma as we enter 2013, with a World Cup just 18 months away.  The ‘next generation’ is a concept that many have become obsessed with in recent years, particularly in light of the fading glow of the ‘golden generation’. Owen represents perhaps the greatest missed opportunity of that era; a player who, so heavily reliant on his pace, reached his peak in 2001 at the age of just 21, before his hamstrings packed in.

There are a number of variables that can determine the gradient of a youngster’s progression. Whilst the manager has a responsibility to strike the right balance in game time – between protecting a youngster and exposing him – it is equally vital that the youngster makes the right choices. When predicting the next generation it is often prudent to consider the forgotten individuals who have fallen by the wayside.

John Bostock was to 2008 what Wilfried Zaha is to 2013, but the former England youth international has, in his four and a half year spell at White Hart Lane, found himself farmed out on loan to the lesser rungs of the English game – Brentford, Hull City, Sheffield Wednesday and now Swindon Town. Bostock’s mistake was moving too soon – as a 16-year old he had made just four senior appearances for Crystal Palace. By contrast, Zaha, the same age as his compatriot, has been allowed to flourish with the Championship outfit and has made over 100 appearances in three seasons.

Bostock, still only 20, stands at one extreme of the spectrum – a useful barometer for Zaha to consider during the course of this January transfer window – whilst Owen stood at the other extreme.

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Owen played a staggering 316 games for club and country before his 24th birthday, whilst the evergreen Ryan Giggs, who possessed similarly explosive pace at a young age, made 204 less appearances. It is not a predicament solely restricted to the English game either; before Fernando Torres’ move to Liverpool in 2007 – at the age of 23 – he had amassed 243 appearances for his boyhood club.

El Niño’s time on Merseyside was characterised by muscular injuries which have prevented him from maintaining his explosive form between 2007 and 2009. He has remained injury-free during his two-year stint at Chelsea, but previous injuries have taken their toll on the Spaniard; his once blistering pace has disappeared and he often seems to play in spite of his ailing body.

His former club, Liverpool, appointed a manager last summer who has considerable experience in dealing with youngsters; Brendan Rodgers rose to prominence during his time as youth and reserve coach at Chelsea between 2004 and 2008. More than most, Rodgers should therefore be aware of the pitfalls that often prevent players from fulfilling their potential.

Rodgers has proved particularly adept at blooding many of the talented youngsters from Liverpool’s burgeoning academy set-up; Suso, Andre Wisdom and, most prominently, Raheem Sterling. No player has made such an impression on the Liverpool first-team at such a young age since Owen; that is until Rodgers threw the Jamaican-born Sterling in at the deep end on 26th August, 2012.

Rodgers, and by extension the club have been exceptionally careful in nurturing the precocious teenager off the pitch, quietly building his temperament and public image. He performed his first exclusive interview with The Times in December, shortly after signing his first professional contract with the Anfield club, and has been thus far prevented from signing lucrative sponsorship deals.

The signing of a long-term deal with Liverpool is not just good news for both parties, but for his national side too; Sterling will be allowed to flourish under a setup which readily gives first-team opportunities to youth, rather than stagnate in the reserves or lower leagues, a la Bostock.

But it has been far from plain-sailing; the way Sterling’s protracted contract negotiations dragged on so publicly was an embarrassing shambles, but reflected how meteoric his rise has proven since his full-debut in late August. No one would have dreamt in August that Sterling’s remarkable transition to the first-team would have led to a first international call-up less than two months later.

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Whilst Sterling’s off-field management has been handled with considerable care, Rodgers has been more gung-ho with regards to the teenager’s involvement on the pitch. No Liverpool player has started as many games as the England international this season, 27, and following his full-debut he was afforded a lengthy run in Rodgers’ starting eleven – 16 consecutive starts – unprecedented for a 17-year old.

Evidently it is beneficial to integrate a young talent into the first-team set-up, but it is risky to over-play, and, ultimately, over-expose them to the rigours of Premier League football. Though it speaks volumes about both Sterling’s mental and physical strength, his recent performances have dipped since his startling introduction – the early drive and indomitable spirit have slightly receded, though his impudent chip against Sunderland proved that the teenager possesses the talent to match the pressure and expectation.

A return of two goals and a single assist suggest that the 18-year old is experiencing teething problems, but that is only natural; rotating the youngster from now to the end of the season, enabled by his side’s capture of Daniel Sturridge, would be both prudent in the short-term and advantageous in the long-term.

Rodgers, though as sorely tempted as he may be to persevere with Sterling, has proved with his handling of two other teenagers at the club – Wisdom and Suso – that he is willing to rotate youngsters in order to safeguard them physically, something that has been showcased elsewhere in England.

The unfortunate case of Jack Wilshere’s burnout has made Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger especially wary about his use of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Wilshere and Chamberlain form an integral part of the ‘British core’, Wenger’s initiative to keep exciting, home-grown talent at the Emirates.

Along with Carl Jenkinson, Kieron Gibbs and Aaron Ramsey, the hope is that these players will peak at Arsenal and that these optimum years can bring material success to the club. Yet while this talented young group are certainly maturing and improving together, caution must be taken to ensure that these best years are not spent on the sidelines. By his own admission, Wenger overused Wilshere in the 2010/11 season and consequently, the knock that the young English midfielder picked up in the 2011/12 pre-season saw him miss the entirety of that campaign.

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Joining Arsenal at the age of nine, Wilshere quickly worked his way up the youth system to make his Reserves debut at 16. He was blooded into the first team in the 2008/9 season and the following year, in January 2010, he was loaned to Bolton Wanderers under the tutelage of Owen Coyle.

Wilshere’s time at the Reebok did him a world of good. He came back a stronger player, both physically and mentally, and hungry to make himself a regular at his boyhood club. 2010/11 was his breakthrough season at Arsenal. He made his England debut, was voted Arsenal’s Player of the Season, and also won the PFA Young Player of the Year Award. He established himself as a complete midfielder, equally adept at passing and tackling and with the stamina to play primarily in a box-to-box. A brilliant quote from his manager talks of Wilshere having “Spanish technique, but an English heart”.

Unfortunately though, Wilshere’s is, as with Owen, a case of ‘too much, too young’. He made 49 appearances for Arsenal that season; only Andrei Arshavin appeared more. This would be a lot of minutes for even the hardiest midfield general, but at the tender age of 19, Wilshere was in grave danger of burnout. The club were very vocal in warning the FA off his selection for the Under-21s European Championships in June 2011.

Yet Wenger knew he had overused Wilshere that year, and as a result was in the “red zone” when fatigue puts him at risk of injury. It is Wilshere’s passion and enthusiasm, as well as his talent, that make him such a joy but he had clearly overexerted himself. After picking up an injury against New York Red Bulls in a pre-season friendly the initial prognosis was five months. It ended up being over a year.

There was a knock-on effect too that damaged another of Arsenal’s young British prospects. With the departures of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri coinciding with Wilshere’s injury, the burden of creativity in midfield fell heavily on the young shoulders of Aaron Ramsey.

The Welshman had been bought in June 2008 from Cardiff but just as he was beginning to find his feet at Arsenal that season, a reckless challenge from Stoke’s Ryan Shawcross put Ramsey out of action for the best part of a year. After loan spells at Nottingham Forest and Cardiff, Ramsey started to regain his form. Returning to Arsenal, he capped off the season with a goal and an excellent performance in a 1-0 victory against Manchester United. Ramsey seemed set for greatness the following year.

Taking on the new responsibilities in the absence of others, Ramsey had a mixed 2011/12 campaign. Starting 27 League matches, he often bore the brunt of criticism as Arsenal struggled in the first half of the season. This pressure took a mental and physical strain on the player – he evidently couldn’t play every game at such a young age. Later in the season, Wenger occasionally used Ramsey out wide, on the right. This seemed to go against Ramsey’s skill set and the results were hardly promising.

This season he was employed there against Manchester City and did a decidedly better job. As a key component of Wenger’s ‘British Revolution’ at Arsenal, there is still faith from the manager in a player of great potential. There is certainly something to be said for taking the advice of Arsenal great Frank McLintock who stated recently that Ramsey tries to do too much and takes “too many touches on the ball”.

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Wenger now seems adamant not to let the same problem occur to Oxlade-Chamberlain. Purchased from Southampton in the summer of 2011, the young Englishman only made 6 starts in the League in his debut season at Arsenal yet there was much to be impressed by, so much so that he was selected for England in Euro 2012.

There were a number of highlights, such as his first League goals against Blackburn and his dynamic display against Manchester United, but his coming-of-age moment came in the Second Leg of Arsenal’s Champions League knock-out game against AC Milan. The Gunners faced the uphill task of overturning a four goal deficit, and very nearly achieved that. Assisting for the first goal and later winning a penalty, he proved a real handful for the Italian side until he was forced to come off with a hamstring injury; the curse that haunted the teenage Michael Owen.

Only in the past month or so has Oxlade-Chamberlain looked to have earned himself a starting place in Arsenal’s XI. He has started the last five League matches,  whilst finding the scoresheet in the dramatic 7-3 victory over Newcastle. Wenger has eased him into the side and not rushed him at all.

There is still caution in that Oxlade-Chamberlain rarely plays 90 minutes, but he is learning and improving with every appearance. Watching his interviews, the 19-year-old appears older than his years, speaking with great maturity and conviction. For Wenger, ever the bastion of ‘mental toughness’, this is perfect. If Arsenal are to achieve anything this year, a fit and able core of British players will be crucial.

Finding the right balance is crucial in nurturing young talent, else the ‘next generation’ will become the ‘lost generation’. Tottenham Hotspur’s treatment of John Bostock is a foremost example of the pitfalls with promoting youth, whilst highlighting the need to care for the development of 18-21 year-olds.

The pressures of the modern game are so high, and the demand for home-grown youth so insatiable, that this is not just an issue for clubs, but the national game as a whole.

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