On the Productivity of Manchester United’s Academy: A Comparison

There’s been a great deal of handwringing from various media figures this summer about a perception of Manchester United supposedly departing from their usual philosophy. The ‘Manchester United way’, we are told, is to eschew big money purchases of ready made players, instead focusing on developing talent, with an emphasis on their famous academy. This has been rumbling on all summer, but really reached a peak with United shipping out Manchester born Danny Welbeck for one season of Radamel Falcao on deadline day.

“For so long the standard-bearers of youth football, Manchester United are now just another big corporation in the market.” (Mark Payne, ESPN).

“There was a place for him and I am not too pleased he’s gone to Arsenal. It is sending out the wrong message when local home grown players like that are leaving.” (Eric Harrison, former United coach).

And perhaps most dramatic of all:

“What will happen in the future now, nobody knows, but that thread has been broken now.” (Mike Phelan, former assistant manager).

This all ties in with the recent debates over the lack of young English players breaking through at top clubs, and arguments over the way clubs should be run in terms of their recruitment strategies. These are much bigger debates than I can hope to address, so I will skip over both issues.

I reacted to this outcry with some scepticism- traditionally United’s academy has been very strong, but I couldn’t recall too many players it had pushed through in recent years- Wes Brown, John O’Shea, and Darren Fletcher were the only ones who immediately sprung to mind in addition to Welbeck. This, I thought, was a bit meagre, and I sent an ill-informed and hasty tweet in reaction.

I wanted to compare the productivity of United’s academy to other top English clubs, to determine whether this initial opinion was right. I chose Arsenal and Liverpool for this comparison, as all three are clubs traditionally challenging for at least the top 4 over the course of the Premier League era.

I looked at every season from 1992/93 until 2013/14, totalling all appearances by all players for each of the 3 clubs in the league for any one season. I then worked out what percentage of these total appearances were accounted for by players signed before their 18th birthday (so, in essence, how much playing time did these players get over the season, expressed as a percentage). I chose to include players signed at 17 or younger because the vast majority of these players have not made their debut for another club, were not signed for the first team, and still represented some kind of ‘gamble’, where academy coaching would be needed to realise their potential. There are exceptions to this, which I will address a little later.

First, an average of these figures for all 3 clubs, by season:

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 10.00.21 (2)I had actually expected a sharper decline, but its quite steady between 20% and 30% for the last decade, with a greater number before 2000 as foreign players became more commonplace.

Do United better this average?

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 10.04.51 (2) Indeed they do, and the difference is pretty great for the most part. What we are largely seeing in this figure is the influence of the ‘Class of ‘92’, including David Beckham, Gary and Phil Neville, Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt, and Paul Scholes. None of these players remain, however, and United have moved closer to the average in the past 4 seasons. At the peak, in 2000/01, 48% of all appearances came from players signed before their 18th birthday. That’s a lot. This includes players such as Wes Brown (28 apps), Ronnie Wallwork (12 apps), and Luke Chadwick (16 apps), as well as a relatively injury free season for all of the players mentioned above.

How do Arsenal and Liverpool do?

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 10.08.27 (2)Liverpool nearly hit 50% in 1998/99, with Jamie Carragher, Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard, Robbie Fowler, and Steve McManaman featuring heavily among others, and these players contributed to Liverpool’s jump above the average for 3 seasons. Largely they’ve been operating below the average, but have been pushed up by the likes of Jon Flanagan and Raheem Sterling more recently.

Arsenal have largely placed below the average too, since just before Wenger’s tenure began. They have seen an increase in more recent years too though-bettering the average since 2007/08. Whilst the development of players such as Jack Wilshere, Wojciech Szczesny, and Kieran Gibbs has contributed to this, there’s another type of player contributing to it too.

Remember when I said the vast majority of players signed at under 18 were not for the first team, and hadn’t made their debuts yet? There are exceptions. Arsenal have had 4 in recent seasons- Gael Clichy, who already had minutes at Monaco, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from Southampton, and Aaron Ramsey from Cardiff.

Manchester United’s Lee Sharpe had already played for Torquay, whilst Jamie Redknapp, Ronnie Whelan, and Steve Harkness had all featured for other clubs prior to joining Liverpool. How do these graphs look after excluding these players?

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 10.13.17 (2)With the average recalculated to exclude these players, United are still the leaders. Predictably, Arsenal are the ones who suffer.

So, how good is United’s academy?

Even after the influence of the Class of ’92 began to fade, Manchester United were still giving significant minutes to academy players such as John O’Shea, Wes Brown, Rafael, Jonny Evans, Darren Fletcher, Tom Cleverley, Danny Welbeck, and Adnan Januzaj. Whether this approach will continue remains to be seen (you somewhat sense Louis van Gaal’s selection of players such as Tyler Blackett is reluctant at this point), but I was certainly wrong in my initial opinion. This, of course, does not account for academy players who have gone on to have successful careers either in the Premier League, Championship, or abroad, such as Ryan Shawcross, Danny Higginbotham, David Healy, Kieran Richardson, Guiseppe Rossi, Paul Pogba, Frazier Campbell, Danny Simpson, and dozens more. This article suggests United have made around £140 million from academy sales alone. Considering many of these players move for big fees before making their debut for United, that’s a pretty glowing endorsement.

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High-scoring teams in the Premier League

Liverpool’s goalscoring this season has been nothing short of incredible. Liverpool have scored 88 goals in 32 Premier League games thus far this season, and if they continue at their current scoring rate they will break Chelsea’s record of 103 goals from 2009/10.

How do they measure up to other high-scoring teams in past Premier League seasons? Liverpool have scored 4 or more goals in 10 of their 32 games so far; is this typical of high-scoring teams, or do others rely more on consistency by scoring 2 or 3 goals more frequently? Obviously, with the season not yet finished, things could change, but how do things look at this point?

The following figures plot the frequency with which each team has scored a number of goals (0, 1, 2, 3, etc.) in a single game.  For example, Liverpool have failed to score in 5 games this season, and 5 goals in 3 games. The most immediate comparison to make is to fellow high scorers from this season, Manchester City.

Liv-City

Manchester City have scored 1, 2, 3 goals in a game frequently, whilst scoring 5 and 6 in a game twice each to give their goal total a big boost. Liverpool are weird in comparison. They’ve scored twice in a game just 3 times, seemingly more likely to score 3 or 4.

How do Liverpool compare to the record holders, Chelsea?

Pool-Chels

Chelsea appeared much more likely to score just once or twice, but their eventual goal totals received a massive boost from scoring 7 goals in 3 different games, and they sealed the record with an 8-goal haul on the final day. These two aren’t really similar- Ancelotti’s side was solid, but their record was skewed by those 4 games. The same can’t be said of Liverpool this season.

Looking further back, how do Liverpool compare to Manchester United and Manchester City in 2011/12, who scored 89 and 93 goals respectively.

Liverpool

CityUnited12

They look a little more like City than United, but not too much similarity. United are very consistent, whereas City were more likely to score 5 or 6.

Going even further back, how do they look compared to Arsenal’s highscoring seasons in 2002/03 and 2004/05? (85 and 87 goals respectively).

Liverpool

Arsenal 04/05 looks a little like Liverpool, but both are more likely to score 1 or 2.

Finally, lets look at the marauding United sides of the late 90’s/early 00’s, with their famous ‘score more than you’ approach. These sides didn’t have great defences, but compensated by scoring well above average: 97 in 1999/2000 and 87 in 2001/02. This sounds a little like someone we know…. how do Liverpool compare here?

Liverpool

Utd 99At the risk of angering Liverpool fans with the comparison, Liverpool look quite a look like these United sides. None had a great defence, but scored a huge number of goals to compensate, and these United sides scored 3 or 4 goals in a game very regularly. It is worth noting that Manchester United finished 3rd in 2001/02, despite their goalscoring feats.

There is more than one way to reach the heights Liverpool are reaching this season: you can be a solid side who benefits from a few demolition jobs, such as Chelsea, or more consistently put 3 or 4 past opponents, like a few others in this comparison, who may not have such a strong defence.

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Tony Pulis at Crystal Palace

Tony Pulis is probably the most prominent example in recent Premier League history of a manager with a very clear and defined style that he wants his sides to adopt. Stereotypically, Pulis is thought of from his time with Stoke as a manager who doesn’t emphasise keeping possession or accurate passing, likes his team to compete physically, and above all else demands his team is solid defensively.

So, to what extent has Pulis brought his style to Crystal Palace?

Passing

Unsurprisingly, passes attempted and completed have taken something of a nosedive since Pulis took over at round 13

Chart 1

The average number of passes attempted in the 8 Premier League games Holloway was in charge was 389 per game. In Pulis’ 9 games, Palace have attempted 278 on average. To put this difference in more stark perspective, Palace attempted 337 passes in the 6th game of the season against Southampton, the lowest number of attempted passes in Holloway’s 8 games. In Pulis’ 9 games in charge, the HIGHEST number of passes attempted (by some distance) is 336.

Passing accuracy is also steadily dropping under Pulis. The chart below shows a rolling average of Palace’s pass accuracy over the course of the season.

Chart 2

Possession

This drop in passing stats is invariably related to a drop in possession. Under Holloway, average possession was 43%, and this has dropped to 35% under Pulis.

Chart 3

Shots

At last, something is increasing. Under Pulis, Palace take 12 shots, with 4 on target per game on average. This is an increase on the average under Holloway- 10 shots on average with 3 on target per game. They also concede less shots under Pulis (12 on average, with 4 on target) than under Holloway (14 on average with 5 on target).

These differences are clearly not huge- but over the course of a season conceding one shot on target less per game is  a very positive thing. Also, I suspect many of these shots/shots on target conceded under Pulis are from less efficient shooting positions, but I do not have the data to look into this more thoroughly. The best I can do is post these two images from FourFourTwo’s StatsZone, from two matches in which Palace were up against a difficult opponent away from home.

This image is from Palace’s game at Old Trafford in September.

4

And this one is from their visit to the Etihad in December.

5

What strikes me here is the number of blocked shots (represented in grey), and the decrease in the number of shots being allowed within the box. Plenty of work has demonstrated the importance of shot location.

To conclude, Crystal Palace are clearly still in trouble. However, under Pulis they have slowly improved matters defensively, and the numbers are a lot more encouraging. They may still be bottom as I write, but I (and others) would probably not write them off.

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