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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