When the Premier Leauge launched the Elite Player Performace Plan (EPPP) in 2012 the aim was to increase the quality of homegrown players. The elite academies would be able to attract the best players to the best facilities. A promising player in Bristol or Carlisle would be able to move to Manchester and receive the absolute best coaching available.
An efficient system that quickly identifies talent and funnels it towards the endpoint of professional football. Academies are ranked with the highest category status (one) only available to clubs who meet strict criteria on facilities and investment.
This has had an impact on clubs without these facilities. Without “category one” status an academy can lose players to clubs higher up the food chain for relatively little financial compensation. Some clubs have reacted to this by withdrawing from the academy system. Why invest when you can lose your best young players for a few thousand pounds?
And what happens to the system when the elite clubs are able to take the best youngsters from other academies and sell them before they’ve even made an appearance. Jadon Sancho and Rabbi Matondo joined Manchester City for a total of around £100,000 under EPPP compensation rules. They were sold after signing professional deals for a combined £20 million.
So, if the Premier League development plan represents the capitalistic approach to player development how does arguably Europe’s most productive nation operate?
How have the French managed to produce not only a World Cup-winning side but arguably also produce sufficient depth in quality that the 4th or 5th choice XI would challenge for the tournament? With defenders of the quality of Dan-Axel Zagadou, Abdou Diallo, Issa Diop and Aymeric Laporte not capped at senior level it is clear that France is producing a massively high number of talented players. But why and how?
And what can smart clubs do to take advantage of the situation?
To an outsider, the French development system can be complicated to navigate. Most of us have heard of the famous Clairefontaine academy. However, this is just one of 9-12 similar elite academies covering France and their overseas territories. These range in size from residential facilities with many pitches to what appear to be more technical centres where coaches meet and learn together.
Each club will also have a training centre, much like an English academy attached to a club. Until recently the bulk of funding for these centres was received from the local government of the region who saw sport as a common good and invested in excellent facilities.
There are then regional leagues at U17 and U19 levels. Only now do we introduce the concept of amateur teams.
In previous years the professional clubs have won the U17 development leagues with ease. If an amateur club reached one of the 6 regional leagues, each made up of 14 teams, it was often to make up the numbers. FC Lyon described themselves as “irritants”. Their job was to score an occasional goal, and very occasionally beat their more gifted competition.
Then something changed. The quality of player available to them got better. The French Football Federation funds coaches for the amateur clubs. Suddenly they weren’t just making up the numbers anymore.
Until this year no amateur club had qualified for the knockout stages of the competition where the winners of each league and the two best place runners up face off against each other.
Not only did FC Lyon qualify for the finals but they did so by winning their group, above Olympique Lyonnais with 22 wins in 26 games.
They weren’t alone, Montrouge 92, a club from central Paris also qualified and were drawn to play FC Lyon. Montrouge 92 won and went on to play eventual winners Nantes in the semi-finals.
There are simply too many good players for the number of places available within the academy football system.
These gifted amateur players are quickly recruited into the U19 league, but even at this stage with four leagues, each containing 14 teams, amateur clubs remain competitive. Clubs from the larger cities compete using squads comprised of players not yet picked up, or already rejected by, professional clubs.
France only has two fully professional leagues. Although there are a huge number of amateur clubs below that have good facilities. Financially there is a strange mix of semi-pro contracts available with guaranteed subsidised wages seeing players earn around £30,000 a year in the third tier but also some leeway to pay more.
However, when compared with England salaries seem low. Only 10 clubs in Ligue 1 operate on a higher budget than the Championship average wage bill.
In Ligue 2 clubs compete with budgets under £7m, and in the third tier, there are clubs with total budgets of well under £1m. Far below that of some English non-league clubs. Does the surplus of players allow clubs to keep wages low?
France also offers one of the more generous work permit schemes for African footballers. This scheme has allowed French clubs such as Metz and RC Lens to partner with schemes in Mali and Senegal to recruit teenage players into their academies. Couple this with relatively high migration (when compared to the UK) from the talent producing areas of West and North Africa and you have a young, football-obsessed population, with access to good facilities, trained coaches subsidised by the national federation, and a network of amateur and professional teams and you have the perfect environment for producing talent.
The Paris region is particularly productive. With most academies, particularly in northern France containing large numbers of Parisian players such as the “golden” generations at Nantes and SM Caen. Even players like William Saliba (St Etienne) and Jules Koundé (Bordeaux, now Sevilla) are Paris born along with Pogba (Le Havre) and Martial and Mbappe (Monaco). These role models only further increase the sense that it is possible to make a career in the game.
But also keep in mind that France exports more footballers than any other country than Brazil. According to CIES Football Observatory figures, 781 French-born footballers are playing outside France.
This surplus of players is good enough to find employment elsewhere around the world.
So, what are the implications for scouting?
Look for late developing talent
Scouting for players before the age of 18 is very, very difficult. Physical maturity can vary hugely. Development is not linear, the aim is to be the best 22-year-old, not the best 14-year-old.
This means that a lot of those players who will become stars in their twenties are not already at the large clubs at 17. Indeed, of the 2018 World Cup-winning squad 8 have played below the second tier of French football. Kanté and Giroud, in particular, developing relatively late in their careers.
Clubs should not just restrict their scouting to Ligue 1, or even Ligue 2 but should consider the third tier, or even selected regional championships of being worthy of keeping an eye on.
In the English system, professional contracts at 17 are a right of passage for a developing player. Before that contract is signed you can walk away for EPPP compensation or be released by the club to look for a contract elsewhere. Very few contract-less players will continue to play for the reserve or youth sides.
In France, professional deals often follow first-team debuts. Of course, the real obvious stars will be signed up as soon as possible. But in situations where the management or the player are not quite convinced, there may well be 2-3 years of reserve team football on amateur agreements.
Ibrahima Konaté for example played for Sochaux only on an amateur agreement. By refusing to sign the professional terms he was able to move to RB Leipzig for minimal compensation. Recently Bridge Ndilu was able to join Nantes from Laval as his short professional deal had expired.
Keeping a close eye on contract lengths and status is a huge part of finding good market value.
Look for blocked development pathways
Some clubs excel at developing certain types of players. Others, such as PSG, Lille, and now OGC Nice may find themselves with ambitious owners keen to sign big-name players for the first team.
Olympique Lyonnais have developed and purchased a large number of central midfield players. Two new Brazilian midfielders have been signed to play with Auoar and Tousart. The pathways for the tier of players below become even less obvious. So, Christopher Martins Pereira (sold to Young Boys), Maxime D’Arpino (Orléans) and Owusu (Sochaux – loan) have left the club. Pape Diop will also need to consider his future along with the next generation including Maxence Caqeret.
With OGC Nice having recently been acquired by a billionaire; they may be a target for clubs looking to purchase one of their promising left-backs for a bargain fee. With the Ligue 2 left back of the year Romain Perraud, Olivier Boscagli, Racine Coly, Patrick Burner and Andy Pelmard on the books – players are sure to be available.
Clubs should pay particular attention to look for opportunities to attract young players with a clear pathway to first-team action.
There are strict financial rules with administrative relegation a reality for clubs. Both Sochaux and AS Nancy have been forced to generate funds at very short notice to avoid being expelled to the amateur leagues.
Relatively wealthy English clubs should be constantly monitoring the status of clubs to look at the best players from clubs in financial trouble.
Sochaux have recently been forced to sell Agoumé, a 17-year-old French youth international and first-team regular, to Inter Milan for £4m. A fraction of his value. Likewise, Jeando Fuchs was lost to Alavés for a very low fee.
Clubs should work with scouting companies – such as The Scouted Hub – to find these opportunities and be in a position to act quickly upon them.
(To learn more about The Scouted Hub’s services,contact email@example.com)