Are expectations too high for football’s youngsters?

After Manchester United’s 2-2 draw at the bet365 Stadium against Stoke on 9 September, Rio Ferdinand – one of the panelists for the pre-and post-match coverage on BT Sport – had some pressing thoughts on featured youngster Marcus Rashford and Wales new boy Ben Woodburn.

On the subject of the player’s impacts for their respective clubs and countries, Ferdinand said:

You can’t compare what these young boys (Rashford and Woodburn) nowadays to what Owen was doing. When he was the same age as Rashford, he’d won two Golden Boots in the Premier League, scored 50 goals. Rashford has got 20. They are great young players, but people seem to forget.

Rio made a valid point about people’s tendencies – particularly the media’s – towards judging a player’s impact and ability to that of a similar talent from the past.

This is the case now more than ever in the modern game and is causing the individual and football to suffer at the hands of this unnecessary equivalence.

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What’s even more bizarre is that Rashford and Woodburn are in two completely separate camps from one another, excluding Michael Owen from the equation.

For starters, there’s a considerable age gap of two years between the lads – Woodburn being 17 and Rashford 19.

The Manchester United forward has staked his place in Mourinho’s side as a permanent fixture this season; albeit in a wider position than he’d typically prefer to operate from.

But this is partly why the starlet has left an outstanding impression on football fans.

Rashford’s goal tally currently stands at 12 goals in 47 appearances for the reds which when considered that a hefty amount of those were made from the bench, alludes to the impact that the young Englishman has delivered.

So much so that both Roy Hodgson and Gareth Southgate have called him up to the national side where he has enjoyed a further two goals.

Woodburn’s inclusion in the same category as the two aforementioned names is incredulous at this moment in time.

Even based purely on appearances alone, the Liverpool forward has appeared five times for the senior team and twice for Wales, scoring his first international goal during his debut.

No two players or their developments are the same which is why the increased buzz surrounding young players, particularly British ones, can prove more of a hindrance than a positive.

It should be noted that Steven Gerrard, current Liverpool U19s manager, has detailed his plans to utilise Woodburn for his side. Which poses the perfect integration tactic for these youngsters.

The Manchester United striker was ushered in to the first-team fold at a steady pace, working his way up through the youth system, then to the bench, and eventually to a starting place under Mourinho.

It was unfortunately Rashford’s speedy impact that created the reputation he currently holds; scoring twice in a 5-1 win during his first-team debut and scoring a further two goals three days later against Arsenal; the former earning him the title of youngest Manchester United scorer in a European competition.

And this is usually what managers fail to implement, forcing prospects in too deep too early and causing them to suffer significantly because of it.

The likes of Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen suffered heavily from this in the peaks and later stages of their careers. There were, of course, other factors that affected these two individuals, injuries being the most prominent.

And that’s without factoring in football development and the sport’s departure from a striker being solely responsible to operate as a poacher.

This is believed to have been a significant shift during the 2000s but there a few notable examples that managed to thrive under this role during this period: Ruud Van Nistelrooy, David Trezeguet and Filippo Inzaghi.

If we’re talking expectations, look no further than Wayne Rooney, arguably England’s all-time greatest, as the exception to this rule. The former England skipper has been no stranger to both promise and criticism throughout his career.

After impressing as an Everton youngster rising through the ranks to represent both club and country, Rooney’s been the subject of much debate as to how good he truly was.

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The fact of the matter is, there’s no questioning the ability that he not only possessed but that he consistently delivered. There are sometimes world beaters who can and will defy what is expected of them but that isn’t to say that we should arbitrarily band them all in together.

But Wayne was at the birth of that mentality in football and managed to overcome the wild overexcitement thrown his way. Arsenal last season were perhaps a prime example of it going the other way.

The Gunners recorded the most minutes given to youth players last season. Only Manchester United outranked them in the number of players fielded from their academy.

Is Arsenal’s failure to qualify for the Champions League for the first time in 20 years a reflection of this? Is there any correlation between the two?

The onus is on priming these players for match fitness and intensity across the board but this often comes at the expense of consistency and sometimes general performance.

Gerrard and Liverpool seem to have the correct mentality of easing Woodburn in and using his services across the U19s, U23s and first-team to better equip him for future seasons.

When you consider that long-term plans can contribute to a player’s growth, it makes a lot of sense that Klopp wouldn’t loan out the young forward.

This is another popular decision but is often mistakenly regarded as being the solution to any development problems. How is a player supposed to adapt to a specific set-up and type of play, under Klopp for example, when he’s playing under a completely different system with different players at another club; more likely in a different league, also.

In short, there is no set formula that can be followed to ready a young player for first-team duties and when they do get there, it’s imperative that we manage our expectations to prevent disappointment and the destruction of a promising, young talent.

The Author

Jonathan Roberts

A 25-year old football fan and avid blogger. You'll usually find me writing or talking about something football-related.

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