The importance of keeping talent in reserve
The recent experience of England’s rugby team is testament to this after being forced to pick a squad without twelve regular members.
Similarly just 10 games into soccer’s Premier League season, managers of the big four clubs have been forced to field reserves. Liverpool handed big-game debuts to Daniel Ayala and Jay Spearing, while injuries forced Arsenal to thrust goalkeeper Vito Mannone into the Champions League spotlight.
The challenge for any team is to keep a pool of talent bubbling underneath the first team that is both able and experienced enough to step up to the next level. Teams invest vast amounts into scouting young talent, but experience is harder to buy.
Managing the gulf between the first team and the reserves is key to ensuring the consistency that brings league titles and secures international trophies. What this soccer season has shown already is that this issue warrants much greater attention.
Second-string teams competing in football’s reserve leagues are given over largely to youth and those returning from injury, while more senior players lose match sharpness bench-sitting for the first team.
The loan deals that provide young players with the experience to slot back into first team action are too inflexible to work; lower-league sides demand season-long loans and control over players.
The result is young talent floundering in reserve leagues or stranded out on loan without a route back to their parent club when first-team opportunities arise.
At international level the balance of reserve squads is again tipped in the favour of youth to the detriment of the senior game. Despite England’s rugby team missing over twelve players through injury, only three of the replacements that have been announced were drawn from the England Saxons, the notional reserve team.
The less said about football’s England B team the better; without fixtures or a defined role it has been supplanted entirely by the Under-21 setup.
The standard of domestic cricket is often derided, but the sport is the best British example of a functioning reserve system working hand in hand with the national team.
England Lions, the squad below the test team, gave Jonathan Trott the chance to step up and perform on a stage that propelled him into the senior team for the final Ashes test. At the age of 28 he had the right mixture of experience and ability, and seized the chance he was given to perform.
Graham Onions is another who, aged 26, successfully made the transition earlier this year.
Forcing youngsters to sink or swim under the gaze of the world’s television cameras is rarely successful and often damaging to both the player and the team.
Those determining the structure of national and domestic squads should take note; youth and talent is essential in the long term, but so is managing a pool of players beneath the first team who are ready to contribute when needed.
England’s Jonathan Trott celebrates reaching his century against Australia during the fifth Ashes cricket test match at the Oval in London August 22, 2009. REUTERS/Philip Brown