You'll win nothing with kids especially if they're unexceptional

By Paul Gardner

There is a hallowed phrase in English soccer -- “You win nothing with kids.”  A phrase that must have echoed thunderously around the ears of Aston Villa coach Paul Lambert Sunday as he surveyed the wreckage of his young team after that 8-0 demolishment by Chelsea.
Entering the game, Lambert had every reason for optimism. A week ago, the identical starting team had beaten Liverpool 3-1 ... at Anfield, no less. An outstanding performance accomplished with a swagger you don’t expect from a bunch of boys.
Well, maybe not exactly boys. The average age of the team that Lambert fielded against Chelsea was 23 years and 5 months. Not teenagers then, but still well below the age of teams that pull in the trophies. A look at World Cup-winning teams tells the story. The 2006 final featured the two oldest teams in the tournament -- the winners Italy (average age 29 years, 7 months) and France (29/11). Spain, the 2010 winner, included two youngsters -- Pedro (22/11) and Busquets (21/11) which brought their average age down to 27 years and 3 months.
So Lambert’s Aston Villa is a team for the future, then -- maybe we have to wait two or three years to see it at its full potential. But that is not how things happen. The possibility of Lambert’s team remaining intact for the next three years is zero. Indeed, the likelihood of Lambert remaining the Villa coach for another three years is pretty slim.
Realistically, Lambert is on a loser here. His evident expectations are simply not born out by the facts of soccer life. Possibly, this lovely notion of a team of home-produced youngsters sticking together and maturing into a pro championship team is successful somewhere.
The most likely example would surely be Barcelona -- but a look at its current first-team roster reveals that around a third of their players were bought - most of them as adults - from other clubs.
One of the themes that underlines that “you don’t win with kids” thinking is the notorious fickleness of young players -- indeed, of youngsters generally. That leads to inconsistency, unreliability. How else to explain Villa’s remarkable win at Anfield, then the disastrous implosion at Chelsea just one week later? The difference between a 3-1 win at Anfield and an 8-0 wipe-out at Chelsea takes some explaining -- but it seems to me that it cannot all be put down to the age of the players.
For a start, Villa’s 23-year-olds took care of Liverpool’s 26-year-olds -- but then caved in to Chelsea, whose average age was only one year higher than Liverpool’s.
Experience comes into it, obviously. Chelsea’s boys, including the two youngest starters -- Victor Moses at 22 and Eden Hazard at 21 -- have plenty of first-team experience. They play like pros. Even the 18-year-old Brazilian Lucas Piazon who appeared as a late sub, was instantly at home, serving up a superb assist for Ramires’ first goal and generally oozing confidence (maybe a little too much so -- his penalty kick was saved by the 28-year-old Brad Guzan).
But the Villa youngsters told a different story. Enthusiasm they had, in plenty -- at least at the beginning of the game. And of course, work rate. But no smoothness. Their play had the forced speed that we see here in college soccer. Some of it, in the first half, looked quite impressive ... but it was short-lived and rarely led to anything decisive. Rarely? Never, actually. Villa had no shots on goal in the first half -- this despite clear signs of uncertainty in the Chelsea defense.
Villa’s attacking moves tended to start at 90 mph and maybe get up to 95 mph -- before they invariably collapsed under the high pressure that high speed brings with it. In short, the technical  caliber of the Villa youngsters was not up to what they were trying to do. After two or three or maybe four passes, the sequences tended to disintegrate as the passes went astray and were collected by Chelsea.
Forward Christian Benteke, so lethal against Liverpool, had a frustrating time of it, repeatedly getting flagged for offside as he raced for passes that weren’t delivered.
A slight pause in any of those sequences, the intervention of a player who could hold the ball for a second or two, who could, in that fraction of time, re-shape a play that was running out of control, would have made a difference. But there was no such player in a Villa shirt.
Liverpool -- as one could see -- had a bad day against Villa - but the credit went to the Villa players for taking the hint, and joyfully tearing into the lethargic Merseysiders. Chelsea -- humbled by Brazil’s Corinthians in the World Club Cup - was anything but lethargic. It turned on the offense, full blast, and simply blew Villa away.
Tactics? Yes, they had something to do with this. Villa started -- under the coach’s orders, no doubt -- as though it could take up where it left off at Anfield, bossing the home team about all over the field. Fernando Torres, with a superb header, upset those calculations after only two minutes. He should have done, that is; the warning was there, that Chelsea would not lie down Liverpool. Villa went on trying to play its frantic attacking soccer, its adrenaline-inspired rushes downfield having to be quickly reversed as the ball was coughed up to the Chelsea midfielders -- who knew a good deal more about the niceties of attacking soccer than Villa did. Villa did not heed the warning, its style, its tactics never changed, it was 3-0 down at half time, and the final 8-0 scoreline was kind to it. It could have been 10-0.
In the end, it was not the age or the experience or the tactics  that made Chelsea so dominant. Its players -- including its youngsters -- were superior to Villa’s by a wide margin. Superior technique, superior game awareness. That was enough -- the fitness and the enthusiasm of Villa’s boys counted for nothing against the sheer soccer canniness and cleverness of Chelsea’s play.
Eight-zero scorelines don’t happen too often -- I doubt that Villa will be crushed like this again any time soon, and I don’t expect Chelsea to get that many goals again this season. But the message of the game was clear for both teams. If you’re going to rely on young players, they have to be exceptional. Villa has no exceptional young players. Chelsea does.
Within that conclusion, there is a further omen -- one that the English FA and its technical honchos might be interested in. The majority of Villa’s youngsters are English or Scottish or Irish. All of Chelsea’s youngsters are imports.

8 comments about "You'll win nothing with kids especially if they're unexceptional".
  1. Tom Symonds, December 23, 2012 at 11:46 p.m.

    Another lesson: good local money buys good, local youngsters; exceptional foreign money buys exceptional young imports. Until the financial playing field gets readjusted, money will continue to buy trophy players to win trophies. Money has perverted the English game. And for its own survival in the competitive footballing world, it's incumbent upon the FA to insure nothing upsets the lucrative EPL/UCL apple cart manned by the big four...which means the big four will continue to be sheltered by the FA. No matter how good/lucky WBA or Everton might be, or anyone else outside of the top four for that matter (with perhaps Spurs and Liverpool as exceptions), they will NEVER finish top four - NEVER! - it's bad for business and the FA won't let it happen. Mark my words, with the financial smoke screens being employed, the volume of players cheating with simulation, and the dubious refereeing, the Premiership version of calciopoli is coming. Convenient, isn't it, that 8-0 brings Chelsea level on GD with the Manchesters.

  2. Bill Anderson, December 24, 2012 at 8:30 a.m.

    Is this a spoof? Am I reading the Onion?

  3. beautiful game, December 24, 2012 at 9:46 a.m.

    Nce result by Chelsea, and against a weaker foe what else can be expected from them on a day when almost everything worked.

  4. Kent James, December 24, 2012 at 4:06 p.m.

    Given your general philosophy Paul, I'm a little surprised at what appears to be the main point of your article. Since Aston Villa cannot go out and import the quality of young player that Chelsea can, are you saying they should learn the lesson of the futility of trying to use young, home-based talent and playing attacking soccer against a superior opponent? Are you suggesting they should, perhaps, buy more experienced players who know when to hunker down and stifle a superior opponent? Et tu, Brute?

  5. Peter Skouras, December 25, 2012 at 12:12 p.m.

    Although Tom is somewhat correct,good local money buys good, local youngsters." This finding refers to the 16-18 year old Professional while "Exceptional foreign money buys exceptional young import" goes to exactly what was stated...AN IMPORT!

    Nothing has changed except the $$$ involved around the World regarding young players and the manner they are utilized and produced and SOLD...THIS IS BUSINESS, COMMERCE! Yes, a few rules have been changed inside the EU just like any countries immigration laws but nothing that substantial.

    Hey Paul...please leave the ENGLISH (OR NON ENGLISH GAME) ALONE AND OPEN UP THE Uinted States GAME which you won't because there's nothing to right about! THE EPL AND THE REST OF THE WORLD ARE A DIFFERENT ANIMAL!

    TV gives us the impression that the EPL is the "Best League in the World!!" Wait to you watch and see the Brazilian First or Second Division! O My Goodness!!! Night and day! AND I LOVE THE EPL DUE TO ITS COLOR, COMMENTARY, CULTURE...

    The only place on Earth where production of players is Diabolical is the United States!

    Home Grown, College Soccer, USSDA, Pay to Play??? ENOUGH!!!I watched a few USSDA matches this between MLS Youth Sides and Club Sides playing against each other!!! O Dear! The Galaxy in a Tournament in Spain this last year finished bottom vs. "True" Professional Youth Clubs. Promotion Relegation we hear about 3-4 a week on Fox Sports and here in the US? Anyway....


  6. Jez S, December 26, 2012 at 10:36 p.m.

    Famously, Alan Hansen was about to be proved wrong when he said of Man Utd "you can't win anything with kids". That's the correct quotation and it isn't "a hallowed phrase in English soccer" at all, it's a notoriously bad assumption - Ferguson's young team went on to win the double (the FA Cup and Premier League) and is still the most revered of his time at the helm.

    With no description or analysis of the match, and based on such a faulty premise, what a shoddy article! :D

  7. Andres Yturralde, December 27, 2012 at 10:24 a.m.

    Yeah, sometimes I learn more from the comments than from the article itself. Hear here!

  8. Gak Foodsource, December 27, 2012 at 11:12 a.m.

    Paul, the Chelsea-Villa scoreline is a reflection of skill (and MONEY), not age. I disagree with the central argument of this article - that If you’re going to rely on young players, they have to be exceptional - for three reasons. First, as Tom and others pointed out, the difference in payroll between these two clubs negates any fair comparison between the young players from Aston Villa to the best young players money can buy from Chelsea. (And yes, I think the English FA is well aware that Chelsea isn't opening the checkbook for English talent.)

    Second, Chelsea doesn't really have any young players. Hazard, for example, may be defined as a "young" player at 21, but he is ready to play EPL top flight football. Aston Villa's Joe Bennett is 22 and is not ready to play consistent first team football. The reason that matters is because only Paizon from Chelsea should be considered young - the rest are ripe and ready to play irrespective of how old they really are. The term "Youth" is better understood when referring to the readiness or maturation of a player, not their chronological age.

    Finally, to further emphasize that this Chelsea-Villa contest was not a comparison of apples to apples, Chelsea started only two players under the age of 24 - Hazard and Moses. Oscar and Paizon didn't come in until the 67th and 74th minutes. And the first four goals were from players aged 28, 25, 28, and 34.

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