A look at whether a Spanish style B-team system could work here in England.
Over the last few years, there has been much debate about the differences that exist between the reserve team systems in England and the rest of Europe. Recently, when asked if he would be giving more first-team opportunities to younger players next season, Manchester City Coach Pep Guardiola explained that it was difficult because these players “Don’t compete” at reserve or B-team level in England.
His point was that the gap in quality between first and second team football is too big and the reserve team league, where inexperienced players only play against each other in empty stadiums, has no real significance as a competitive competition. For those 16, 17 and 18 year old players, the step up to Premier League level is huge and without competitive experience it is hard to integrate them successfully.
As things stands, teams in England have been limited to giving game time to young players in cup competitions – a practice that has also drawn criticism over the years but has now become accepted as an inevitable part of the game – or by loaning them out to lower league teams. And of course, they can give them a confidence boost by letting them train with the first team.
Guardiola used the Spanish system as an example of how he would prefer things to be structured in England. In Spain, the second teams of top clubs such as Real Madrid and Barcelona compete in the lower tiers of the Spanish league system and can be relegated or promoted accordingly (providing they do not enter the same league as their first team).
What’s more, they are often competing against much older players who have been playing at a high level for many years. Exposing players to this tough and demanding environment produces a level of improvement that cannot be attained simply by allowing them to train with the first team.
B-teams are also preferable to the loan system because they allow the players to remain in the environment of their current club where there is a common playing philosophy and where they already have an understanding with their teammates. In contrast, players sent out on loan may be used sparingly or even played out of position, and their personal requirements can sometimes be overlooked leaving them feeling isolated while away from home. In many cases, Coaches can be left no clearer as to whether a player sent out on loan is likely to make the grade or not.
Guardiola is not the first Coach to have raised this subject. In the past, the likes of Rafa Benitez, David Moyes and Andre Villas-Boas have all enthused at the idea, and La Liga President Javier Tebas has also suggested that the Premier League should follow the Spanish model. But of course, for every coach, fan or club official with a vested interest in such a system there are plenty of others who are vehemently opposed to the idea. The fear being that the introduction of B-teams would dilute or devalue football at the lower levels. In fact, less than a year ago, the 72 EFL teams voted overwhelmingly against such a system.
But if the current system is hindering the development of young talent, and in turn affecting the quality of players at national team level, could this continental-style set-up eventually be the most sensible route to follow?
Of course, there is no straightforward answer and much will depend on the priorities of those in charge of the game and its associated members. What’s more, there are some fundamental differences between the Spanish Football League system and the one in England (a detailed explanation can be found here).
The English Football League is currently made up of 92 clubs, while in Spain there are 482 clubs currently operating across the top four tiers. Below the second tier In Spain, the divisions are split into regional groups, and nearly every club has a first and second team competing somewhere across the four divisions. Of course, having so many groups and regional splits also requires a more complex relegation and promotion system at the lower levels, and then it has to be taken into account that B-teams cannot compete in the same league as their first teams, creating further convolutions.
Having so many teams also puts financial strain on the smaller clubs who struggle to attract spectators and have to operate on tiny budgets, often recruiting semi-professional or amateur players. Several small clubs have gone bust in Spain in recent years and many more exist in a state of permanent financial uncertainty. And the lower down the league system you go, the harder it gets.
In terms of numbers, it is a similar story in Germany where there are 145 teams competing in the top four tiers, with that number jumping to nearly 400 when the regional fifth tier is included. Compare that to England where there are just 116 teams competing across the top five tiers.
However, the relatively small number of teams in England could actually make a B-team system easier to implement. If, as has been suggested, the initial requirement is that only teams that make it to the Premier League can enter a B-team, then the current number would be instantly boosted by 20, resulting in 136 teams across the top five tiers, with further teams being added as they gain promotion to the Premier League.
Over the last 25 years, 49 teams have played in the Premier League. So if that trend continued, we would have 49 new teams playing in the lower tiers in 25 years’ time. That’s a total of 165 teams across the top five tiers, still way below the numbers in Spain and Germany and spread over a quarter of a century. But where would these new teams play?
Initially, a parallel fifth tier made up of the first 20 B-teams may have to be created. This could run alongside the current National League system. A bespoke relegation and promotion play-off system would be required between the teams of both leagues, especially as newly-promoted Premier League B-teams are introduced into the equation, and additional parallel leagues may be needed as the numbers grow. But if this was done thoughtfully and with intelligent planning – with no more than three new B-teams being entered each year – it could work. And the diluting effect on the current league system could be minimised.
Of course, as mentioned previously, the biggest obstacle for those in favour of this system will be changing the mind-set of those who want to preserve the history and traditions of the game. English football still attracts decent crowds in the lower divisions compared to some other countries and there is a fear that a change of culture could have a damaging impact on the popularity of the game outside of the top tier. The lower leagues are seen as sacred ground, free from many of the negative aspects of the modern game. The introduction of B-teams would be seen by many as another representation of that creeping influence.
Having said that, the Football League is already at the mercy of the Premier League thanks to the solidarity payments that currently provide much of the lower league’s revenue. Further financial incentives may eventually be needed to get the B-team system off the ground but the thought of money being the deciding factor in this argument remains unpalatable to many.
However, if sceptics could be persuaded that such a system could produce a noticeable improvement in the quality of the national team and an increase in the number of home-grown players reaching the top level; and if they could also be shown (via a fully-costed business plan) that all this could be done in a way that could have a positive impact on lower tier football – then they might just be persuaded.
Written by our Guest Writer, Neil Morris