Y is for Football Manager Youth Development by @nick_f17

I’ve been playing Football Manager/CM for a number of years. I think it started with CM03/04 (Diablo tactic, anyone?) and a bootlegged copy of FM2007 I got in high school. Both of which I’ll still wheel out on occasion. In the time since, I think I’ve played every manager profile thought possible—European giants, nouveau riche super clubs, fallen giants (and everything in between).

Having said all that, the saves I have enjoyed the most are undoubtedly the ones where I’ve used the youth intake to build a competitive team that challenges for top honours, and the ultimate expression of this challenge has been with Athletic Bilbao in every iteration of the game that I have played.

Why Bilbao?

The love affair with Athletic Bilbao started during university as I was completing a degree in Spanish, which also included culture classes. I became intrigued with how, within Spain, there are so many different cultures and communities, and that some of these communities suffered over history.

I knew about Barcelona and Catalunya, and of Deportivo/Celta Vigo and Galicia, but knew less about the Basque Country. As I looked into the history of the Basques, I noted that Athletic Bilbao were one of three clubs to have never been relegated from La Liga while operating with a self-imposed policy of only signing players local to the Basque Country.

As a supporter of a local club (Adelaide United) that places great importance on bringing through the youth and bringing back locals who may have had to initially pursue a professional contract elsewhere, this resonated with me a great deal.

Okay, so how do you make the side competitive over the long term?

Bigger clubs poaching our players will inevitably happen, but the whole point of a youth-focused save is to be in a position where you can weather the losses of teams swooping in for your talent and just bring through the next batch of starlets from the Cantera.

For me, setting up a great youth system involves paying attention to:

  • Youth Recruitment & Facilities: Logically, the better the standard of youth recruitment, the greater the chance of generating newgens with long-term potential. The higher the standard of your youth facilities, the greater potential that your youth players will fully mature according to their potential ability. Whether you’re managing in the top tier, or in the lower leagues, it is important to ensure that the level of your recruitment is commensurate with your financial position (as the best setups can quickly drain a bank balance). TomFM ran a great experiment with non-league Dag and Red here to demonstrate this in practice.
  • Coaching: Again, it logically follows that the higher the stats of your coaches, the greater their ability to shape and mould your players. Stats are not the only important thing when considering your coaches. I think consideration should be given to their preferred formations, personality and mentality. This guide from FMScout touches on attributes you should be aware of (for both players and staff) and how they might translate into practice over the course of a save game.
  • Player Pathways: As players mature, it’s important to pay attention to the opinion of your staff as to what level they might be well suited for. This may mean a player gets sent away for a loan at a lower level to help develop before coming back into the first team setup.
  • Mentoring: As your crown jewels edge closer to the first team, consider how they might be mentored by older teammates. This can help shape some key mental attributes, build beneficial relationships on the pitch to help match performances and positively influence undesirable personalities. While there is A LOT of commentary on how mentoring should work, I would recommend GuidetoFM for an introduction on the benefits of tutoring and Two Playmakers for a more specialised discussion.

So how’s it going for you, then?

It’s been a real mixed bag to begin with in first season. Although we were only predicted to finish mid-table in 2021/22, an inability to string together a consistent run of form, coupled with going out to third division opponents in a penalty shootout in the cup, has meant that the board has been really on my back with the season objectives set out at the start of the campaign.

As I’m writing this, I’m heading into April 2022, and hoping a late run of form can guarantee European football next season and allow me to remove some of these ridiculous objectives going forward. Below is a screenshot of the youth players (23 and under) in the first team squad in season 2021/22, and how they’ve performed so far.

Nico Williams and Unai Vencedor are clearly standouts, and have performed well in the season to date. An honourable mention goes to Oihan Sancet, who started the season as a rotation option while I fielded a pairing of Mikel Vesga and Dani Garcia at the start of the campaign. Selling Vesga in January has meant that Unai Vencedor moved to first choice, and Oihan has been getting more minutes.

Dani Vivian and Oier Zarraga have had it tougher to get consistent match time. Vivian competes with Yeray and Unai Núñez to partner Martinez in defence. Likewise, Zarraga is competing with both Muniain and Berenguer for the left-wing spot. Summer transfers into 2022/23 may change this scenario; wait and see. Morcillo’s being out on loan in the second division further complicates this.

While Peru has been getting plenty of minutes out on loan, it appears as if he has hit his ceiling. I will have to assess, at the end of the season, what happens next. Imanol was out on loan at the start of the season, and damaged his cruciate ligaments in October, with a 5–6 month recovery timeframe. I will be looking to have him serve as backup to Yuri next season, as Balenziaga’s departure has also vacated that spot on the first team.

From the current batch of promising youth in the second team, the clear standouts are Juan Artola (AMC) and Julen Agirrezabala (GK). With Raul Garcia likely to go around just one more year and Ezkieta being sold (purely because of his performance in our cup loss), the stage is ripe for Juan and Julen to make the next step up.

Youth Intake

I got an “excellent” intake on the 29th of March. The Elite and Top talents look like they’ll fit into my style of play in time. Whether or not the good and decent talents kick on is neither here nor there. If they make the grade, they’ll be great squad filler. If not, I will look to recoup some coin on them when the time comes. All players here will be signed and will look to progress through the ranks in time.

For previous A-Z entries, please visit: The A-Z of Football Manager.