With Inter's academy teams enjoying a very successful end to the 2016/17 season, and the youth teams enjoying a period of relatively continuous success, I thought it would be a good time to revisit the question - "How successful is Inter's Academy?"
Defining success for a club's academy:
The purpose of a club's academy is to produce not just great footballers but also good individuals. However, beyond that, success for a club's academy can be defined in a number of ways. For example, at a global football level, a club's academy success might be defined by how many World Cup winners it has produced. At a more club-centric level, the definition of success might be more along the lines of number of academy products that have won the league with the senior team. For the purpose of this article, I have used the following factors to determine success of Inter's academy (ranked in the order of importance – most to least)
- Number of academy team players playing a lead role in club's first team success
- Transfer fees – generated from academy player sales
- Number of titles at the academy level (league / cup / ...)
- Number of World Cup winners produced by the academy
- First team players – playing a lead role in other club's first team success
Examining each of the criteria in greater detail:
1. Number of academy team players playing a lead role in club's first team success
One of the clearest definitions of success for a club's academy is its contribution to first team success through players promoted to the first team. The Ajax and Barcelona academies are standard bearers when it comes to this criterion. Barcelona's 2009 Champions League winning team consisted of eight players who came up through their famous La Masia academy. Ajax's run to the 2017 Europa League final saw them use up to 11 academy graduates who have honed their skill at the famous Sportpark De Toekomst training ground. Closer to home, Atalanta has done exceedingly well by integrating their academy products into the first team. Contributions from youth team graduates Mattia Caldara, Andrea Conti, Roberto Gagliardini, and Franck Kessie played a major role in Atalanta enjoying their most successful finish in Serie A (4th place) in 2017.
Now, switching focus to Inter - our treble winning squad had the likes of Mario Balotelli, Goran Pandev, and Davide Santon who all played more than a bit-part role in the team's success. Post-treble, besides brief runs in the first team for the likes of Joel Obi, Marco Faraoni, and similar bit-part players, none of the youth team players have been able to contribute to Inter's first team in any meaningful way. The constant chopping and changing of our managers has not helped the situation either and an unstable first team environment only makes it harder for the youngsters to settle down. By this measure, in recent years, the academy has not been successful in helping Inter's first team become more successful.
2. Transfer fees – generated from academy player sales
If an academy cannot directly act as a conveyor belt of talent for the club's first team, the next best thing it can do is generate revenue through youth player sales. If an outside club is willing to pay big bucks for one of your academy products, they clearly see value and it might be a bit puzzling as to why the first team cannot. However, the academy's first team may be unable to integrate the prospect as they already have adequate cover in that position, or the first team has more urgent needs in other positions where the transfer fees would be used, or the academy product may be used in a cash plus player swap for an incoming transfer as Inter has often done in the recent past. A less acceptable reason for selling a promising youth product is disconnect in style of play between the way the first team and academy.
When it comes to the amount of transfer fees generated from academy sales, the CIES Football Observatory, a research group within the International Centre for Sports Studies, compiled a list of the top 20 most profitable academies from 2012 to 2015 and the reading is not pretty for Serie A in general.
Southampton from the English Premier League tops the list with a net 90.2 million Euros profit. Lille from Ligue 1 comes in second with 76 million Euros profit and Real Sociedad from La Liga comes in third with 62.2 million Euros profit. Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Manchester United all feature in the top 20. The only representatives from Italy are Genoa (15th) with 24.5 million and Atalanta (17th) with 23.6 million Euros profit. Inter, Juve, and Milan do not feature in the top 20 of this list. A quick glance at the overall transfer funds generated by the big five leagues in Europe shows that Serie A is trailing in the wake of the other leagues.
Ligue 1 total: €292 million
La Liga: €276 million
Premier League: €227 million
Bundesliga: €163 million
Serie A: €114 million
Academies in Italy might just handle their transfers differently which might explain some of the gap but it perhaps points to a more systemic problem with management of youth academies in Italy. In summary, however, it seems clear that Inter's academy can do a lot better when it comes to generating more profits from transfers (as can most of Serie A).
3. Number of titles at the academy level (League, Cup, and Tournaments)
One might wonder why winning cups at the youth level is only at number three in the list of criteria used to define success. After all, if the academy team wins a trophy that should be the clearest indication of success for them. However, winning trophies at this level without churning out talents who can ace it at the senior level is a less than satisfactory outcome.
Having said that, there is still value in showing academy prospects that the youth team has won trophies in the recent past as which youngster would not want to have a chance to be part of the best youth team in Italy. Due to the myriad ways in which youth tournaments are structured across different leagues in Europe, I am only going to compare academies across Italy for this section for a more apples to apples comparison.
There are a number of different youth tournaments in Italy that vary from leagues to cups and from ages U15 to U19. Arguably the most important of these youth tournaments is the Campionato Nazionale Primavera -Trofeo Giacinto Facchetti (Primavera League Tournament). The field consists of U19 youth teams from Serie A and Serie B sides. Torino is the most successful side with 9 titles to its name. Inter currently has 8 titles along with Roma. Juventus' Primavera has won 4 titles, while Milan has just a solitary title to their name.
Just like the senior level, there is a Coppa Italia at the Primavera level as well. Here again, Torino's Primavera team is most successful with 7 cup victories. Inter are once again the second most successful side with 6 tournament wins. Roma and Juventus have 5 and 4 wins respectively while Milan has just 2 instances of tournament success.
Beyond the Primavera League and Cup tournaments, the Torneo di Viareggio (Viareggio Tournament) forms the third famous youth tournament that is held in Italy. Officially called the Viareggio Cup World Football Tournament Coppa Carnevale, it lasts two weeks and has been held since 1949. Juventus and Milan are the most successful clubs with 9 tournament wins each. Fiorentina has 8 wins while Inter has 7 (Torino and Roma have 6 and 3 tournament wins respectively).
Having covered the three main youth tournaments in Italy, it is clear that Inter's academy and their Primavera team is very successful when it comes to success on the pitch. The post-2000 period has been particularly golden for the Primavera teams. While the success rate of graduating players to the senior team can be identified as an area of improvement, Inter's academy system cannot be faulted for lack of on-pitch success at the youth levels.
4. Number of World Cup winners produced by the academy
When a club's academy products can go on to get success at the national team level, it can definitely become a selling point to attract youngsters. When those academy graduates go on to become World Cup winners, your audience will have more than a passing interest! It is important to point out that this metric is different from clubs that have contributed to World Cup wins by providing players who played for them but did not necessarily come up through their youth system. The best recent examples of club academies contributing to World Cup wins are Bayern Munich (Germany 2014) and Barcelona (Spain 2010). Bayern's academy graduates Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm, Thomas Muller, Toni Kroos and Mats Hummels all played a part in the national team’s triumph at Rio 2014. Similarly, Barcelona's La Masia produced seven members of the victorious 2010 Spain squad. These two examples are particularly telling as the club's academies contributed to a World Cup win of the country they are situated in.
A more thorough analysis of the data might yield a few surprises on which club academies contribute more to World Cup wins. Unfortunately, when it comes to this particular measure, Inter's academy has not scored very well. However, given the club's international foundations, I would not be surprised to see Inter's academy contributing heavily to not just the Italian team's success in the future.
5. First team players – playing a lead role in other club's first team success
In an ideal world a club's academy produces players that fit right into the first team's needs. However, in the real world that is rarely the case. A 2014 study showed that Italy ranks lowest among the big five leagues of Europe when it comes to participation of home-grown or club trained players at just 9.6%. France ranks first with 24.6%, La Liga is second with 22.4%, Bundesliga is third with 16.4% and Premier League thereafter with 13.9% home-grown players. According to UEFA criteria, a player is considered home-grown or club-trained if they spent at least three seasons at the club between the ages of 15 and 21. With such small percentages of home-grown players in the first team squad, it is inevitable that many of a club's academy players will have to be sold or loaned to other clubs. Youth players sold at great profits are excellent as it generates funds to bring in other players that might fill a more urgent need of the senior team. Likewise if a player is deemed to be better suited to a mid- or lower-tier club, then their transfer is justified. However, if the transfer fees are nothing to write home about and the player shines for a title rival, it sort of feels like a double whammy as Inter did not gain from the player's professional development and we directly strengthened a title rival.
Too often in the recent past, Inter has included youngsters in part-exchange deals to bring in more established players without fully recognizing the value of the youngster being traded away. Thus while having an academy's youth products feature in other big five league teams in some analyses, I think there needs to be a couple of conditions for that to be considered a success: First, the youth player's exit from Inter resulted in a transfer fee equal to or better than market values, or second, the player was let go for cheap and currently plays for a mid-tier club with no significant rise in their market value post-transfer. The same 2014 study showed Inter with a total of 18 players ranked in the top 20 in Europe for number of club-trained players playing in Europe's big five leagues. However of these 18, only 4 were playing for Inter. A more recent 2016 study shows Inter's academy to be less successful in this metric by slipping out of the top 20. However without supporting information of transfer fees and current values of the players not at Inter, these numbers can be easily misleading and in some cases a high rank here could even mean directly weakening the player's parent club. Thus I have ranked this criterion as least important.
When it comes to success on the pitch, Inter's academy has done very well and if this were the only barometer of success, our academy would be considered extremely successful. However, as touched upon in the previous sections, an academy's success is measured in multiple ways and it can be seen that Inter's academy is certainly lacking in a few areas. The reasons for some of these limitations can be traced back to instability in management, different tactics of each new manager, and lack of a cohesive style of play across all age groups up to the senior team . Others can be linked to lack of patience with youth team products and a hesitation to take a chance on youngsters. What is clear is Inter's academy certainly has the potential to be much more impactful than it currently is and help the club become successful once again by climbing out of the current tough times.
What are your thoughts on Inter's academy and how successful do you think it has been?