Scouting is a serious business - Why Premier League clubs are struggling to keep their top young players
It was a busy Friday for the scouts of Bundesliga clubs who keep an eye on the rich seam of talent in English development football. They were spotted en masse at Arsenal and Chelsea under 18s game at noon in Hertfordshire, and then later at Aldershot Town, where Chelsea under 23s played their Manchester City counterparts at 7.0pm.
This is the new reality for the English game, where the Fifa-set compensation tariffs for the transfer of boys cross-border mean there are bargains to be had for Bundesliga clubs who can persuade a teenager - and his agent - of the merits of the move. There were so many German scouts at Arsenal's training ground the club turned down ticket requests from all but the players' families.
They are here because there are fears over a deficit of top talent in their own academies, just as English clubs at the turn of the millennium were raiding the Spanish clubs for their best teenagers. Signing a 16-year-old English academy boy costs a German club around €130,000 (£112,000) in Fifa-set compensation, and an 18-year-old whose first professional contract has expired around €250,000 (£216,000). Were an English club to try to buy the same player it would most likely go to tribunal, where judgments are unpredictable and often expensive.
The second Arsenal goal in their 3-0 win was scored by Tyreece John-Jules, an 18-year-old in the old No 9 tradition. He will be out of contract in the summer of next year and will have been of interest to those watching from Germany. On his way back from injury, his rapid development means he usually plays for the under 23s. Any scout watching the elite development game will know there are not many like him, averaging one goal per game for most of his junior career.
Others of interest will have been goalkeeper Arthur Okonkwo, on the bench for the under 18s at 17, and already 6ft 5in tall. The right back Vontae Daley-Campbell, 17, has already agreed with Arsenal he will leave this summer. The club have managed to sign Bukayo Saka, 17, on a long-term contract which protects his value to them for the time being. The winger was given his first-team debut in the Europa League before Christmas and his progress has been so rapid that under 18s football no longer offers a meaningful challenge.
At London Colney, the visiting scouts are restricted to watching the under 18s but there is nothing to stop them chatting to parents and the handful of agents who are there. It is a strange atmosphere: convention dictates that Arsenal let scouts in, but they are under no illusions what the consequences might be.
At Arsenal, as with other Premier League clubs, some of those boys in the under 18s may soon have difficult decisions to make: between committing their future to the club of their teenage years or taking an offer from overseas. It will be hard for many to ignore the career path of the most successful teenager at the club. Matteo Guendouzi got his first-team chance at Ligue 2 club Lorient aged just 17 and, at 19, is now the club's breakthrough star of the season. He has played more first-team games than the whole under 23 squad combined.
Some take longer to develop but you have to wonder how certain careers would be different with more game-time. In the current under 23s at Arsenal is the Spanish defender Julio Pleguezuelo, 22, who came from Barcelona aged 16 and made his only first-team appearance in the League Cup in October. He has had a couple of loans back to Spain but the reality for a player still in the under 23s at 22 is that the chance of a first-team career is remote.
So too Gedion Zelalem, a United States junior international with German dual-nationality considered a top talent when he was signed by Arsenal aged 16. He is 22 now, and last played for the first team in the League Cup in October 2016. Two loans have led nowhere so far. There can be little that a 22-year-old has to gain from under 23 football when the leading clubs use it as a proving ground for their 18-year-olds.
Arsenal are not the only club struggling to keep their best young players.
West Bromwich Albion's midfielder Rekeem Harper, 19, has made 16 first-team appearances this season and is out of contract this summer. While English clubs are interested, he is an obvious cut-price target for the Bundesliga. RB Leipzig have made inquiries. Chelsea's 18-year-old right back Tariq Lamptey is another who is being scouted with a contract that expires in the summer of next year.
The list goes on: midfielder Matt O'Riley at Fulham and his team-mate, goalkeeper Luca Ashby-Hammond, also England under 18s, are both considered to be serious prospects by European scouts. At West Brom, where the academy is going through a patch of developing some excellent players, centre-back Nathan Ferguson is of interest to Juventus. The Liverpool full-back Curtis Jones, 18, who made his first team debut in January is another being scouted. So too Birmingham City's 15-year-old midfield prodigy, Jude Bellingham.
Moves abroad are attractive to agents, who can earn more in fees because the cost of the transfer is so low. There are also risks. While a pathway to the first team is the big sell, not all have seen that open up immediately. Jonathan Panzo, the former Chelsea defender who captained the England under 17s World Cup-winning team, has played just once for Monaco this season. Josh Maja is not yet a starter at Bordeaux after leaving Sunderland in January. At 18, Rabbi Matondo came on as a substitute for Schalke on Friday night, his fourth senior appearance. He is not yet a starter either, although he already has more senior football than he would have done had he stayed at Manchester City.
German clubs believe the English system has produced a better quality of player. They also know that for the relatively low price of training compensation the risk is worth taking if, as with Jadon Sancho, there are huge margins to be made selling the player back to English clubs once he has made the step up to senior football.
For these young players it is a difficult choice. For a promising teenager, a brief run-out in the League Cup is no longer enough when they look at their predecessors who have gone stale in under 23 football. Still, not everyone can be assured of thriving in a move to a European club. It is a tough decision for a young player to make, and yet it might just be the most important of his career