The Blind Hammer Column
Blind Hammer argues for prioritising youth.
One, for me less welcome, historic change in English football was the increased jeopardy following top flight restructuring.
The old first Division hosted 22 teams but only 2 were relegated. In contrast, now 3 out of 20 face the trapdoor.
The fear consequent upon Losing 3 from 20 feels greater than that in the old structure. Nowadays the jeopardy of relegation clutches at more teams higher up the table.
Even if 2 teams are cut adrift, 1 team typically remains scrapping, drawing in other lower mid-table strugglers late into the relegation dogfight.
The situation is worsened by financial anxiety. In the past relegation was a competitive disappointment. It was not a financial disaster of the scale that now looms. Today relegation, without a prompt return, threatens the very existence of clubs. Some have to recover after falling into administration.
In previous times, with less jeopardy, with less financial consequences for each league placing, Wes Ham could use end of season matches to “blood” young players.
Modern financial pressures makes this strategy difficult . It is a rare Manager who will gamble their job to give youth a chance.
In recent seasons the opportunity for safe “blooding” has rarely arisen. Yet this is precisely our current situation. not only are we secure from relegation, we also have relatively little to play for.
The disappointment of the Cardiff result makes us clear second favourites for 7th spot. It may be controversial, but I believe our current squad is not yet robust enough to support a European Challenge anyway. We are not ready to compete on 3 let alone 4 fronts. Early summer European tournament qualification, only a few short months away will deprive our battered squad of necessary recovery time. Ambition needs to be framed realistically. The first step is a squad which can compete successfully on 2 fronts.
I am still mentally scarred by the Wimbledon debacle and the opportunity missed in one of the most open FA Cups in years. Next season’s priority should be to sustain our league improvement but for once also compete seriously in the cups. To realise even this, more limited, ambition will require squad development. We do not have mega resources but Rice’s elevation to the england Squad has sown what is possible. Some of the current crop of Academy contenders may, if given opportunity, also strengthen our prospects.
Pellegrini has shown more courage than most in giving youth a chance. Diangana, Silva and Johnson have joined rice in providing a youthful feed into the squad.
Yet the bench against Cardiff was strikingly shorn of any Academy products. This is prioritising the present rather than the future. This strategy should now reverse.
The return of Balbuena and Arnautovic was understandable. Other options were less straight forward.
As the season peters out, the case for retaining a probably departing Adrián is not clear. Surely the emergence of Trott, provided he is fit, should find reward? Masuaku should certainly find his place on the bench under pressure from Johnson,
Similarly Obiang should not be a fixture with the potential talents of Coventry and others available to compete. Nasri and Antonio should also find their bench places threatened by Holland and Diangana.
In normal circumstances Obiang would be ahead in selection. However we are not in normal circumstances. Pellegrini could reassure Obiang, and certainly both Nasri and Antonio of their importance in his short and medium term plans.
Pellegrini should grasp this opportunity, and announce his intention to blood selected young aspiring hopefuls.