Following Italy’s exit from World Cup qualifying at the hands of North Macedonia, calcio fans engaged in some fiery discussions about the state of youth development in the nation. While stories of a collapse are perhaps exaggerated, it did get me thinking about the paths that Serie A teams provide to their academy players, and particularly, what sort of path Fiorentina provides to Primavera standouts.
The raw data
To find out, I decided to take a look at Primavera players dating back to 2015-2016. That gave me a sample of 5 complete seasons to look at. I could have gone farther back, but I felt that looking too far back ran the risk of ignoring the current state of the club in favor of the ancient past, so guys like Gianluca Mancini, Nicolò Zaniolo, and Federico Bernardeschi aren’t included here.
My methodology was to look at every player for the Primavera over that stretch and see where they are now. While it’s wildly reductive to judge these players—none of whom are older than 24—as successful or unsuccessful, I decided to take a deeper look at guys who were in the first or second tiers of a big 5 European league or guys who’d made at least 10 appearances for first division teams in smaller nations. I’m also including players who are currently under contract with the Viola but are on loan elsewhere, even though their eventual future destinations are uncertain.
That left me 21 academy graduates who are playing at high levels. These are some pretty subjective terms, of course, but I think they’re sufficient for, at the least, an exploration of the movement of high-potential players. Again, there are some more recent academy graduates who could wind up playing at higher levels (e.g. Samuele Spalluto) but aren’t there yet, so maybe this can help us figure out how to think about those guys and some of the current Primavera stars.
First of all, I think this demonstrates just how potent Fiorentina’s academy is. While the club has spent big on some teenagers, look at some of those names who’ve come up through the system. This organization produces a fair number of players who are capable of contributing at a very high level.
And that’s part of the problem here, too. While the fees for Federico Chiesa and Dušan Vlahović make the fees received look pretty impressive, there are only 3 other players whose sales have created an income. And that income, in total, is €1.15 million. That’s not enough. Even if you take out the players still on Fiorentina’s books (I’m not including Chiesa, because c’mon), Fiorentina gets nothing for almost two-thirds of the good players their academy has produced in the past 5 years.
While most of these guys aren’t regular contributors at the top level, this is a group of young players whose trajectories are uniformly pointing up. They all have resale value, so even guys like Edoardo Pierozzi, who’s a rotational option for a Serie B club, will improve and could rise to be a solid Serie A contributor in a few years.
What’s also interesting to me is that we were pretty sure that most of these guys were at the beginning of good careers (I won’t pretend to have held huge expectations for Tomás Reymāo or Santiago Visentin), so it’s not like they just exploded into good players out of nowhere. They were all Primavera regulars and most of them were youth internationals. They all passed the eyeball test. And most of them didn’t return any value to the club when they left.
While that’s bound to happen at times for various reasons—Ianis Hagi is the most obvious example—Fiorentina need to do a better job of monetizing these assets. While looking at the business side of things is boring and gross sometimes, understanding it is particularly important for a team like the Viola, whose revenue streams are limited (new stadium plz). Being able to receive a return on the investment in these youngsters could make a big difference.
For me, the best way to monetize these assets is to keep these guys tied to Fiorentina for longer. The market for promising but not-yet-fully-developed players is extant but not robust. That said, it should provide enough income every year to effectively fund the salary of a promising new addition to the squad, allowing for a more sustainable business model that won’t sink under its own weight while occasionally producing a superstar or two that can be sold for an enormous profit.
This is where the structure of calcio becomes a problem. A look at the three leagues generally considered to be even with or ahead of Italy’s—England’s, Germany’s, and Spain’s—shows markedly different approaches to youth development. The Premier League has an active and vibrant reserve team system that houses prospects up to the age of 23 while serving as a chance for injured players to rehab as well. The Bundesliga and la Liga both give top flight clubs the option to field a U23 reserve side in the lower leagues, allowing them to stash youngsters and let them develop.
Serie A, however, prevents teams from keeping youngsters in-house past the age of 19 without a senior contract. The Primavera is, after all, a U19 competition. Most of its participants need another couple years of seasoning before they’re ready for the highest level. While a precocious few make the jump straight to the first team, most wind up in limbo, boasting the potential to make an impact for the senior side but not the immediate ability.
The solution has long been a series of loan moves, usually to clubs in Serie B or Serie C, away from the parent club. While this approach does expose youngsters to the rigors and rhythms of the professional game, it also prevents their parent club from watching their development and grooming them in a system that helps funnel them to the first team. When and if they return after 3 years of loans, these players may have played three wildly contrasting styles, stunting their growth with constant change.
Fiorentina have a chance to get a jump on a lot of their opposition here. While the paperwork and labor hours it would take to create a B-team are considerable, the club would recoup the financial outlay fairly quickly. It would also allow more academy graduates to break into the first team; Lorenzo Venuti and Riccardo Sottil are the only players on their second contracts who’ve worked their way through the ranks, and they both had to take several loan moves in the interim. The Viola can’t stand to hemorrhage talent like this, especially with the homegrown player requirements.
If you’d rather consider it through a purely financial lens, look at how many players get lost in the shuffle between graduating from the Primavera and signing professional terms: guys like Zaniolo, Mancini, and Filippo Bandinelli are all regular Serie A contributors the team lost for nothing. At 18 or 19, it wasn’t clear what they’d become. At 22 or 23, it was glaringly obvious. Just those three would have likely brought in something like €50 million, although there isn’t a supporter who wouldn’t rather just have them in the XI.
If nothing else, a B-team would ensure that talents like Petko Hristov, Jan Mlakar, and Fabio Maistro could stay under the watchful eyes of the Viola coaching staff for another few years, allowing Daniele Pradè and company another season or two of evaluation. The chaos for these young people can’t be helpful for the development, and it hurts the club as well.
We’ve written before about the need for a B-team, but back then, it was more for the benefit of player development. It’s not just a matter of strengthening the first team anymore, though; it’s a matter of strengthening the books as well, and that’s something that club management should welcome.