The Leaders Performance Institute highlights six areas in the EPPP’s ten-year review.
By John Portch
In 2022, the Premier League, Football Association (FA) and English Football League (EFL) celebrated ten years of its Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP).
The EPPP was launched in 2012 to overhaul the English boys academy system and ensure the development of a higher quantity – and better quality – of ‘home grown’ players at a time when English talent pathways were widely considered to be lagging behind their counterparts in nations such as France, Germany and Spain. The EPPP was adopted across the academies of the English men’s football pyramid from the Premier League to League 2.
Today, the top line numbers released by the Premier League, FA and EFL indicate that the EPPP has had a positive impact. For example, there are 762 more academy graduates with professional contracts in the English leagues than there were during the 2012-13 season. There has also been progress at international level, where the England youth and senior men’s teams have enjoyed considerable success in recent years. The EPPP faces the constant challenge of trying to satisfy all its stakeholders, but English football is better at transitioning home-grown talent than it was in 2012.
The plan is overseen by the Premier League’s Director of Football Neil Saunders, who spoke about the progress made in the last decade at the 2022 Leaders Sport Performance Summit at London’s Twickenham Stadium.
Saunders’ appearance came shortly after the publication of the EPPP’s first 10-year review and, here, the Leaders Performance Institute highlights six ways in which the initiative seeks to address some of our members’ most pressing concerns around talent pathways and player evaluation.
- The predictors of success
What are the best predictors of success in youth and academy football? No club or organisation claims to have all the answers, but the EPPP has been designed to maximise the opportunity for those who enter talent pathways from under-nine and upwards. The approach is based on the Four Corner Model for long-term player development. The ‘four corners’ – technical, psychological, physical and social – were applied to the FA’s Future Game Plan in 2010, which according to the EPPP review, ‘has been adapted and tailored by each club according to their own playing and coaching philosophy.’ All clubs have developed an Academy Performance Plan in line with its vision, philosophy and strategy. These Academy Performance Plans also integrate ‘core programmes of the EPPP, such as: education, games programme, coaching, and performance support.’
- The value placed on coaching expertise
In the discourse around talent pathways, some have bemoaned the fact that coaches have not always been credited for their inherent expertise, that they are too readily dismissed for not being objective. The EPPP works at a systemic level to underline the value placed in coaches and, since its inception, there has been an increase of approximately 50% in the number of coaching hours available to young players at English clubs. ‘Changes to the coaching offer since the EPPP have been led by three key factors,’ says the review. The first is ‘quality’. The EPPP set standards that focused on elements such as ‘different aspects of the game as a player progresses, including age-specific coaching and coaches.’ Then there is ‘access’, which is where the EPPP tried to bring coaching hours ‘in line with leading practices across multiple sports and disciplines’. Finally, the question of ‘development’, which is the effort to offer coaches ‘new individualised programmes and qualification requirements, tailored to each phase and Academy category.’
- Collecting varied and valued views when player profiling
Through the aforementioned Academy Performance Plans, the EPPP enables multidisciplinary player profiling. ‘Performance support staff work closely with other key Academy staff groups to aid and inform player identification, development, and transition along the pathway,’ the review says. ‘Academies have increasingly taken an integrated and holistic approach to delivering individual programmes, tailored for age and stage of a player’s development’. ‘Generally, [the EPPP] has led to more informed discussions and a genuine appreciation of the capacity an individual player can express given the physical and mental limitations imposed by their stage of development,’ wrote Edd Vahid, the Head of Academy Operations at the Premier League – and Leaders Performance Advisor – in 2021 while still working at Southampton’s academy.
- Combatting biases and underrepresentation
The fear of biases undermining decision-making in talent development and evaluation is universal. For its part, the EPPP has taken steps to abate the effects of relative age effect. ‘As a global phenomenon,’ says the review, ‘a higher proportion of boys in the Academy system are born in the first quarter of the academic year’. The system has organised festivals for children born towards the end of the academic year, but ‘analysis has shown that this bias does not necessarily translate to the likelihood to succeed in the professional game’. Indeed, the provisions of the EPPP understand that the transition to senior football is not one-size-fits-all, that player journeys are unique.
There are, however, three broad player ‘archetypes’ found across English football, according to the review. First is the ‘fast-tracked’ player, such as Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold, who broke into the senior team as a 19-year-old; second is the ‘focused development’ player, such as Harvey Barnes of Leicester City, who took targeted loans (temporary transferral of his registration from his parent club to a loan club) before making his Premier League debut; third is the ‘tiered progression’ player, such as Aston Villa’s Ollie Watkins, who had extensive lower league experience (including some targeted loans) before making his Premier League debut at 25.
There is also the question of underrepresentation of players with Asian backgrounds in the academies of English football. During the 2021-22 season, and within the auspices of the EPPP, the South Asian Action Plan was launched in partnership with the anti-racism football charity Kick It Out. Says the review: ‘It aims to ensure that every player has the opportunity to achieve their potential in football through the delivery of research, staff training and Emerging Talent Festivals focused on equal access and improving pathways through the Academy system.’ It states that 648 players attended an Emerging Talent Festival during the 2021-22 season and there has been a more than 60% increase in academy scholars from black, Asian, mixed and other backgrounds in the last ten seasons. There is, however, much work still to be done on that front.
- Self-evaluation for players and coaches
The EPPP provides a uniform structure to academies, who then issue players with bespoke individual development plans (IDPs). IDPs are useful for assessing how a player is developing against the principles set out on an academy’s talent pathway. The resulting contrasts can often validate the methods being used, one of which is self-reflection. IDPs provide the space for players to self-reflect with increasing emphasis as they progress along the pathway. The review says IDPs aim ‘to be aspirational and provide the right level of challenge to encourage the individual to maximise their potential as a player and as a person’.
Teams also place an emphasis on player and team analysis. ‘Academy players fully understand the demands of the game, with a deliberate focus on performance analysis education to equip them with the skillset to drive their own development, underpinned with a unique club philosophy and data-driven approach.’
The EPPP also supports a player’s academic progression and seeks to provide both life skills and what the review terms ‘life-enriching experiences’. According to the review, more than 20,000 players have attended the academy life skills and personal development programme since its introduction.
As for coaches on the EPPP, they are invited to join a ‘community of learning’ as part of English football’s Integrated Coaching Strategy, which is ‘a multi-stakeholder partnership to deliver and sustain world-leading coach and manager education, development and career pathways across English Men’s and Women’s professional football.’
- Continual reviewing and updating of the plan
During its ten-year existence, the EPPP has never stood still. Tweaks have been made across the board, whether it’s the academy games programme, which was redesigned and enhanced during the 2013-14 season or the creation of the Professional Game Academy Audit Company, between 2018-19 and 2020-21, which provides ‘an independent and comprehensive audit of rules and standards to clubs.’ Competition rules will continually be updated, new processes introduced, and priority areas identified.