Adam Underwood: Leeds United's impressive productivity explained
Written by Simon Austin — January 9, 2023
LEEDS UNITED’S Academy is one of the most productive in the country - and this applies not only to players, but staff as well.
The Whites rose a whopping eight places to eighth in the latest edition of TGG's Academy Productivity Rankings, which place clubs according to the number of pro players they have produced.
A number of their staff have also progressed to first-team roles in recent seasons. The most obvious examples are former Under-23s boss Carlos Corberan, now Head Coach of West Brom, and his successor Mark Jackson, who was appointed boss of MK Dons last month.
There are many others too: Alessandro Barcherini (from Leeds Head of Academy Goalkeeping to Head of Goalkeeping at Sunderland), Darren Arnott (U23s coach to assistant at Strømsgodset), Danny Schofield (U23s coach to Doncaster manager), Aaron Dagger (U23s analyst to first-team analyst at MK Dons), Jaime Monroy (U23s coach to West Brom) and Michael Morton (YDP Lead to York City).
Rather than lamenting these losses, Academy Manager Adam Underwood says he is proud of their progress.
“No matter how far back you look, productivity has always been a strength of this club,” Underwood tells TGG. “Regardless of our first-team status or the financial situation, we have always been able to maintain really strong levels of transition from Academy to first-team football.
“I think that is one thing that attracted the investment we have had over the last five years from the chairman. The argument was, ‘With better times and more support, how successful could we be?' And we are very much on that journey now.”
Underwood picks out three main themes when discussing the club's high productivity:
- Investment in the Academy from the new ownership over the last five years.
- Opportunities afforded to both players and staff.
- Alignment between the Academy and first team.
We will look at each of these in turn...
We've produced a special 16-page A4 booklet showcasing the 2021/22 Academy Productivity Rankings. It contains:
- Further analysis from Josh Schneider-Weiler, including top 10 clubs for producing U23 players.
- Pull-out and keep rankings table.
- Special feature on Chelsea Director of Development Neil Bath.
- How LA Galaxy develop their stars of the future.
- Ged Roddy MBE: A decade of EPPP and what the future might hold.
- Academy Directory: Which clubs are in which category and who are their Academy Managers.
The price is £6.50, which covers includes postage (UK only). You can buy a copy by clicking the buttons below.
Chairman and majority owner Andrea Radrizzani said the Academy was a priority as soon as he walked through the door at the club in 2017. Three years later, Leeds were elevated to coveted Category One Academy status.
Underwood says: “We have more than trebled our resourcing of the Academy over the last five years, which is full testament to the club, and everything we have done has had an impact.
“There is no question that we have invested hugely in our staffing structure, our processes, our resourcing, to achieve Category One. Everything has been done with a clear purpose. We don’t operate here in luxuries, everything we have is adding value to the development process or to the experience our players are having."
Aside from the staffing and structures, there has also been a big focus on Academy recruitment, with the 16 to 19 age bracket (often termed emerging talent) at the forefront. The quartet of Joe Geldhardt (signed from Wigan in August 2020), Crysencio Summerville (from Feyenoord, September 2020), Pascal Struijk (Ajax, January 2018) and Sam Greenwood (Arsenal, August 2020) are the flagbearers for this.
Each was signed at the age of 18 and each has gone on to make an impact for the first team. This season they have made 60 Premier League appearances between them.
(Although it’s worth pointing out that none of them contributed to Leeds’ Academy Productivity Rankings score, because we only give points for players who were with an Academy up to the age of 18).
“We have, in my view, one of the strongest recruitment departments in the Premier League, particularly when it comes to youth football,” Underwood says.
“The investment there has been substantial and sustainable and is necessary now to ensure that in our training groups we have a best with best environment - the best local players and the best recruited players.”
Local recruitment had previously been the cornerstone, with many of Leeds' homegrown Yorkshire players now plying their trade in the Premier League and Championship, including:
- Kalvin Phillips: (Grew up in Leeds, now Manchester City and England)
- Lewis Cook: (Grew up in York, now Bournemouth)
- Charlie Taylor: (Grew up in York, now Burnley).
- Sam Byram: (Grew up in York, now Norwich City).
- Alex Mowatt: (Grew up in Doncaster, now West Brom on loan at Middlesbrough).
The tradition continues, with the likes of Charlie Cresswell (who grew up in York) Jamie Shackleton (Wakefield), who are both on loan at Millwall. The net was cast much wider when Radrizzani and Orta arrived, with the idea of a "best with best" strategy - the best local players and the best recruited players.
“The creation of that strategy has been a huge effort and Victor is very much a driver of that, with the support of Craig Dean (Head of Emerging Talent), Lyndon Tomlinson (Head of National Recruitment for the 12s to 16s), and the first team and international recruitment staff,” says Underwood.
However, recruitment has now had to “turn inwards” again, because of Brexit. British clubs are unable to recruit players under the age of 18 from Europe, while those who are older are required to meet the GB points criteria.
Like Chelsea’s Neil Bath, Underwood thinks the new rules could damage English Academies.
“If this best with best concept is to be maximised, then opportunities for players to come from abroad to join our best English talent is a good thing,” he argues. “The argument would be it enhances opportunities for British players because they’re training and playing with better players day in day out.
“I don’t think it materialises into less opportunities for British players. We work incredibly hard to ensure that kids from Leeds have the best opportunity to play for Leeds.”
With recruitment now needing to become more local again, could the fact that the Academy is based at Thorp Arch - almost 20 miles from Leeds city centre - pose a problem? This is why Aston Villa have chosen to build an 'Inner City Academy' near their Villa Park ground, to enable easier access for kids from the inner city.
England midfielder Phillips, the poster boy for Leeds' Academy, has previously spoken about his mum having to drive him to and from training in a car that was barely roadworthy.
Underwood says an Inner City Academy is "something we’ve considered and thought about.”
“There have been discussions around potential investment in further training facilities for the club and that continues. But we would have to ensure that if we moved from Thorp Arch it was for something better and right now we are really happy with what we have here and think it’s a fantastic environment.
“I don’t think at the moment that’s detrimental to us achieving what we want to achieve as an Academy.”
When Orta presented at TGG’s Scouting and Recruitment Webinar last year, he explained how the club chose to leave four first-team spots open for homegrown players.
“I believe in a project that is one of Marcelo Bielsa’s legacies - 18 professionals and the other four players always being under 21,” the Spaniard said.
Underwood says opportunity is a big recruitment driver for Leeds.
“We think we are a club that can offer that development opportunity but also the opportunity to transition and go and play," he says. "Those are the key ingredients for us.
“You can never move away from operating with a meritocracy, but what you can do is plan for that opportunity in a long term and strategic sense. If you are very clear on how many players you are going to have in your first-team squad and stand by that and then do the same with players underneath, say in your 21s and 18s, you can guarantee opportunity down the line.
“If you have, for example, 18 players in your first-team squad, that might be lighter than other Premier League teams who have two for each position. What Victor was referencing was leaving those slots open for younger players to go and take them.
“We try to make sure their development experience along the way supports that.”
This opportunity to progress also extends to staff - something Underwood himself has benefited from. He started off as an Academy coach in 2009, went on to become a Performance Analyst and then, in 2014, the Academy Manager, during the crazy days of previous owner Massimo Cellino.
This opportunity arose when Neil Redfearn was promoted to first-team manager. Several staff have had dual Academy and first-team roles under the new ownership.
Corberan, for example, was both U23s boss and first-team coach under Bielsa, which surely made him one of the hardest working people in football.
“We weren’t asking him to do two full-time jobs but found a way to make it work that was for the ultimate benefit of the players," Underwood says. “With Carlos being across the two environments, the support staff around him then had the opportunity to do a lot more and take on a lot more responsibility.
“They were able to over-extend, effectively, and get exposed to something they wouldn’t be normally. Some of those guys who have since left us have gone on to be successful themselves.”
Corberan has since gone on to make waves with both Huddersfield and now West Brom (with a brief and ill-fated spell at Olympiakos sandwiched in between) and Underwood says: “He’s a super coach and has got the raw ingredients you see in other successful coaches.
“He’s fundamentally so determined and fixed on performing at the highest level and ultimately winning games, developing players, that he’s bound to find success. He will no doubt be successful and have a strong career.”
Leeds effectively operate a two-tier Academy, with the 9s to 14s working differently to the 15s to 21s.
“Our model is split into two: the Junior Academy, where we form the basics in the players, is between 9 to 14, and then the pathway switches from 15 to 21 and first team, where we align fully on the playing style and how to train and speak about football and how we review performance," Underwood reveals.
“That is perhaps unusual for our level, but we feel it supports very well the strategy we have with pathway and opportunity for progression of players. Credit to our staff, because their buy-in and willingness to operate in the club’s philosophy is unwavering, and that is often not the case in my experience.”
The 15s to 21s work as closely to the first team as possible.
"We have similar processes and a relatively clear understanding across the board of how we work during the week, pre-match, during the match, post match," Underwood explains. “We have made sure that the environment and support we create for our U21s is as close to that of the first team as possible."
This means it's a seamless experience for the U21s when they move up to train and even play alongside Jesse Marsch's first team. This effort to align extends as far as the U21s playing matches at Elland Road.
“This is something the owners deserve a lot of credit for," Underwood says. "I think the cumulative attendance at Elland Road for the five games we played there in Premier League 2 last season was more than 60,000.
“The pinnacle was playing Manchester City in front of more than 20,000 fans (in April 2022) and they are invaluable experiences for the players. It’s about getting as close as we can to the first-team experience within our own pathway.”
A spate of senior injuries last season meant a lot of U21 players ended up being parachuted into the first team, which did damage their Premier League 2 campaign, resulting in relegation back to Division 2. Currently they sit top of that division, which they won in 2020/21, though.
Success at youth level will also be judged on more than just results, with productivity always a key indicator.