One step closer to a huge change in English soccer: Meet Manchester United B

Bringing good football down the pyramid.
Bringing good football down the pyramid.
Image: Reuters/Darren Staples
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English soccer suffers from a conundrum: How can the Premier League be so good and the national team be so bad?

To solve this, the head of soccer’s highest body in England recommended last May adding a new tier of Premier League reserve teams into the footballing pyramid. (Soccer teams are promoted or relegated based on their performances in the different leagues within the pyramid—there are hundreds of leagues in English soccer and, in theory, teams from the bottom of the pyramid can work their way to the top.)

The idea is that so-called B teams—for example, Manchester United B versus smaller teams like Plymouth Argyle and Dagenham & Redbridge—would allow the Premier League to find and field more (presumably English) talent, which would in turn help the national team because they would have a bigger talent pool to choose from.

This has long been a practice among leagues in other countries—in Spain, the B teams play in the lower leagues and breed talent that step up to the first team. Pep Guardiola, now one of the world’s most esteemed managers, started in management with Barcelona B.

But the idea was opposed by many in England—one paper labelled it the death of lower-league soccer—and it seemed like it was unlikely to happen. In England, reserve teams have historically played in their own league, though the fixtures are somewhat meaningless without the motivation of relegation and promotion. The reserves competition folded in 2012 and is now an under-21 league, full of players few fans could name.

But this week, the clubs that exist two and three levels below the Premier League voted overwhelmingly to allow its B teams to play in a tournament for smaller teams, the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. The competition’s last few winners have been from places even Englishmen would struggle to find on a map—Chesterfield, Crewe, Peterborough. It is more casually known as the Johnstone’s Watching Paint Dry Trophy for the quality of soccer on display.

This new plan is considered an alternative to the idea of a new tier, but it does mark a huge step forward towards the creation of a League Three, which—if it ever happens—would be the most radical overhaul of soccer since 1992, when the top tier of English soccer decided to break away and form the Premier League itself.