The restructuring of English football's youth development system, which was aligned with the building of the state-of-the-art new National Football Centre at St. George's Park, has had impressive results at the highest level of the English game. Since the introduction of the new Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) in 2012, England has produced a long list of exciting, technically gifted young players; Phil Foden, Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford, Jude Bellingham, and Declan Rice, to name a few.
A number of new projects have been launched in the last decade as part of this restructuring programme, but without doubt one of the most impactful has been the establishment of Premier League 2. In this article, we'll be providing you with a beginner's guide to this competition packed with useful information about how it works.
We'll explain the Premier League 2 format, the reason the system was introduced, the typical age of players within the league, and the relationship Premier League 2 has with the senior Premier League and other domestic competitions. We'll also take a brief look at the recent history of the competition and expand our gaze to the future, considering how the division will be tweaked going forwards.
At the start of the 2016/17 season, the landscape of youth team football in England and Wales was altered significantly by the establishment of Premier League 2.
It is a new league format that replaced the Under-21 Premier League as the primary competition for young players contracted to top-flight professional clubs.
Prior to this point, the U21 Premier League allowed players under the age of 21 to compete against their peers throughout the season, with four over-age outfield players also permitted to play in each match. The same principle remained with the launch of the new structure, but the division's emphasis and purpose changed slightly.
One of the key factors behind the new league's launch was a desire to focus more on technicality, physicality, and intensity to bring players as close as possible to first-team experience. It was deemed that the previous Under-21 format wasn't allowing youth players to get to a level that would allow them to slot into a Premier League first team smoothly — Premier League 2 was seen as the solution.
Since then, a wide variety of talented young players have graduated from the league, including Manchester City's Liam Delap, Liverpool's Curtis Jones, and Manchester United's new signing Mason Mount, who played for Chelsea in the first-ever instalment of the new format.
The Premier League 2 format may be named after England's prestigious 20-team top flight, but it's structured in a slightly different way. Since its inception, the league has been split into two tiers, with 14 teams in Division 1 and 11 teams in Division 2, with promotion and relegation between the two leagues also on the cards each season.
The bottom two teams in Division 1 at the end of the season are relegated to Division 2, while the league winners of Division 2 achieve automatic promotion and teams ranked from second to fifth go on to contest a promotion play-off, with one-off semi-finals between 2nd and 5th place and 3rd and 4th placed teams, and a winner-takes-all final hosted at the ground of the team who finished higher in the league.
In total, there are 25 clubs who compete in Premier League 2 across the two leagues. Each of these clubs applied for "Category One" status in the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP), an award given to club academies based on productivity rates, training facilities, coaching, education, and welfare provisions. Only a small number of academies are granted Category One status, and you don't have to be a Premier League side to achieve this.
Of the current 25 Premier League 2 teams, there are 18 clubs from the senior top flight, six from the Championship and one from League One.
In both Division 1 and Division 2, each club plays each other once at home and once away over the course of a season. But to compete in those matches, a player has to hit certain legibility criteria, chiefly relating to age.
When Premier League 2 was first launched, all players involved in the league had to be under the age of 23; however, for the 2022/23 campaign, the rules were altered, with the maximum age being brought down to 21 to reflect the realities of player age in the league (the current average age for players in Premier League 2 is 19). This meant that in the 2022/23 season, all players born after 1 January 2001 were eligible to play.
On top of the academy players fielded in each matchday line up, each team is also allowed to field a goalkeeper over the age limit and up to five "over-age" outfield players in every match. This effectively means that Premier League 2 also functions as a format for senior players on the periphery of Prem first-team squads to remain match fit, much as they would during a typical reserves match back in the day.
The recent changes made to how Premier League 2 operates are a reflection of the FA's constant close monitoring of the Elite Player Performance Plan and its role in youth and senior football across England. A big factor behind the switch to being entirely designed for under 21 players was the FA's decision to intertwine the playing schedules of Premier League academy teams and EFL sides, a decision which we'll explore in the next section of this article.
When it was decided that Under-21 football across England would be restructured to benefit the aims of the Elite Player Performance Plan, Premier League 2 wasn't the only competition that was impacted. In a move that was designed to further prepare Premier League 2 players for the transition into senior football, a new format for the EFL Trophy was launched, causing some controversy amongst fans of lower-league clubs.
In 2016, the competition (formerly known as the Papa John's Trophy) was rebranded as the EFL Trophy, and at the same point the competition was expanded to add 16 Category One academy teams to the competition. These youth teams from Premier League 2 compete each season in Round One alongside all 48 teams from levels three and four of the English football pyramid (League One and League Two). This cup restructuring has given players from Category One academies a valuable opportunity to compete against senior pros in knockout football; however, it has been criticised heavily by some EFL fans and pundits.
Since 2016, thousands of fans of League One and Two clubs have boycotted matches in the competition as a protest against the involvement of Premier League academy and Under-21 sides. The reason for this is twofold; firstly, fans are frustrated by the idea that a rare opportunity for lower-league clubs to get their hands on silverware has been arguably hijacked by rich top-flight clubs, and secondly, there are widespread concerns that the competition will allow for further reform in the future that will see Premier League 2 teams introduced into the EFL and National League pyramid, not just in cup competitions such as the EFL Trophy.
While these concerns are completely understandable, the newly-parachuted U21 teams are yet to have made a serious mark on the EFL Trophy, with all of the tournament's finalists since 2016 being clubs from Leagues 1 and 2. However, the EFL Trophy isn't the only way Premier League 2 sides can win something for the trophy cabinet — in the next section of this article, we'll go through the teams that have collected silverware since England's U21 restructure.
Below, you'll find a list detailing each of the Premier League 2 title winners since the new format was introduced.
From the beginning of the 2023/24 season, each club competing within the Premier League 2 structure will be impacted by a huge system shake-up. The format's distribution of teams and the organisation of its league season will be changing dramatically from next season onwards…
In June 2023, Training Ground Guru reported that Premier League clubs had voted to introduce a one-tier Swiss-style format, following a season-long review of Premier League 2 that led to the conclusion that the games programme in its current guise has not been preparing Academy players for the senior game as well as it could.
As a result, 2023/24 will see the introduction of a 'Swiss model' based on the tournament used in chess and the structure that the UEFA Champions League will adopt from 2024/25. Essentially, this new model will mean all 25 Category One Academies will field an U21 team in the same league next season, with the previous promotions and relegations between the two tiers scrapped from here on in.
The new structuring of PL2 will see clubs seeded into five pots based on their historical performance in the competition over the preceding three years. Each team will play 20 matches in the regular season, against clubs in their own pot plus four or five teams in all other pots, after which play-off positions will be determined by the final table — then, the top 16 teams will qualify for a knockout format.
One factor behind the decision is the fact that with relegation and promotion on the cards, some teams in PL2 have made choices based primarily on maintaining league positions rather than focusing primarily on development decisions regarding individual players. The hope is that the new system will remedy this issue, but those on the other side argue that the removal of the jeopardy of relegation is bad for competitiveness. Only time will tell which view is more accurate.
Alongside the development of elite-level players that Premier League 2 is built around, The EPPP also aims to consistently produce home-developed coaches for the professional game and the England national team. There are a number of ways that budding managers and coaches can begin learning their trade and kickstarting a career within this popular footballing profession, but ultimately there are a few steps that all professional football coaches must take.
Check out our guide to how to be a football coach in the UK for some practical guidance on getting into this aspect of the game.