Toni Martinez’s goal against Newcastle in the FA Cup on his debut for Oxford won’t have come as much of a surprise to those watching West Ham closely this season. Since joining from Valencia, the 19 year old has been hitting the back of the net consistently for the Under 23 side.
As well as scoring 10 times in Premier League 2 so far this campaign, Martinez also managed a double against Coventry City in the group stages of the EFL Trophy. It was proof that the Spaniard could cut it at that level, leading to Oxford’s interest in the player during the January transfer window.
Marcus Browne also had a similar situation. His performance in that 4-2 defeat to Coventry was noted by the opposition, and attracted interest from League One and Championship clubs. He has joined Wigan on a loan spell until the end of the season, and made his first team appearance against Manchester United as a substitute yesterday.
Neither of these players have got a look in under Slaven Bilic for first team action so far but their loan spells will offer two crucial benefits.
Firstly, an improved standard of football. Premier League 2 has been much criticised by managers and coaches due to its low quality. The fact that games are spread thinly over the season means there are sometimes big gaps between matches, and the fact that most of the time, players are facing players of the exact same level means it is very hard to learn and improve.
In leagues on the continent, such as Germany and Spain, youth players can be play in B teams that play in lower levels of the senior game, meaning they get to face players that are much more experienced and physically developed. This aids their development and helps prepare them for when they make their breakthrough into first team football.
With 92 professional clubs in England, having B sides in the lower leagues is never going to happen so loaning players has to be the way forward. With Martinez in League One and Browne in the Championship, we should see key developments in both players’ games in the next few months if they get game time.
Secondly playing league football will allow Bilic to assess how ready they are for the top flight. If Martinez scores as regularly in League One as he does in Premier League 2 then the Croatian will have some thinking to do, and perhaps even move him ahead of Ashley Fletcher or Jonathan Calleri in the pecking order.
For Browne, the metrics are probably less clear cut. His ability to create goals is central to his game, and in the Championship he will find it challenging to get the space and time he needs. Especially if he doesn’t play in his favoured attacking midfield position, and is pushed out wide, the 19 year old will need to adapt.
It both cases though, they are taking the next step in their development, something that many will want to see from another youngster Reece Oxford as well. The signing of Jose Fonte makes game time at centre half unlikely, and the competition in holding midfield roles is just as fierce.
At 18, Bilic may feel that more game time with the Under 23s side could be beneficial, especially as he has only recently recovered from an ankle injury. Still, if he is fit but not going to play first team football, there will be suitors before the end of the transfer window.
The benefits are already being felt in Martinez’s situation, and perhaps soon as well with Browne, so there is a case to be made for Oxford, improving himself away from the focus of attention in London, and becoming part of group of loanees that show the exciting future of the Hammers.