The blocked pathway- How the Premier League is failing young players, England and its own Champions League ambitions

This week in the Premier League only 65 English players started games that’s 29.5% last week it was 64. It’s a shocking yet predictable statistic. It gets worse- those numbers include retired England players Milner & Rooney and veterans Jagielka, Barry & Ashley Young.

Since it’s formation 25 years ago when the elite clubs gained independence from the Football League the Premier League has exceeded expectations in all areas bar one- helping the England National Team. We now have a league that has provided greater entertainment, a higher standard of play and world class facilities. Yet the pool of homegrown players has been reduced to a puddle.

Let’s be clear here the foreign players have been fantastic for English football. From the early years of exotic number 10s like Cantona, Zola & Bergkamp to David Silva & Eden Hazard. The foreign players have increased the technical level and professionalism of English football- notably United’s class of ’92 took their lead on training standards from Cantona.

The decline in English players in the Premier League over recent years has been justified by two points- firstly England isn’t producing good enough players and secondly The Premier Leagues leading clubs need to import to stay ahead in The Champions League.

On the first point England are now Under 20 World Champions, under 19 European Champions, Double Toulon tournament winners and European Under 17s runners up.

On the second point the last Premier League team to win the Champions League were Chelsea in 2012. Since then only 2 of the last 20 Champions League semi finalists were from the Premier League whilst La Liga produced 4 champions.

Meanwhile despite the Premier League’s vast riches the worlds best players remain out of reach. Whilst Morata, Mendy and Salah did come to England M’Bappe, Neymar and Dembele (the best players on the market) went elsewhere and the brightest new star of next summers World Cup will join either Real or Barca, as Ozil did in 2010 & James in 2014.

There are a lot of theories doing the rounds as to why the Premier League clubs keep failing in Europe.

One problem I can see is none of the current premier league clubs have a club culture. By that I mean a leadership group of players who have been at the club a long time, set the standard for the team. The importance of this can be seen in the recent list of Champions League winners: Bayern (Lahm & Schweinsteiger) Barca (Xavi & Puyol and later Iniesta, Busquets & Messi) & Real (Ronaldo, Ramos & Marcelo).

England’s triumphant Premier League sides all had this- Man United 1999 (Keane & class of 92), Liverpool 2005 (Gerrard & Carragher), United 2008 (Scholes & Giggs) & Chelsea (Lampard, Cole, Terry, Drogba). As these examples show being at a club a long time doesn’t mean you have to be a national or even an academy product. It’s also notable no such long serving core exists at CL underachievers Paris St Germain.

It’s difficult to see many players who fits that bill in the current premier league- Kompany if he could stay fit, Cahill at a push but seriously there are very few others. The transient nature of recent premier league squads makes this difficult.

So if England is producing young talent, academies are receiving huge investment, we fail in Europe and the best in the world go to Spain, Bayern or PSG so why is the pathway from youth team to first team so hard to cross?

One obvious reason is the pressure for instant success applied to managers- but with most big clubs now employing top class managers some seem to be adopting a more long term strategy (Tottenham, Everton, Liverpool). But most Premier League clubs still see youth development as a hindrance to success unless the player happens to be a Gareth Bale level player.

In Germany and Spain youth development is seen as key in first team success- even at Real Madrid where Marco Asensio (aged 21) has been promoted to the first team possibly explaining why Real allowed Morata to join Chelsea.

Meanwhile at Stamford Bridge John Terry said on departing the club one of his reasons to go was he didn’t want to stand in the way of Nathan Ake, Nat Chalobah & Kurt Zouma making their first team claims- by the end of the the transfer window Chelsea had sold 2 and loaned out the other of those 3, together with Ruben Loftus Cheek, Christian Atsu & Dom Solanke. A penny for John’s thoughts now!

The curious case of Jadon Sancho

Whilst most eyes this summer where on Manchester City’s big money imports there was a significant export- 17 year old Jadon Sancho who joined Borussia Dortmund. The academy product was one of 2 outstanding individuals in England’s spring run to the Under 17s European Championship final along with City teammate Phil Foden.

Sancho turned down a £30k a week contract at City because he didn’t see a path to the first team. Foden did sign and started on City’s preseason tour but is yet to start a game this season.

If Sancho makes significantly faster progress to the Dortmund first team than Foden to City’s (as seems likely) it will influence the career decisions of future academy graduates at City and beyond. It could also prove acutely embarrassing for City if their top prospect left to succeed at a club who’ve consistently outperformed them in Europe. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out with Sancho currently waiting on a work permit but he has been handed the no7 shirt at the Westfalenstadion, replacing 18 year old Ouse Dembele who joined Barcelona for £97million.

The threat of regulation and quotas

English clubs tanking it up in the Champions League is there own business but the England teams failures have far greater reach. If England fail again next summer and beyond the Sports Minister will be asking questions. The FA will point to their ongoing success at youth level and rightly claim they’ve put their house in order (and not before time!) Fingers will then be pointed at a league that continues to spend heavily on ready made stars whilst not offering young players a chance.

Many will point out England’s past failings didn’t lead to anything changing- true but the last World Cup saw their first group phase elimination since 1958 and the ensuing Euros saw elimination by Iceland- we are in uncharted waters. It should also be noted when the British Olympic team reached its nadir in Atlanta 1996 the BOA chief was swiftly summoned to Whitehall to explain and changes swiftly implemented with Britain’s Olympic performances improving at every Games since.

Player quotas are a terrible idea that won’t work but that doesn’t justify the Premier League being the polar opposite. Currently teams cannot exceed 17 imported players in their PL squads (meaning players trained in academies outside England & Wales).  It’s been proposed that could decrease to 13 but this has yet to happen. The issue isn’t so much the star players it’s depth of squad made up by ready made signings (regardless of nationality). Another solution might be an NFL style salary cap- a rule that was brought in to stop the best teams hoarding an entire depth chart of top class players.

The Hope

Hopefully the league will learn itself without the need for regulation (regulations are only ever brought into an industry when it proves it can’t regulate itself). Sir Alex Ferguson often said the success of the national team was vital to the health of the Premier League and perhaps Phil Foden & Dom Solanke will make themselves indispensable to City & Liverpool respectively in the League Cup next week. And if the Premier League can’t/ won’t give chances to young players then more will need to follow the trail blazed by Eric Dier in Portugal and move abroad as Sancho & Reece Oxford have.

The exodus at Chelsea this summer suggests young players are getting the message and moving to clubs that offer first team

Football (Loftus-Cheek, Chalobah, Abraham) albeit some are going on loan but it’s an improvement on sitting on the edge of an 18 man match day squad

The Fear

Next summer will see another tidal wave of money spent on ready made stars with opportunities for academy products reduced even further.

Let’s take Manchester United as an example. I’d predict United will average 3 English players a game this season: Rashford, Jones and either Shaw or Ashley Young at left back. With their young academy prospects who showed potential at the end of last season like Alex Tuzanabe limited to League Cup and dead rubbers.

Over next summer United will make 3-4 big signings likely to include a winger, left back and forward with the possible outcome only Rashford will get a game from the home grown group. It may prove difficult for the marginalised likes of Lingard and Shaw to find transfers as both are on wages beyond the means of most and United won’t sell to a title rival. I’ll stress this hypothesis on United is repeatable at all leading PL clubs.

We’ll have to wait and see how things play out. But the Premier League’s long term future can’t be placed solely on the transfer window. And England must not let their promising youth teams go to waste on the margins of PL squads.

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