In the World Cup this past summer, England managed their most successful campaign since 1990 when they reached the semi-finals. Manager Gareth Southgate and the England players themselves enjoyed the plaudits for doing such a professional job where perhaps past generations have choked. Fittingly, the Three Lions also ended their penalty shootout hoodoo when they eliminated Colombia from the competition on spot kicks. Statistical data has emerged, however, which suggests that English players are being given less playing time in the Premier League than ever before, particularly at clubs vying near the top of the league. While English players have featured in 30.4% of the 79,200 collective Premier League minutes so far (down from 33% last year), that rate plummets to nearer 20% for clubs in the top six.
This is worrying for the future of English football. On the one hand, the cream will usually rise to the top, but on the other the lack of genuine contenders for places in the England side are hurting the national team’s progress. Healthy competition for places will always keep players on their toes after all. Back when the Premier League began in 1992 the vast majority of players turning out for clubs were English, with the other home nations well represented as well. Indeed, at the time there were restrictions on the number of non-EU players who could be named in the matchday squad, and indeed at one stage around 1994 that was tightened to non-British. However, there followed the influx of foreign talent into England’s top-flight, aided by betting money from legal online sports betting companies, with all the obvious benefits there are drawbacks as well.
On the plus side, the diversity and footballing culture means young players are learning to play the game with some beautiful cultural-fusion flair, but yet the addition of big-money imports means less place for the youngsters in the squad. The sight of an academy product breaking gradually into the first team and establishing themselves in the seasons that follow is an ever-diminishing one. Of course, there are some notable exceptions – the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Dominic Calvert-Lewin in recent years have broken that mould, but for every one of them there must be 10 who just aren’t given the opportunities they may have been given 15 years ago. There are certain clubs who seem to be looked at for their youngsters – Southampton, for example, produced Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain a few years ago, and they are now enjoying their football on opposite sides of the Mersey.
The majority of academy players tend to find their careers playing in the leagues below the Premier League these days, with most garnering their initial first team experience on loan at League One or Championship clubs, perhaps. These do, on occasion, impress so much they are called up upon returning to their parent club, but many will make a move elsewhere in the Premier League, often a touch further down the table. This gives the players an entirely different mentality; rather than constantly playing to win in the hopes of lifting the title, many of them are playing to salvage whatever is possible from a game to aid in a relegation scrap. Now, having a squad packed with players with lower league experience certainly served England fairly well at this World Cup, but that feelgood factor will only last so long – Gareth Southgate must find a way to instil consistent competitiveness among his players, while achieving the fine balance of largely keeping the likability factor.
The situation the English game finds itself in these days is one where the cause can be traced easier than a solution. Do we reinstate the limits on the number of foreigners who can feature in a matchday squad? While that may help the English players, the approach seems somewhat archaic these days. Perhaps introducing a universal mentor system would help, whereby a first teamer is assigned an understudy and if the more experience player is absent then his pupil steps in? That can’t really work either, as that essentially makes the job of a manager more of a matchmaker than a master tactician. Whatever happens, England need to find a way to ensure their younger generations can earn plenty of first team experience at the right end of the table while also ensuring the continued supply of different cultures and philosophies. Education is enlightenment, after all, and so the FA must work with the biggest clubs in the land to find a way to secure the future of English football’s youngsters.