Academy players from England’s top clubs are heading abroad more than ever, and that’s a good thing. David Beckham, Steve Mcmanaman, and Michael Owen aside, England has never been known for exporting talent outside of its own league system. Indeed, England was the only side at the World Cup whose squad consisted solely of players based in their domestic league. England has only one player in La Liga, Marcus McGuane, who plies his trade for Barcelona’s second team; in contrast, there are 44 Spanish players in the Premier League this season. The same trend is true for the other top-five European leagues. Two Englishmen will play in Serie A this season, 11 Italians will play in the English Premier League; four Englishmen will play in the Bundesliga, while 14 Germans come the other way; two Englishmen will play in Ligue Un, while a whopping 31 players of French nationality will come to the EPL.
However, there has been a recent exodus of promising English talent from top clubs to other teams on the continent. In the past two season, Reo Griffiths and Keanan Bennetts left Tottenham for Lyon and Borussia Monchengladbach respectively; Kaylen Hinds, Chris Willock, and Marcus McGuane have departed Arsenal for Wolfsburg, Benfica, and Barcelona; Jadon Sancho left Manchester City for Borussia Dortmund; Jonathan Panzo left Chelsea for Monaco; Charlie Rowan left Watford for Torino; Ronaldo Vieira was sold from Leeds to Sampdoria. These players are undoubtedly at different stages in their development (Sancho and Hinds played sixteen Bundesliga games last season between them, while Panzo, at 17 years of age, will likely play for Monaco’s reserves) but their presence abroad is immense.
The lack of Englishmen abroad is frankly surprising given the lack of English players in the Premier League. As shown in the image below, the percentage of English players in Premier League squads is shockingly low. The average squad is 30.6% English, which in a 25 person squad averages out to around seven players. For sides that finished in the top six last season, the rate drops down to 26 percent, or six players. While clubs are required to have at least eight home-grown players registered, there is no requirement that said homegrown talent be English-born.
It take a lot of luck to break into the first-team from an academy. Marcus Rashford and Hector Bellerín are recent and rare examples. Rashford capitalized on an injury to Anthony Martial in pre-match warm ups to propel himself to glory; Arsenal recalled Hector Bellerín from a loan at Watford due to injuries to the three players ahead of him in the depth chart (Nacho Monreal, Calum Chambers, and Mathieu Debuchy), and he too capitalized on his chance to become Arsenal’s long-term solution at right-back.
The increases in prize money for Premier League clubs also undoubtedly makes it harder than ever to break into a top club’s first team from an academy. The new money enables teams to purchase players of a higher quality and at a higher quantity for their squads, a result which reduces the number of available minutes and spots in the squad for academy players. Last season, Arsenal led all EPL clubs in minutes played by academy players, with just under 20% of available minutes going to academy graduates. (Arsenal’s leading academy product in terms of minutes played was Hector Bellerín, the Spaniard who was acquired from Barcelona for 500 thousand pounds in 2011 – not an Englishman.) Burnley gave not a single minute of game-time to academy graduates. Title-winners Manchester City gave a mere 106 minutes to academy graduates all season. Incredibly, Ajax academy products played over 12,000 minutes in the Premier League last year, a spot good enough for 10th on the list of clubs ranked by minutes played from academy graduates. Just ask the 31 players on loan from Chelsea about the scarcity of available playing time.
All of this goes to show that time on the pitch is sparse for all academy players, not just the British ones, at English clubs. Furthermore, English youth are often overhyped to the point of failure. Unless you are a superlative talent in the vein of a 16-year old Jack Wilshere or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the auspice of being both British and at a top club can be damning. One only needs to look at the career of Ravel Morrison, who was once described as “the best player [Sir Alex Ferguson] had seen at [the age of 14].” Morrison, who was capped at the U16, U17, U18, and U21 levels for England, proceeded to see his career unravel (no pun intended), slipping down the depths of the Football League. He left Manchester United on a free to join then-Championship side West Ham; he would then have further stints at Birmingham City, Queens Park Rangers, and Cardiff city before joining Lazio on a free transfer. He now plays for Atlas in Mexico, a far cry from the heights he was predicted to reach. Incredibly, he is only 25 years old.
The influx of money into the Premier League has generally seen an inflation of transfer fees; however, in no demographic is this more pronounced than with English players. The premium on local talent limits young English players’ mobility and pushes clubs to look to foreign alternatives. John Stones, who is English, was bought for 56 million euros two summers ago, with City paying exactly twice his then market value of 28 million euros. Harry Maguire, who is valued at 45 million euros, was rumoured to leave for 90 million euros to Manchester United this summer, although a transfer never materialized. Jordan Pickford, Kyle Walker, Michael Keane, and Luke Shaw were all signed for well above market value as well. In almost every case, there is a player of equal ability available to be signed from abroad at a lesser price than an Englishman. For comparison, Everton just signed Yerry Mina, a Colombian centre-back and breakout player at the World Cup, from Barcelona for just above his 25 million euro market value. John Stones had a similar market value, yet due to his nationality and age he had a drastically different price.
However, it is not just the money that impacts young players trying to make the grade at big teams. The youth system for Premier League sides is not conducive to actual player development, especially in comparison to some of Europe’s other leagues. For example, the aforementioned Ajax has a B team, Jong Ajax, that plays in the Eerste Divisie, the second tier of Dutch football. It acts as a complete pipeline, allowing the youngsters who aren’t up to the level of Ajax to play in a league that, importantly, is competitive, comprised fully-developed professionals. This forces the Ajax youth to compete against players who are much more physical and experienced than they are, all of which makes the young Amsterdammers play up to the level of their competition. In contrast, the Premier League 2, which consists of under-23 sides for England’s top clubs, stifles development for many young players by not exposing them to professional teams.
While playing against similarly-aged players is beneficial at the youth level, it can hardly be useful after a certain age. One only needs to look at the results of last year’s Premier League 2 competition to affirm this point: Arsenal, Liverpool, Leicester, and Swansea comprised the top four. Only Liverpool can claim that their Premier League season was a success last year, with Swansea getting relegated and Arsenal and Leicester struggling by their own standards. Ideally, there would be a correlation between the senior and youth sides; Jong Ajax consistently finish in or around the top spot in the Eerste Divisie (formerly the Jupiler League), while Ajax can say the same for the Eredivisie. Having a youth team play in the football league system is beneficial in other countries, too. In Spain, the second teams for top clubs are incorporated into the league structure. For example, Marcus McGuane, the Arsenal product, got to play in the second tier of the Spanish football league in the season past, a league which is leaps and bounds above the Premier League 2. Most European football leagues incorporate reserve teams into the footballing pyramid.
The convoluted youth system, the lack of opportunity for academy youth, and the pressure on young high-potential Englishmen all seriously impact the potential for new England superstars to be born, Therefore, the recent transfers of young English talent should be encouraging. Even Pep Guardiola himself, while citing Spain’s success with England-based players on the international level, has promoted these types of transfers:
“When they came back into the national team, they were stronger. They were better…they did very good things that helped Spanish football. Could that benefit the England team? I think that’s true. I think it’s a good experience to move to another country and see different realities to your own.”
Whether England ends up reaping the rewards of this current exodus remains to be seen. Signs of its success can be seen in Eric Dier, who grew up in Portugal and played for Sporting for over a decade; Dier looks to be a key man for Gareth Southgate’s England side moving forward.
One potential solution for this is to institute a mandatory minutes rule, similar to the 20/11 rule in the Mexican top flight. That rule, now slightly evolved, stated that teams had to give 1,000 minutes per season (which would equate to 2,000 minutes across the Premier League season) to players 20 years, 11 months or younger. While the implementation of such a rule is unlikely, it could have extremely beneficial results for parity and for development. First, it would force clubs to prioritize investing in their own academies before looking to foreign markets; this would help alleviate the high prices paid for English talent, as more players would have the opportunity to play at the first-team level. It would also enable players who would otherwise rely on injuries or luck to have a larger window for a breakthrough. While the rule would likely not apply to just Englishmen, refocusing clubs on their own academies would be a crucial step for Premier League clubs. Having the opportunity to play football at the senior level is critical for development, and finding minutes on the pitch domestically or, as more players are doing, abroad should become the next step for those who find their initial path to Premier League stardom blocked.