London: Emboldened by the World Cup and perhaps conscious of opportunity ahead, Gareth Southgate has called for a debate into the “ethical challenge” of increasing the number of English players competing regularly in the Premier League. The debate is under way from academy to government level and though causes of the problem are easier to identify than solutions, it is not a conversation the Football Association will allow to fall silent.
“Our pool is getting smaller and smaller,” Southgate said last week, when, holding his first press conference since the World Cup, he delivered a statistical sting to the positivity generated by England’s run to the semi-finals.
English players have played 30.4 per cent of the 79,200 minutes played in the Premier League so far this season, a drop from 33% last year but one that can be attributed to the national team’s prolonged stay in Russia and late return of internationals to their clubs. Among the top-six clubs the number of English starters drops to nearer 20 per cent; an alarming figure for an England manager wanting to select from a pool exposed to the pressure of challenging for the title and the experience of European competition.
Chelsea and Arsenal are lowest on the list with a combined 172 minutes for Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Ross Barkley plus a mere 56 minutes in total for Danny Welbeck and Ainsley Maitland-Niles respectively. Offering the most opportunity so far are Burnley and Bournemouth, the only clubs to have given English players over 2,000 minutes of Premier League football after four matches.
Southgate cited “the precarious nature of managers in the top flight” as helping contribute to the decline. Aidy Boothroyd, England’s Under-21 manager, believes an overseas manager’s inclination to look abroad for talent is another factor. Sean Dyche and Eddie Howe, the longest serving managers in the top flight, support both theories.
“There has never been a better time to be an England player, whatever age,” says Boothroyd. International honours back him up with England having won the World Cup at under-20 and under-17 level plus the under-19s European Championship last summer. However, there is a “ceiling of development” that Boothroyd fears undoubtedly exists in the Premier League. Lewis Cook and Dominic Calvert-Lewin feature regularly for Bournemouth and Everton respectively but none of England’s Under-20s World Cup-winning team from 2017 have established themselves as a first-team starter.
England’s Under-21 manager, who is concerned about Dominic Solanke’s lack of game-time at Liverpool before Thursday’s Euro qualifier against the Netherlands, adds: “In the past you had British managers giving British players a lot of chances to prove they could do it. Now the game is global. I look at my old club Watford, and it is a completely different club to the one that I was at. Foreign owners and foreign managers might perhaps look abroad before looking at what is under their nose although, ironically, the best ones tend to pick our players, so there must be something in that.”
But what is the solution? “We have tried the quota one, haven’t we?” Boothroyd replies. “I really don’t have the answer. It is at a different level to where I am and I am happy on the pitch picking the best players. Young players now are thinking of playing abroad first. I admire that for many reasons, I think it is great they want to learn different languages and experience different cultures and different ways of playing, but the fact they have got to go abroad to play is a real red flag for the authorities. They will be thinking: “Hang on a minute, why is that happening?’ But I’m afraid I don’t have the answer.”
Quotas could increase with Brexit, which has the potential for conflict between the FA and Premier League and may fulfil Southgate’s wish for the debate over home-grown talent to continue if nothing else.
The Premier League has asked the government to clarify whether it will be exempt from restrictions on European workers after Brexit. With only six months to go, it is still awaiting an answer. The Premier League’s post-Brexit proposals will require FA support. That could be the FA’s opportunity to insist on an increase to the current quota of eight home-grown players in a 25-man squad.
For Jurgen Klopp, the anti-Brexit Liverpool manager, the issue facing English players and the game’s authorities is the quality and competitiveness of the Premier League, a competition that has thrived globally due to access to the world’s finest talent. Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joe Gomez and Jordan Henderson demonstrate opportunity exists at Liverpool — and support Boothroyd’s point about the best foreign managers looking under their noses — while Adam Lallana and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain would have increased the club’s England contingent but for injury.
“If a German international moves to the Premier League he probably doesn’t start as often as he did before,” says Klopp. “It happens in other countries too. Emre Can didn’t start so far for Juve. Will he be a starter? I have no solution because I didn’t think about it in terms of English football, to be honest, but how I see it is that English football in their development with the young boys is in a really good way.
“He [Southgate] is right: they have to find solutions for young boys like Loftus-Cheek, for example, to play regularly, but I cannot solve that problem. The problems are maybe obvious for a specific player — he is there at his club but not playing so could he not play somewhere else? — but the league is just so strong that there are international players from other countries who are not starters in the Premier League, not just English players.”
At Chelsea, Maurizio Sarri concurs. “I was asked the same question in Italy: why is it so difficult for Italian players to play at the big clubs in Italy?” he says. “I think it’s normal. It’s difficult to play here, difficult to play in Juventus, because in this club there are 27 or 28 great players. It’s difficult.”
The difficulties have prompted English players to join Borussia Dortmund, Borussia Moenchengladbach, Hoffenheim, RB Leipzig and Wolfsburg in recent months. According to one Premier League academy director, the trend is also happening at junior level and will only accelerate post-Brexit.
“The talent is there, it is just about being given an opportunity,” maintains James Maddison, who has flourished on his introduction to the Premier League with Leicester City. “I’m not sure what we can do to combat the problem but the talent is there.”