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Why English youngsters must follow the paths of Sancho and Nelson

It’s been 148 days since Monday’s Ballon d’Or winner Luka Modric and co. ended the dreams of a nation who, perhaps, never envisaged themselves dreaming of glory that early into Gareth Southgate’s reign.

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Since then, the national side has impressed further, topping a UEFA Nations League group made up of that same Croatia team and a decorated Spain side. A semi-final in Portugal against Ronald Koeman’s Netherlands awaits, however before then Southgate and his fearless young lions must begin their qualifying campaign for Euro 2020. The pool of English talent to choose from in the Premier League is dwindling though and we take an in-depth look at the struggles England’s youngsters face in the Premier League compared to that of our French neighbours.

The statistics from last weekend’s Premier League action highlight this; only 54 of the 220 starting players in the Premier League were eligible for England selection. It was a point echoed by the England manager; “It was a 33% average last season (…) this weekend it was below 25%.” If Southgate was to name a series of starting elevens based just off players who started this weekend, he would be one player shy of five sides. To put this into comparison, let’s take a look at the French top division, Ligue 1. If my research is correct, out of the 220 players to have started in matchday 15, 107 French players took to the field. That means, just under 49% of players starting in the top-flight were eligible for selection by Didier Deschamps. Deschamps could name nine line-ups just from Ligue 1.

It is these same stats that really highlight just why Southgate believes that having English talent more prominent in the Premier League is necessary for the national side to take that next step.

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At St George’s Park, the aim of winning the Qatar 2022 World Cup is still very much the main goal. It is no coincidence that this date has been selected. Five years prior to France’s World Cup victory this summer, the U20 side won the World Cup in 2013. Five years prior to Germany’s World Cup victory in Brazil, the U21 side won the UEFA Euro Championships in 2009. In 2017, England’s U20 side won the World Cup for the first time. The tournament exactly five years after this victory; Qatar 2022.

After the victories our youth teams experienced last summer, Southgate, speaking to BBC Sport in July 2017, stated that “People in any industry need opportunity” before further highlighting that “clubs have seen this summer that our young players are as good as any across Europe and some of the rest of the world”. Following the media coverage and support these young players received, future opportunity looked to be heading their way.

But that has not been the case.

Of the successful U20 side, only seven of the squad played in the Premier League last season; Dominic Calvert-Lewin (32 apps), Lewis Cook (29), Dominic Solanke (21), Ainsley Maitland-Niles (15), Jonjoe Kenny (14), Ademola Lookman (7) and Kyle Walker-Peters (3). In total, the squad made 132 appearances in Europe’s top five leagues, with Lookman featuring 11 times in the Bundesliga for RB Leipzig. Sure, 132 appearances sounds like a lot for a side made up of players lacking in experience, especially when you consider a large majority of the squad were on-loan in England’s lower divisions; but again if we are to compare this to the French, it does not make for good reading.

In the 2013/14 season, the season directly after the summer where the French U20 side won the World Cup in Turkey, the squad members played 245 times in Ligue 1. That’s more than double the 121 Premier League appearances the English youngsters made last season. A total of 14 French players from that squad appeared in one of Europe’s top five leagues in that same season. The side also featured three players who won the World Cup this summer; Alphonse Areola, Samuel Umtiti and Paul Pogba.

Manchester United’s Paul Pogba was also named as player of the tournament. A Juventus player at the time, Pogba played 36 times for Juventus in 13/14 before again featuring largely in the following season, helping the Italian giants reach the Champions League final. At the end of 2014, the Frenchman was named on the shortlist for the 2014 Ballon d’Or trophy. His rise over 18 months from winning the U20 World Cup in comparison to the 2017 tournament’s best player, Dominic Solanke, really is a cause for concern for any England fan.

Solanke has not played for Liverpool in any competition this season. A free agent after his starring role for England’s youth side last summer, the former Chelsea man could have moved to any club in Europe. Instead, he chose to stay in England, a decision that has become too easy for English talent down the years. By the age of 19, Pogba had already moved to England and then to Italy. Although he may not be the best role-model, Pogba’s early career decisions must be looked at as a good decision by today’s youngsters.

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We are quick to moan about a lack of Premier League opportunities for our young players, but with the league unlikely to change, maybe the emphasis should be placed on young talent moving abroad instead.

It is clear that England’s young footballers are beginning to realise that opportunity may be far greater for them on the continent. We all know how well Jadon Sancho has done since leaving Manchester City for Dortmund in the summer; and with many more European (especially German), clubs looking to prise English talents out of our academy system, now is the time for the mollycoddled youngsters of the game to take the bold step in exploring the continent. Heck, it works for every other country’s young talents.

I’m going to once again look at French football to highlight this. Excluding Ligue 1, 105 French players play for teams across Europe’s top 5 leagues. From Manchester to Madrid, Milan to Munich, young French players are not afraid of moving across the continent in search of first-team football. Whether it’d be loan-moves or permanent transfers they leave France to find the most competitive football to help them improve as players. Our young stars are far too happy with a loan move to the lower divisions of English football than to make the switch abroad.

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The evolution of the Football League in recent seasons, with the league’s becoming less physical and increasingly technical, has reinforced the idea that Premiership clubs are happy to loan young talent down the divisions. Club’s aren’t afraid of receiving a call from a League Two side to say their future star has done his ankle in on the poor surface he was playing on anymore. To name just a few, Josh Onomah, Dean Henderson and Kieran Dowell, three players from that 2017 squad, are all now on-loan in the EFL.

In France, the standard of football is not as high in the lower divisions as it is in England. Therefore, French clubs are less willing to send their best young talents down to Ligue 2 with many favouring loaning them within the division or abroad.

This is an approach English clubs have to do as well in order to be successful in the future.

Sure, the standard of football may be increasing in the Championship, but a player is certainly going to learn more from a loan deal to Rome than he would do from a loan deal to Rotherham. Many Chelsea youngsters have impressed on loan at Vitesse Arnhem in the Dutch League and Reiss Nelson is staring for Hoffenheim in the Bundesliga. The benefit of a young talent reentering the club after experiencing a new culture is one that can only benefit the parent club in the long run. Perhaps in 10-20 years, it will not be uncommon to find English players playing across Europe.

It is Nelson and Sancho’s moves that suggest things may be about to change. Could this generation be willing to move abroad in search of top division first team opportunities? With opportunities unlikely to change in the Premier League, Gareth Southgate will certainly hope so.

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