“You look at Under-16s or Under-17s and it’s absolutely riddled with foreign players. What chance does that give to young English players? It gives them virtually no chance.”
Paul Scholes, speaking to the Daily Mail in 2015
It has become a staple of football quizzes in Britain. ‘How many non-British or Irish players started in the first weekend of the Premier League season?’. The answer, of course, is thirteen, and every time someone hears it anew, they’ll look to the person next to them, roll their eyes, tut and say “You wouldn’t see that these days would you? These days you get arrested just for saying you’re British!”
Yes, for better or worse, the Premier League is now a multinational, multicultural, global phenomenon. Thanks to the introduction of Norwich City’s Onel Hernandez in the opening game of this season, 110 of the 211 FIFA-affiliated nations have now been represented in England’s top flight, and on the opening weekend of last season the number of foreign players in the starting lineups of the first weekend of the season had risen to 126. Thanks to England’s surprising run to the semi-finals of the World Cup last summer, we were spared the bi-annual knee-jerk handwringing of the tabloid press, blaming the “invasion of foreigners” off the back of another disappointing tournament showing. Instead, it was the first international break of last season that sparked the chin-stroking around opportunities for young English players, as reflections on the success of the national team led to questions around how Gareth Southgate and any potential successor could use the performance in Russia as a springboard for the future.
It was Southgate himself that alerted the football media to the drop in minutes given to English players over the first few weeks of last season, complaining that the pool of players to pick from in the top flight was “getting smaller and smaller”, with just 30.4% of minutes in the opening weeks of the season being given to homegrown squad members. It’s an issue that has plagued English football since the inception of the Premier League, exacerbated by the introduction of the Bosman ruling and, most pertinently, the ever-increasing riches being pumped into the game by broadcasters. Suggestions of the introduction of ‘B’ teams at club level have been floated regularly – the implementation of under-21 sides into the EFL Trophy has hardly made a difference and, if anything, has only devalued the competition – while talk of reintroducing quotas for overseas players is likely to receive short shrift from those at the top of the game.
Luckily, if the opening weeks of the season are anything to go by, the problem of English players getting minutes may be a thing of the past. In the opening weeks of the season, Premier League sides have given an average of 34% of pitch time to their homegrown contingent. Unsurprisingly, the none-more-British Sean Dyche leads the way, with 60% of Burnley’s minutes being given to their English (and Austrian U21) players, though the sight of Watford – who former Hornets manager and current England U21 coach Aidy Boothroyd described as ‘unrecognisable’ when asked about the dearth of minutes for British footballers – in the upper echelons of the chart may come as a surprise. Last season, just 20.56% of minutes were given to English players by the top six sides, a figure that has so-far been improved upon by Manchester United (44%), Tottenham Hotspur (33%) and both Liverpool and Chelsea (23%), while on the whole Manchester City and Arsenal have stuck to relying on imports.
Dig a little deeper however, and there are more encouraging signs for Southgate and the future of English football. While minutes for English players as a whole have increased, the opportunities for younger players breaking into their respective first teams are also on the rise. Only two sides in the top flight – Crystal Palace and Wolverhampton Wanderers – have failed to give at least 90 minutes to an English player under the age of 25 over the course of the first four games of the season, while Arsenal and Leicester City can point to four each. Among those regulars are some seasoned internationals, such as Raheem Sterling, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Marcus Rashford and Ben Chilwell, but for the most part its players that have yet to establish themselves in the national side that have caught the eye.
From the promoted teams, who historically rely more on homegrown talent, Norwich City’s trio of Max Aarons, Ben Godfrey and Todd Cantwell have all enjoyed impressive starts to the season, while Sheffield United’s Dean Henderson is one of three young English goalkeepers to have played every minute of the season so far, alongside Southampton’s Angus Gunn and Bournemouth’s Aaron Ramsdale. Manchester United’s summer transfer policy of Buying British has seen Aaron Wan-Bissaka play every minute of every game so far, with Rashford and Luke Shaw not far behind, while the combination of a transfer ban and the appointment of a manager keen to promote youth has seen Chelsea emerge as a surprising hotbed of young English talent, with newly-capped Mason Mount and four-goal Tammy Abraham reaping the benefits of Frank Lampard’s arrival at Stamford Bridge.
So what’s behind this sudden resurgence of young English stars? Well, the fact that the start of this season has seen more English managers in post than any since 2008/09 – coincidentally the last time Gareth Southgate managed in the top flight – might have something to do with it. Of those eight, only two – Roy Hodgson at Crystal Palace and Steve Bruce at Newcastle – form part of the ‘old guard’ that have come to rely on imported players throughout their career. Both sides rank below the average for minutes given to English players so far this season.
Another pair – Chris Wilder and Dean Smith – have arrived in the top flight from the Championship in charge of their boyhood clubs, and while both have given the full 360 minutes to an English player under 25, Sheffield United have relied considerably more on English players, with 52% of available minutes going to homegrown squad members so far this season. Given the squad overhaul that saw twelve new players arrive at Villa Park, including seven from overseas, its perhaps unsurprising that Aston Villa have given just 29% of minutes to their English contingent.
Two English coaches newly appointed ahead of the season – Lampard and Brighton’s Graham Potter – earned reputations for working with homegrown youngsters in the Championship last year with Derby County and Swansea City respectively, and while Chelsea have only given 23% minutes to their English starlets, the fact that Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount have played more than 600 minutes between them already is a far cry from their struggles to break into the first team under previous managers. Brighton, meanwhile, remain loyal to their homegrown lot, with the likes of Adam Webster, Glenn Murray, Lewis Dunk and Solly March making up 43% of the available playing time.
The final two English managers in the top flight – Eddie Howe and Sean Dyche – have undoubtedly benefited from cast iron security in their jobs, which has allowed both to slowly bring players through the ranks and into the first team. Of the players Burnley have given 60% of available minutes to so far this season, five made their debut before their 24th birthday. Bournemouth, who rank 7th with 42%, have long been associated with their commitment to playing British talent, and while the all-English back four that brought them up through the leagues is beginning to disband, Howe continues to add exciting homegrown talent to his ranks, with Lloyd Kelly and Jack Stacey joining the likes of Lewis Cook and Dominic Solanke this summer.
Besides the sudden dearth of competent English managers, we can also point to the small matter of England’s record-breaking summer of 2017 as a likely factor for the upturn in minutes for young English players. Two years ago, England’s youth teams set a new bar for international success winning four age-group tournaments (including two World Cups) and reaching the semi-finals of the under-21 European Championships. Since then, national team fans have been keeping a keen eye on the progress of players from each of those squads.
Of the thirty-five English players under 24 to have played 90 minutes or more so far this season, eight were part of one of the winning squads in 2017, while a further eight were in the squad beaten by Germany in the Euros. While the likes of Phil Foden, and Rhian Brewster – two of the standout stars in the U17 World Cup winning squad – have struggled to displace their senior counterparts at club level, Ramsdale and Mount from the U19 Euros winning team, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Fiyako Tomori, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Dean Henderson from the U20 World Cup winning squad, and Harvey Barnes from the Toulon Tournament winners have all been given major roles in the top flight so far this year. Further encouragement can be found in the Bundesliga, where Jadon Sancho continues to shine at Borussia Dortmund, while on-loan Jonjoe Kenny has played every minute for Schalke 04.
The question now remains whether this flurry of first team action for England’s youngsters is a flash in the pan or whether we can now expect team to put their faith in youth for the foreseeable future. Given the impact the likes of Abraham and Mount have had in the opening weeks of the season, there are certainly encouraging signs. It’s also worth remembering that there are still a host of players waiting patiently in the wings for their opportunities, with Foden, Morgan Gibbs-White, Angel Gomes, and Ryan Sessegnon all having tasted varying amounts of Premier League football, but yet to establish themselves as first choice, while Callum Hudson-Odoi is likely to be a starter for Lampard once he returns from injury, and Freddie Woodman has impressed in the opening weeks of his loan spell at Swansea City, having played his part in helping the Swans to the top of the Championship.
Mason Mount’s inclusion in Southgate’s squad for the first international break of the season also suggests that the national team manager will give youth the chance they deserve, and with a major tournament on the horizon, there will be plenty of new faces clamouring for a place in the squad come next summer. The pool for England’s manager suddenly resembles an ocean.