England’s youth squads have had a pretty good summer. Scrap that. They’ve had a really, really good summer.
The U21’s lost in a shootout in the Semi-Finals of the European Championships to eventual winners, Germany. The U20’s won the World Cup in South Korea. The U19’s won the European Championship in Georgia and the U17’s were a penalty kick away from winning their European Championships. The U17’s are now in action in the World Cup in India and have already started well with a 4-0 win over Chile.
The FA finally has a settled home for all ages at St. George’s Park, Burton. This was modelled on the French equivalent at Clairefontaine, which is largely credited as the reason they were successful internationally from 1998 through to 2004. It has continued to develop talented players since, including Kylian Mbappe.
But will the success of the youth teams mean the full side can replicate this when these young lads come of age? Much depends on the clubs for that.
The worry is about the chances these lads will have to get some meaningful first-team football
In the younger age groups there are plenty of players from Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool, Tottenham etc. By U21 level these are less in evidence. The latest tournament for U21 had just one each from Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City in the twenty-two man squad. Eleven came from outside the Premier League.
Young men at Chelsea and Manchester City are possibly the biggest concern as opportunities for young players seem in short supply there. Chelsea just appear to stockpile players and loan them out to other clubs. Personally, I am not a fan of the loan system in its current format as I am not convinced it does any good for any party, certainly not for a player’s development.
The proliferation of coaches from overseas possibly hampers young English talent too, not to mention the emphasis on results to maintain Premier League status. Tony Pulis recently explained when he first takes over at a club he looks to sort out the defence first as he needs to make sure he doesn’t lose. This is mainly to safeguard his own job. If the results turn it’s his job on the line, not the players, so he is fairly defensive in his whole outlook initially as he’s looking out for himself.
He went on to point out in his opinion young players have no understanding of the effect a poor performance from them can have on the management and even the fans. He believes young players are given too much too early and by the time they are in their early twenties it is too late to expect them to look outside their bubble.
They say success breeds success and has there ever been a better time to be a young England footballer when you’re winning trophies? If they break into the full side then they will come up against many of the players they have already beaten at younger ages. Of course the crucial aspect is how they develop in contrast to their peers from other countries.
Regular first-team football is vital to enhancing this growth and development, although you don’t want to create a burn-out situation too soon. But which players are likely to get these opportunities?
Of the eleven players who won the U20 World Cup against Venezuela only Dominic Calvert-Lewin, scorer of the winning goal, has made more than five appearances for his club (Everton) in the Premier League this season. Two other players, Josh Onomah and Kieran Dowell have appearances into double-figures but they are on loan to Championship clubs. Onomah from Tottenham to Aston Villa and Dowell from Everton to Nottingham Forest. Goalkeeper Freddie Woodman is yet to be seen in a Newcastle shirt this season. Of those players playing for Premier League clubs most of their appearances have been as substitutes or in the League Cup.
For many players they can reach a plateau in their development, or even a ceiling, which they just cannot rise above. Take Nathanial Chalobah, who has a record ninety-seven youth caps. He joined Chelsea’s academy at the age of ten but has since been on loan to Watford, Nottingham Forest, Middlesbrough, Burnley, Reading and Napoli. But in the summer he finally got a permanent move when he returned to Watford. One can only hope he now gets some regular games to boost his undoubted potential.
Gareth Southgate has shown a desire to use some young players in the full side, notably in Lithuania at the weekend, which can only be a result of him managing the U21’s before he got the top job. Coaches Aidy Boothroyd and Keith Downing are providing important back-up and communication to help Southgate work out when some of the new breed are ready for the step-up. In some ways you could argue some players are getting better opportunities for England than they are for their clubs and whilst clubs farm them out everywhere the only constant in their life is England.
But Southgate faces a tough task which as far back as Kevin Keegan highlighted when he was England manager at the turn of the century. This is the diminishing pool of players from which to choose from.
During a recent weekend in the Premier League there were just sixty five players from two hundred and twenty who played who would be eligible to play for England. Compare that with ninety in Italy and one hundred and twenty three in Spain. Spain has an impressive nearly fifty six percent of players playing in La Liga who are eligible to play for Spain. Yet they still have some over here too, potentially getting first team opportunities ahead of English talent.
One other point which is where England is severely behind many other major nations is in the number of coaches England produces. It is pitiful when compared to how many Dutch, French or Spanish coaches there are around the world. This is something which must be addressed.
It is a frightening statistic when less than a third of the players playing in the Premier League are English and barely half the managers are English. This is always something which puzzles me when we constantly hear about ‘the English game’.
Why is it we still have an English identity when it comes to playing styles in the Premier League when English coaches and players are virtually in the minority?
This is something which has been highlighted by Tim Vickery, who has spent the past thirty-odd years in South America as a football correspondent. One thing he notices from South American teams which have become relatively successful compared to their size, population, wealth and number of players, is because they have an identity with which to form a style of play. This is usually formed from a national psyche, but allows players and supporters to hang their hopes on.
It has been a while since England had that. Southgate has shown himself willing to experiment and hopefully we could see this start to bear fruit. The foundations already seem to be in place with the success during the summer. It is now down to the whole of English football to see if we can push on from there.
The future is bright, the future is youth.