England’s youth level success raises questions regarding senior development

Midway through January the transfer window is in full swing. Many foreign players will be moving to English clubs over the next fortnight, uprooted to address their new club’s needs. Meanwhile there’s an issue closer to home that remains unrectified. 

England’s U17 side managed to cap off a successful 2017 for England across all youth age-groups with an impressive World Cup triumph in India in October. Having been cruelly beaten by Spain on penalties, after conceding deep in second-half stoppage time during the European Championships, the Young Lions exacted perfect revenge in Kolkata.

They became the fourth crop of English youngsters to have won an international tournament since the summer 2016. Keith Downing’s U19 side beat Portugal to lift the Euros. The U20s were World Cup winners in South Korea. Paul Simpson’s group then edged past Ivory Coast on penalties to win the Toulon Tournament in the same month.

Following so much success in such a short time, expectation has been heaped upon Premier League clubs to take advantage of their homegrown talent. Player development continues to progress. There’s no reason these prospects should not be granted an opportunity to showcase their ability in the top flight.

No reason save high stakes and a preexisting bias towards foreign talent. Football is ultimately a results-driven business. As broadcast-revenue-fed prize pools grow exponentially managers are being given increasingly less time to deliver. Given the emphasis on foreign talent includes coaching, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, and German managers all look to the players they know best. Which is to say, not English.

Glass ceiling

Youngsters are hungry for minutes and rightly so. It has an adverse effect on their development when they are told to be patient and settle for sporadic appearances just as they enter their peak years. How is stagnating in the U23s going to help them improve?

Training alongside world-class company at teams like Manchester City and Chelsea keeps youngsters motivated. But for how long? For every Andreas Christensen there is a Kelechi Iheanacho, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Nathan Ake, Phil Foden, Tammy Abraham, Michy Batshuayi, Aleix Garcia, Patrick Roberts, and Angus Gunn.

There’s an ever-growing exodus of English youngsters to European clubs. When they adapt quickly regular first-team opportunities immediately follow. The difference between youth and Premier League level is stark but talented players shouldn’t be made to wait solely because of their age or relative inexperience. How else will they develop?

Jadon Sancho, formerly of Watford and Manchester City, made his first Borussia Dortmund start this past weekend after completing a £10 million switch on last summer’s deadline day. During a goalless draw against Wolfsburg the 17-year-old was a bright spark. From speaking to him you wouldn’t have known he had played in a drab, boring affair.

“I’m in a happy place at the moment. I’m just thankful again that the manager has faith in me and all his team. That’s a big thing for me because I need to improve as a player. To do that I need to play games like this, so I’m very happy.”

Sancho in action on his first Bundesliga start for BVB, during their goalless draw with VfL Wolfsburg. (Picture source: Getty Images)

Arguably the best player in his age-group, Sancho created quite a storm when he wanted to leave City. Many assumed greed and an inflated ego had clouded his judgment. He didn’t believe he was better than Raheem Sterling or Leroy Sane. He simply wished to play first-team football. Anywhere.

He’s not alone. Chris Willock left Arsenal for Benfica in search of a new challenge. Chelsea creative midfielder Mason Mount has impressed during senior minutes with Dutch side Vitesse in the Eredivisie and Europa League this term.

Reece Oxford’s situation is difficult to judge. He wasn’t playing regularly in Germany. David Moyes cut the loan short. The player hasn’t yet featured for the Hammers but has been nursing an ankle injury. Gladbach had been happy with Oxford’s early progress though. They had explored a permanent transfer. Moyes objected.

“What I’m not keen on is selling my best young players.” – Moyes when questioned about Oxford’s future recently.

If the Scot plays Oxford when fit, there is nothing wrong with that statement. If he stunts the player’s growth just on principle, well.

It’s clear though that youngsters who begin their professional careers in lower leagues benefit more. Joe Gomez joined Charlton as a 10-year-old. He is now a Liverpool regular. Fulham’s exciting prospect Ryan Sessegnon continues to develop. At just 17 he has several European sides monitoring his progress.

Sessegnon in action for Fulham against Southampton during their narrow FA Cup defeat earlier this month. At 17, he’s already one of their most important players. (Picture source: Getty Images)

Sessegnon scored three goals during the England U19’s Euro success last summer. He has already netted seven and created four more this term for the Cottagers in the Championship.

The overriding point here is that youngsters, regardless their age, are not being granted sufficient Premier League opportunities.

With the possible exceptions of Tottenham and Manchester United, the path between academy success and first-team breakthrough is being blocked by incoming transfers. Even when that might not be the best long-term solution. At this rate (and ignoring possible Brexit complications) young English players transferring to top European sides will soon become the norm. Not only is that detrimental to the homegrown rule, it reflects poorly on the manner in which Premier League clubs handle their most prized assets.

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