There’s a growing trend in English football that represents a harbinger for the failed development of young players.
As the national team enters an era of unaccustomed progress courtesy of an emerging young core now well-versed in international successes, Premier League sides are failing to keep the same players set for stardom in their ranks.
Arsenal have avoided the fate of many of their peers, securing the services of tricky teen winger Reiss Nelson on a long-term senior contract on Friday after reports surfaced earlier in the week suggesting the England youth international could go abroad on a permanent deal. The Gunners then loaned Nelson out to Champions League side Hoffenheim for some much-needed first-team minutes under Julian Nagelsmann.
The Gunners are no stranger to this recent trend of young players establishing roots on the continent. In the last few years, Dutch youth international forward Donyell Malen left for PSV and Chris Willock moved to Benfica. That was followed by promising striker Kaylen Hinds’ enrollment at Wolfsburg and teenage defensive midfielder Marcus McGuane’s move to Barcelona.
The craze extends far beyond Arsenal.
Former Manchester City starlet Jadon Sancho opted for Borussia Dortmund at an age that would require a parental permission form for most school activities. Jonathan Panzo ditched Chelsea for Monaco, reuniting with ex-Blues scouting savant Michael Emenalo on the principality. Additionally, Keanan Bennetts and Reo Griffiths left Tottenham’s academy to join Borussia Monchengladbach and Lyon, respectively, and crafty left-footed dazzler Noni Madueke snubbed Spurs and Manchester United to seek first-team opportunities with PSV.
Full credit to the aforementioned players for seeking alternative routes and enlisting with a handful of clubs all notably proficient at the progression of young talent. Sancho has since become an important part of Dortmund’s plans, finding his footing towards the end of last season under Peter Stoger. He assisted on Marco Reus’ goal during a weekend thumping of RB Leipzig to open the 2018-19 campaign.
No club among England’s elite is safe from the perils of premature exits. Even Spurs, who have become the Premier League’s media darling for a series of successive top-flight “almosts” guided by a litter of young players, have experienced departures for Bennetts, Griffiths, and Madueke.
For many, advancement from a top academy to first-team football is a labor of love not worth the loan spells with lower league sides. Look no further than Tottenham’s Harry Kane. The England star persevered through a quartet of mercurial temporary tenures with Leyton Orient, Millwall, Norwich City, and Leicester before earning a role in the first team. The 25-year-old received paltry plaudits as a youth prospect compared to those listed above.
It’s not like England’s current crop of stars-to-be isn’t good enough. The summer of 2017 was a stellar stretch for Three Lions youth, with the Under-17 side topping Spain in the World Cup final to go with a runners-up finish in the European Under-17 Championship. English kids also won the Toulon Tournament, made the semi-finals of the Euro Under-21 Championship, and won the European Under-19 contest. It was a summer, that paired with England’s performance in Russia, signals a change in national team hopes tethered to the advancement of young players.
In Nelson’s case, perhaps the Elephant and Castle born winger was inspired to pen a long-term deal with Arsenal because of the opportunities afforded to academy products.
Last season under Arsene Wenger, Arsenal led all Premier League sides with 7,933 minutes in the league played by academy grads. Manchester United was second on 6,858, and Manchester City was third from bottom with 152 minutes. Those minutes were split between Brahim Diaz, Lukas Nmecha and Phil Foden, with the latter – who like Sancho was a member of the Under-17 World Cup winners – appears the most likely to break into the first team at the Etihad. City is taking a cautious approach with Foden, preferring to keep the local boy close amid alleged links with Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds, among other suitors for the versatile attacking midfielder. With Pep Guardiola’s charges set to compete on four fronts, perhaps Foden will get an opportunity that players like Jaden Sancho feared wouldn’t come, or maybe he’ll become the latest cog in a frenzied loan system that sees a slew of City kids plying their trade with the club’s Catalan outpost Girona.
Sancho has the looks of a player slated for stardom, a talent that an English side may very well overpay for in a few years time – much to the delight of Dortmund. Should the likes of Bennetts, Panzo, McGuane, and others have their profiles similarly boosted, expect the recent leak of homegrown players to verge on a veritable migration.
More than two-thirds (69.2 percent) of players in England’s top flight are born overseas, the highest percentage among Europe’s top-five leagues. Perhaps budding English players are exercising foresight in taken circuitous routes to hopeful Premier League returns. Either way, the trend of players moving abroad to cut their footballing teeth is a worrying sign for internal development in English football.
Curiously, young English players appear to be all the rage everywhere except England.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)