2017 has undoubtedly been one of the most fascinating years in English football in recent memory when it comes to the national side.
While 2016 saw England plummet to arguably their lowest ever ebb – the loss to Iceland that saw them eliminated from the European Championship, and then the scandal that saw Sam Allardyce lose his job after just one game in charge of the team – 2017 has seen England – now under the reins of Gareth Southgate – somehow offering hope to the fans again.
A lot of this new hope hasn’t actually come from the fortunes of the senior side. Granted, they qualified comfortably for the 2018 World Cup by winning their group, but many of the performances – the 1-0 wins over Slovenia and Lithuania, the 2-2 draw with Scotland – were dull at best, diabolical at worst, and the presence of leftovers from the Roy Hodgson era like Jordan Henderson and Gary Cahill remains jarring.
At youth level though, 2017 has been unprecedented in terms of success for England. It all started back in May when England’s u-17’s finished as runners-up to Spain in the u-17 European Championship, with Manchester City youngster Jadon Sancho being named as the tournament’s best player.
Next came the u-20 World Cup – prior to 2017, England’s best finish had been 3rd place back in 1993 – and with a squad featuring the likes of Dominic Solanke and Dominic Calvert-Lewin, England smashed Argentina in the opening match and didn’t look back, eventually beating Venezuela to claim the title.
The u-21 European Championship wasn’t quite as successful – after a shaky start, Aidy Boothroyd’s side made it to the semi-finals where Germany eliminated them via penalties. But then England’s u-19’s won the European Championship, and the year finally culminated with the u-17’s avenging their earlier loss to Spain to win the u-17 World Cup.
When your worst finish in five tournaments is a semi-final position, something must be going right. But can all of the success at youth level really help to turn around England’s fortunes at a senior level? Or does more have to change within the English game for these champion youngsters to have a true impact?
Identifying the problem
The usual villain of the piece when it comes to this issue tends to be the Premier League. As the EPL is technically a separate entity to the Football League – despite both being overseen by the English Football Association – the power that the FA has over it doesn’t extend quite in the same way as, for instance, the German FA’s power does over the massive clubs of the Bundesliga.
This means that where all the German clubs can pull together in the same direction – looking for success for German football – the Premier League clubs are largely in it for themselves, and of course, the money that their success brings.
What does this mean for England’s youngsters? It tends to mean that unfortunately, the pathway for them to break into senior football tends to be blocked. It comes as no surprise that even in a year of such success, the worst performances from England’s youth sides came from the u-21’s, the side with players who ought to be closest to the senior set-up. The players didn’t perform badly of course, but particularly in the semi-final against Germany, they simply looked outgunned at times.
A lot of this likely comes down to the experience levels of the players. England’s outstanding performers – the likes of Tammy Abraham, Lewis Baker, Nathaniel Chalobah and Demarai Gray – simply didn’t have as much top-level experience at the time compared to their German counterparts. The problem is a double-edged sword – England’s biggest clubs produce the brightest youth prospects, but then those players can’t get a chance in the first team and thus miss out on valuable experience.
Why is this, if these players are so talented? It’s quite simple. The biggest clubs in England tend to be owned by foreign nationals who don’t care about the fortunes of the English game.
What they do care about is money and instant success, and so the pressure on the managers of those clubs – coupled with the seemingly endless supply of money – means that they simply can’t afford to take the risk on utilising youth players.
Why would they, when they can simply go and spend massive sums on whichever players – foreign or already-established homegrown talent – that they wish?
Which is why we end up with a situation like the one we saw this summer at Chelsea, where highly touted youth product Nathaniel Chalobah was sold to Watford for the paltry sum of £5m, while boss Antonio Conte splurged a monstrous £40m on Tiemoue Bakayoko – a similar player with not all that much experience, but who had enjoyed a strong season in the Champions League with Monaco.
Chalobah had first broken into Chelsea’s senior squad way back in 2012, but a series of loans and fleeting appearances were all that followed.
Will the same happen to the outstanding youth talent of 2017; the likes of Phil Foden, Rhian Brewster and Ryan Sessegnon? Perhaps not. And the key to the change could well be Gareth Southgate, surprisingly enough.
Gareth Southgate and the way forward
When Southgate was handed the England manager’s job following the Allardyce scandal, it seemed to be a largely unpopular move. He was met by accusations of nepotism; that the FA had simply turned to “their boy” who wouldn’t rock the boat despite not having any real success at the highest level as a manager. But right away we saw early signs that Southgate wasn’t quite the mild-mannered fool he’d been made out to be.
Firstly there was the removal of Wayne Rooney from the squad. Southgate didn’t do this with any fanfare, simply dropping Rooney and stating that he couldn’t pick him for England if he wasn’t playing for his club – of course, at the time Rooney was a bit-part for Manchester United.
Then there was the return of Jermain Defoe, who hadn’t played for England since 2014 but had hit a rich vein of form for Sunderland. He was brought back in at the age of 34 and scored in a World Cup qualifier against Lithuania.
Another player brought in by Southgate was Jake Livermore. He’d appeared once for England while playing for Tottenham back in 2012, but since his move to Hull City in 2013, he’d appeared to have settled into a career as a decent-at-best Premier League midfielder.
2016/17 saw him begin to play excellently for his new club West Bromwich Albion, though, and with options limited for England’s March 2017 games, Livermore was called up and started the friendly game against Germany.
The additions of Defoe and Livermore sent a strong message; not one about age, but about game time. And Southgate re-iterated it to the u-21 players during their European Championship campaign – play minutes at the top level and perform well and I’ll give you a chance with England – reputation and the club you play for no longer matters as it did under past managers. And suddenly, the tide began to turn.
Dominic Solanke – fresh off being named the best player in the u-20 World Cup – turned down a new deal at Chelsea, a club renowned for not using their youth products, and moved to Liverpool. As discussed earlier, Chalobah moved to Watford despite Chelsea offering him a new contract.
He started the season excellently and was immediately called into Southgate’s England side for their September games, although he’s been injured since. And Tammy Abraham and Ruben Loftus-Cheek moved on loan from Chelsea to Swansea and Crystal Palace respectively, where they’ve performed well.
All four men have since broken into the England senior squad, along with Liverpool youngster Joe Gomez, who’s seized his chance following injuries to his club’s first-choice right-back Nathaniel Clyne. And it can’t be long before Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Demarai Gray – finally both playing Premier League football for Everton and Leicester City – follow them into the squad.
Can Southgate’s message alone be the catalyst for the English game to change and make the most of its youth talent? Probably not. The jury remains out on the loan system which has allowed Abraham and Loftus-Cheek to succeed this season – for all we know, Chelsea could recall them at the end of the season and simply use them as bit-parts again.
And there’ll always be a certain amount of youngsters who choose to remain at a big club to chase that mega-money contract without considering the amount of real playing time they’ll get.
At this stage in the game, the Premier League is simply too much of an uncontrollable monster for it to truly change. The FA could try to impose some sort of ruling to force Premier League sides to use their youth players, but the reality is that the clubs are far bigger than the FA at this point and it simply wouldn’t be a worthwhile move.
But at the end of the day, the power truly remains with the players. If someone like Tammy Abraham feels that he’s not going to be given a fair chance at first-team football with Chelsea – and if he truly wants to succeed at international level with England – he simply needs to demand a permanent move, as Chalobah did.
It’s not like any club wants to keep an unhappy player, after all, and thanks to Southgate the old system in which a player needed to be at one of the giant clubs to play for England is seemingly broken.
The option of moving abroad is also there for the players. It’s rare for English players to look to ply their trade anywhere but the Premier League, but that may also be changing – Jadon Sancho, for instance, has abandoned Manchester City and moved to Borussia Dortmund, where he feels he’ll be given more of a chance at first-team football. It hasn’t paid off just yet, but watch this space – judging by his England u-17 showings, he certainly has the potential.
So in conclusion, the system of English football is simply too ingrained to change at this point; the Premier League clubs are too powerful and the foreign owners simply don’t care. But a change in the attitude of the players towards what truly matters – first-team football at an elite level leading to being able to represent your country and succeed there – could be the change that allows England’s youth level champions to prevent a future Iceland debacle. And maybe we’ll all be thanking Gareth Southgate in the end.