Why the Premier League system could let down England's young footballers
It’s been a banner year for international football in England. Both the Under-20 and Under-17 sides won the World Cups at their age group, while the Under-21 reached the semi-finals of their European Championship and they also emerged victorious at the Toulon Tournament.
Such a prolific summer, however, does not necessarily mean that in the years ahead they will be the world’s major force. While this may be a talented group of youngsters, caution must be exercised about just how far they can go in the game. Winning at youth level is one thing, but getting their chance in the senior game is another entirely.
Just ask those Chelsea players who won the Youth Champions League two years running. Indeed, 30 months on since they defeated Shakhtar Donetsk 3-2 to lift the crown for the first time, barely any of the squad have made a dent in Antonio Conte’s plans.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek did make his senior international debut against Germany on Friday, indicating some level of progression, yet only a couple of months away from his 22nd birthday he is yet to make 30 Premier League appearances and has been forced to move to Crystal Palace on loan to chase first-team football.
Team-mate Tammy Abraham appears to be better placed to break through, having scored times at Swansea in just 11 appearances, having move away temporarily from Stamford Bridge, where, given the paucity of options in attack, he may actually have a realistic chance of battling for some scraps of action when he returns in the summer.
Only Andreas Christensen of these Champions League-winning teams is actually threatening to break through on a regular basis.
These examples serve to emphasise just how difficult it is for young players to break through at the very elite clubs. The demands upon players at that level are greater than they ever have been, so to play for a team with ambitions of winning the Champions League in the crucial formative years as a professional is an ask only the very best can manage.
While fans love to see academy players break into the first-team ranks, the Premier League’s elite clubs have a more short-term attitude. Only Tottenham in recent years have a genuinely strong record of nurturing young players, with even Arsenal gradually departing from their tradition of bringing young players through.
Chelsea may stockpile the best young talent, but it appears that they are largely only interested in doing so in order to sell these players on at a profit in years to come in order to fund moves for ready-made stars. The loan system offers them a chance to gain exposure and increase their market value.
The demands at these clubs are simply too great to risk on unproven players, whose level of consistency and game management has yet to fully develop. Why risk a vital match upon a game of pitch-and-toss when there are more reliable players available?
England will, therefore, suffer from the fact that many of their top youngsters find themselves in top-six academies that have little track record over the last decade of successfully integrating players into the first team.
Indeed, of the U17 World Cup winning squad, only eight members of the team were not playing at that level, and the outstanding players, Phil Foden and Rhian Brewster, were at Manchester City and Liverpool respectively.
And while both rightly generated much hype over their displays, it is worth noting that they are less than six months younger than Kylian Mbappe, who already has more than a year of first-team football behind him. How quickly will either Englishman be similarly brought into the fold?
It is not impossible, of course, but there is so much riding on every game at the top end of the Premier League that it makes such a gamble complicated – especially for a manager like Jurgen Klopp, who finds himself under pressure after an indifferent start to the season.
Meanwhile, the Under-20 squad did not have the same bias towards the top clubs, but it was notable how few were being afforded regular top-level game time in comparison to, say, France, who set the gold standard in terms of youth development currently.
The French may have been eliminated by Italy, but they left many of their top prospects, including Mbappe and Dembele, who were both eligible to play, at home. Of those who did travel to South Korea, around a third were playing regular top league football for their clubs.
The development of the English national team, therefore, has become something of a victim of the Premier League’s success.
Top young players naturally gravitate to the top clubs, but those academies, though successful at youth level, are not necessarily the ones best suited to integrating their graduates to first-team football, which is where young players develop and express their true potential.
Addressing this problem will be key to any hopes England have on graduating their success from youth to senior level.