Where is it coming from?
In England, we worry a lot about our men’s national football team – the state of it now, and the state of it in the future. Other countries probably do as well, but for us, they exist only as comparisons to beat ourselves with when they achieve more than us. It’s always good, though, to have a sense of where the next generation of players is coming from, and that’s why I’ve set out to look at all of the semi-regularly featuring under 25s in Europe’s top leagues.
There is finite space in this column and an innumerable amount of players, however. I looked at defenders four weeks ago, central and defensive midfielders two weeks ago, and this time it’s the turn of wide midfielders (ie, wingers) and attacking midfielders.
Previous positional groups were slightly worrying from the English point of view. While England has a decent crop of centre-backs, they had no full-backs at all and only three central midfielders who fit these criteria.
Things are a lot better in the attacking midfield department. While England still has the fewest in this position in the top 5 leagues out of the 5 nations those leagues belong to, they’re of a good standard. The average Euro Club Index (ECI) ranking of their clubs is just over 50, around the level of Southampton or Inter Milan. Contrast this with Italy, whose 11 semi-regularly playing youngsters have an average ECI ranking of their clubs of 95, and it’s definitely something to be positive about.
Germany’s situation is another easily comparable with England’s. They too have 11 names in this category, though the average ECI ranking of the clubs these players are at is just over 40. Both England and Germany, then, have a good amount of talent, albeit their regularly featuring talent is skewed towards the biggest clubs in Europe.
However, whereas the English players have played on average just under 18 lots of 90 minutes this season, Germany’s youngsters only have an average of just over 13. Bear in mind that one of the cut-offs for this project is that players must have started at least 10 games, so there are likely a good number of German players just scraping past the threshold, whereas English talent such as Raheem Sterling, Dele Alli, Nathan Redmond all play quite regularly.
France, as with other positional groups, has the most players who fit these criteria with 18. Again, as with other positional groups, the average ECI ranking of their clubs is much lower than some of the talents from other Big-5-league nations, at around 110.
It’s a pattern that has emerged throughout this analysis and one which has almost its mirror image in the English talent. Every nation has its Sterlings, its Allis, its Martials, its Dembeles, or its Sanés. However, Ligue 1’s lower teams regularly have domestic youngsters who get regular minutes.
Ligue 1 isn’t even dominated wholly by their own, French youngsters. In most of the positional groups, Ligue 1’s French contingent has made up just 60-70% of their total cohort of semi-regular under 25s, which are broadly similar rates to Germany and Spain.
Italy and England are slightly different stories. Serie A hovers around 40-50% of their youngsters being Italian in each positional group, and for the Premier League, a similar pattern applies, apart from the full-backs where the percentage is, of course, zero, and centre-backs. Back there, English centre-backs make up eight of the Premier League’s nine under-25 semi-regulars.
Interestingly, this is a category where German and Spain dip below 50% for the semi-regular youngsters being of that particular nation. Perhaps this says something about what each nation is good at, or at least what it places value on. That’s something to ponder on in more detail at another time.
As for England, only a few names crop up when the 10-starts threshold is taken out for attacking midfielders. Demarai Gray is the main one, and Tom Davies, who made the main central midfield list, also appears. Sam Byram deserves a mention, due to having his starts split between full-back and a nominal right-midfield role, cutting him out of both lists.
The success of England’s various youth teams this summer – the Under 17s, Under 19s, and Under 20s at their European Championships, Toulon Tournament, and World Cup respectively – will give some hope to Gareth Southgate. It may be that England has, somehow, managed to skip a generation of talent and would look very well-stocked if this exercise was done again in two or three years’ time. Let’s hope so, anyway.
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