The Next Generation of Strikers in the Big 5 Leagues
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.
It will be no surprise to you if you’ve been following this series or generally have a feel for the state of English football versus their European rivals, that England has the fewest young strikers playing semi-regularly in the top 5 leagues of Europe. They have to be under 25, playing in the Premier League, Bundesliga, La Liga, Serie A, or Ligue 1 and have started 10 or more games as a striker, remember (so Marcus Rashford doesn’t make this particular cut).
Depending on what technicalities you use, England has either one or two names on the list. Benik Afobe was born in England and came through the English youth system, but represents the Democratic Republic of Congo – Harry Kane, of course, is the other one.
This one (or two) are outnumbered by Germany, Spain, Italy, and France, unsurprisingly. These nations all have between four and six young strikers in semi-regular starting positions. Interestingly, those leagues are all much more welcoming places for young strikers too. Whereas there are only 4 young strikers who make this list in the Premier League, there are between nine and eleven in each of the other Big 5 Leagues.
This lack of starts given to youngsters in the Premier League has been a bit of a theme. Apart from the winger/attacking midfield cohort, the Premier League has featured the fewest young semi-regulars in each positional group. Taking all of the outfield positions together, Ligue 1 has by far the most, with over 100; the other nations apart from England each has between 75-90; and England barely peak over 50.
Two years ago, when the record TV deal for the Premier League was announced, the co-president of Saint-Etienne called on UEFA to take some sort of action to stop the English league from becoming the ‘NBA of football’, a league full of stars and money which could squeeze out leagues and clubs from other nations. Perhaps the money has had an effect, or perhaps the Premier League has been like this for a while. The state of the English reflects their league, with the fewest young semi-regular starters of the competing Big 5 nationalities.
So, not only does England have the fewest semi-regular starting youngsters in their league and representing their nation, but they are the only nation where all of these youngsters play in their own domestic league and have the lowest proportion of ‘natives’ amongst the youngsters who featured in that league.
It’s been noted throughout this series of articles that where English youngsters do play, they often feature at some of the better clubs in the league. Ligue 1 provides the mirror image; a league full of French youngsters, but whose home-grown numbers are boosted with ‘depth’ towards the lower end of the table.
If we’re using this to think about what it means for the England Men’s National Team, it represents a double blow for English youngsters looking to make their name on home shores. Their domestic league is not particularly keen on giving young players starting minutes, and it seems that the lower-league clubs do not give home-grown youngsters the kind of starting minutes they might get in other European leagues.
BUT – this could just be a reflection on the quality of English youth football. The alternative hypothesis is that England doesn’t produce many quality young players and, well, what’s the point of English clubs playing young players who aren’t good enough. The Premier League imports a similar amount of youngsters to the other Big 5 leagues, Italy aside, the deficiency in youngsters playing in England’s top leagues comes from their own domestic talent.
The various success of Young Lions teams at the international youth tournaments this summer perhaps indicates that this is changing though. England has won their first world title since 1966 in the Under 20 World Cup; the Under 19s won the Toulon tournament for England’s second successive title; and the Under 21s reached a semi-final of the European Championships only to be knocked out, predictably, by Germany on penalties. The present crop of youth may not seem too promising, but hopefully, for England’s sake, their future might get a little brighter.
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