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, and so it makes sense to start at the back. No, not with goalkeepers. A team can only ever have one keeper on the pitch and rarely rotate them – voluntarily or otherwise – so that wouldn’t be particularly interesting. What is interesting, though, are defenders.
Compared to the rest of Europe, in quantitative terms, England performs quite well. There have been 8 English under 25s to have started more than 10 matches this season, compared with 5 Italians and 6 Spaniards. (As a side-note, there are even 5 Brazilians in this category across Europe’s top 5 leagues as well).
Unsurprisingly, really, Germany and France are a cut above. France’s 12 include illustrious names such as Raphael Varane, Aymeric Laporte, and Samuel Umtiti, a standard of player who many nations would be happy with as their complete centre-back corps, let alone their under 25 contingent.
Germany have 11, and though they may not have as many big-hitting names – Niklas Süle may be the stand-out – the average quality of these players is likely quite high. Using the players’ club’s Euroclub Index (hereon ECI) ranking as an indication, Germany’s centre-back ECI average is just over 47, or around Southampton standard.
Germany’s young centre-back are largely concentrated around the lower Champions League or Europa League level, whereas other nations have youngsters at clubs lower in the league who balance out high ECI scores at top clubs.
This way, the centre-backs of France have an ECI average of just over 84, and England of just over 93 (around West Ham, Sassuolo, Lille, West Bromwich Albion level).
Italy and Spain meanwhile seem to struggle with young centre-backs, having fewer and with a lower ECI average, or perhaps their teams don’t play them. The majority of young defenders play in their own leagues, players like Antonio Rüdiger, Laporte, Varane, Umtiti high profile exceptions to the rule.
(This isn’t to say that foreigners are taking their places – it could equally be that older, native players are hogging all of the starting spots in their home leagues).
The full-back situation keeps some things the same and changes others. The thing it keeps the same is French dominance. They have 15 full-backs under 25 across Europe’s top leagues starting more than 10 matches this season. This might be filled with filler, with the average ECI at 112, but that’s not a bad level.
Italy’s young full-back corps has the worst ECI average at 173, although this is heavily skewed by 2 players at Pescara, who have an ECI score of over 300. They also only have 7 of those players playing across Europe.
This is more than England though, of course, who have none. At all. Whereas the centre-back corps featured lower level talent such as Alfie Mawson, Jack Stephens, Ben Gibson, or Michael Keane, no such semi-regular players exist at full-back. Scotland have Andrew Robertson (and Stephen Kingsley), and Tottenham have Ben Davies, putting their fellow Home Nation to shame.
Interestingly, where Spain lack in quality young centre-backs they make up for it with a raft of full-backs. Not quite at France’s level, their 13 is still pretty impressive, and whatever you think of his performances over the past season Hector Bellerin is a fantastic player to have produced and have available to you as a nation.
The most interesting case, though, might be Germany. They have 6 players in this category, with an ECI average of just over 47, matching the quality of their centre-backs, if not the quality. It’s reminiscent of their full-age men’s national team really, with a lack of world class talent at full-back evident in recent major international tournaments.
For the future, Antonio Rüdiger has picked up enough minutes at full-back to qualify for this category, and though he may not be world class in this position he’s clearly a capable fill-in, and the emergence of Benjamin Henrichs is likely to give the German men’s national team a real star quality.
Returning to English shores, the top leagues’ under 25 defenders perhaps highlights issues which may emerge in the World Cup cycle after the current one. With John Stones, Eric Dier if needed, and a host of lower standard players who could fill-in if on-form, centre-back is probably well-stocked enough for the foreseeable future.
However, both Kyle Walker and Danny Rose will be 27 next season, Nathaniel Clyne is had his 26th birthday last month, and there are no younger models coming through to vie for their place once their legs start to creak.
Other English players to start at full-back this season include nominal centre-backs like Calum Chambers and Harry Maguire; Luke Shaw and Jon Flanagan have been injury hit, neither for the first time in their career. Perhaps England’s best hope is Ben Chilwell, who may well have had a lot more minutes had he either joined Liverpool in the summer or if Leicester rotated their starting XI more often.
One of those latter-mentioned trio will need to step up next season, though, otherwise a mini-crisis may well be foreseeable by 2020-2022. And if you think that’s a long time away, go and check what Statsbomb were saying about Manchester City’s squad ages back in 2014. And City can buy players.
This article was written with the aid of StrataData, which is property of Stratagem Technologies. StrataData powers the StrataBet Sports Trading Platform, in addition to StrataBet Premium Recommendations.
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