“They’re proving, by the games I’ve played, that age doesn’t matter – they’ll play you if you’re good enough,” said Jadon Sancho in an interview with Jonathan Northcroft of The Times in March. “A lot of young players come to Dortmund and become top, top players. I thought to myself, ‘Wow, that could be me’.”
‘Wow, that could be me’ is a phrase that has been uttered plenty of times across England’s academies this season. This weekend, reports surfaced that Liverpool threatened to report Borussia Monchengladbach for an illegal approach to young striker Rhian Brewster. They may well have a case, but it probably won’t change the immediate future. Brewster wants the Bundesliga and the Bundesliga wants Brewster.
The news will presumably irk Jurgen Klopp, who had big plans for Brewster. The forward’s ankle injury in January curtailed any hopes of making his Premier League debut this season, but reports suggest that Klopp would have promoted him to the first-team squad next season. This is the most highly rated player in his academy age group at Liverpool.
You can hardly blame Brewster for his impatience. He failed to make a single Premier League squad between August and January when he was fit, is probably seventh or eighth in line for a place in Liverpool’s front three and has already seen his club linked with a number of high-profile wide forwards to supplement their current options.
Having left Chelsea for Liverpool at the age of 16 because he believed he had a better chance of getting regular minutes – moving 210 miles from his family home in Essex – Brewster has demonstrated already that he is prepared to take major decisions to accelerate his senior career. Six months ago, Brewster was top scorer at the Under-17 World Cup. Of the players directly below in the goalscorer list, Lassana N’Diaye has made his senior international debut, Jann-Fiete Arp has played 18 league games for Hamburg and Amine Gouiri has played seven league games for Lyon. Logically, Brewster cannot be faulted.
This is no criticism of Liverpool or Klopp, who have put faith in youth more than most over the last three years. But the short-termism that has enveloped the Premier League makes it increasingly hard for players like Brewster to get a chance. When coaches (particularly in the top six) are never more than two poor results from being placed under media pressure, Premier League management becomes an exercise in mistake elimination. But young players make mistakes. The league’s sacking culture and clubs’ tendency to lurch between managerial styles (long-term to firefighter to long-term) means more managers with more transfer shortlists. Suddenly, young players are drowning.
We’re at least six weeks away from the fall-out to England’s dismal World Cup exit, but it’s hardly controversial to suggest that the Premier League has an issue with the progression of English talent. Nearly 70 percent of players in the league are foreign-born. No top-six club gave more than 34% of their minutes this season to English players, and only two clubs in the division (Everton and Bournemouth) gave more than 50%.
In itself, this is not a problem. The rise of foreign imports has vastly improved the quality of the Premier League, and allowed its clubs to market effectively in Asia, Africa and North America. Multiculturality is the Premier League’s biggest success story, and the Premier League is English culture’s most successful export of the modern era.
But our young domestic players find their opportunities more limited than most. This season (and there has actually been an improvement following a record-breaking 2017 for England’s youth teams), 15 players have played Premier League games at the age of 18 or under compared to 25 in the Bundesliga. Of those 15, only two are English and played more than five league games this season: Trent Alexander-Arnold at Liverpool and Tom Edwards at Stoke.
In the Bundesliga, a very different picture. Arp and Rick van Drongelen both made 18 league appearances for Hamburg; Dayot Upamecano made 28 league appearances for RB Leipzig; Kai Havertz made 28 appearances for Bayer Leverkusen; Michaël Cuisance made 24 league appearances for Monchengladbach; Christian Pulisic made 32 league appearances for Dortmund. All played at 18 or under this season, and the list goes on and on.
And then there’s the Brits. That same list of 25 includes Sancho, Ademola Lookman, Reece Oxford, Mandela Egbo and Kevin Danso, who moved to the Bundesliga from MK Dons in 2014 having lived in England from the age of six. Those five alone shared 35 Bundesliga appearances this season. Kaylen Hinds (Greuther Furth), Danny Collinge (Suttgart), Denzil Boadu (Borussia Dortmund) and Jordan Brown (Hannover) have made similar, if lower-profile, moves to Germany. They left Arsenal, MK Dons, Manchester City and West Ham respectively.
Lookman is an intriguing example. Everton accepted an offer from Derby County for him to move to the Championship for five months in January, and considered that his best option. But the winger rejected that chance in favour of RB Leipzig, much to Everton’s disdain.
“We have got some deals for him but he was adamant he chose Germany,” said Sam Allardyce, barely hiding his disgust. “We tried to persuade him not to because I think it is a big challenge for his development with not being able to speak the language. But he was stubborn and got what he wanted.” For the record, Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy were the only English players to score more top-flight goals than Lookman in April and May.
The Bundesliga has become the perfect breeding ground for our young talent. The conveyor belt between academy and first-team runs more smoothly than anywhere else in Europe. If the Premier League – and its short-termism – provide an unstable platform for youth development, the Bundesliga is the antidote: Of the 18 current managers, five are still in their 30s and – most remarkably – seven were promoted to their position from a lower role within the club.
This is not the easy way out, you understand. “The intensity of training is different, and the style of play,” Hinds told the Daily Mail. “I’ve got to get used to the German way. Everything’s different, the tactical side and the technical side.” But that’s precisely the point. By moving out of a comfort zone you test yourself. By testing yourself, you improve.
Supporters of Liverpool might disagree should Brewster get his way, but this can only be a good thing. European clubs have reacted to the over-achievement of England at youth level. If hanging around at an elite English club and hoping to be noticed for so long felt like the only route to happiness, our best young talent now have a different option.
It requires courage and no little faith in their own ability, but both are vital in the making of any international footballer. All hail Lookman’s stubbornness, and all hail young players who have the conviction to decide what is best for their own futures. It will not always work out, but developing footballers who can think for themselves indicates that English football is finally starting to overcome the innate insularity that has long held us back.
So fly, fly my pretties. If your club won’t play you, find one that will. If the Football League doesn’t sound appealing, find somewhere that does. The grass in Germany isn’t just greener; you actually get to play football on it.