Okay, I’ll say it: I’m really not convinced that a huge number of foreign players is having any adverse effect on the fortunes of the England team.
The argument is that while some players emerge relatively fully formed in their abilities, particularly those blessed with great physical attributes – the pace of Michael Owen, Raheem Sterling or Marcus Rashford, or the power and tenacity of Wayne Rooney or Dele Alli – others take time to develop, and that requires consistent time on the field at club level. If you deprive Xavi of playing time at Barcelona in his early 20s, he ends up only half-baked and never reaches his full potential, instead becoming a decent mid-table player with six caps.
There are two problems with this. One is that you can’t prove a negative; we will never know whether Jay Spearing could have become the English Xavi if only he had been given more of an opportunity at Liverpool.
The other is that, actually, there are plenty of examples of top clubs giving youth a chance. Mauricio Pochettino is rightly praised for his development of Dele Alli, Harry Winks, Eric Dier and Harry Kane at Tottenham, but just off the top of my head, the big clubs have also given English players some pretty significant chances over the past 10-15 years:
· Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Kieran Gibbs and Jack Wilshere at Arsenal.
· Jordan Henderson, Andy Carroll, Raheem Sterling, Joe Gomez, Jon Flanagan and Martin Kelly at Liverpool.
· Marcus Rashford, Wayne Rooney, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Jesse Lingard at Manchester United.
· Joe Hart, Micah Richards, Michael Johnson, John Stones, and Sterling (again) at Manchester City.
(Chelsea are the glaring exception, but let us not forget that they once had Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne on their books and let them go, so their problems with youth are not entirely contained to English players.)
If you had to suppress a snigger at some of those names, then you have brought me neatly onto my next point. You could pretty much split that list into two halves, one of which is those who you would be pretty happy to see turning out for England. For these players, staying at a top-six club throughout their careers is not an issue, because they have proven themselves capable of hanging with the big boys.
It is notable, too, that a fair few of those players didn’t come through the academies at their top-six club: Alli at MK Dons, Sterling at QPR, Jones at Blackburn, Stones at Barnsley. Kane did emerge at Tottenham, but also had loan spells with Leyton Orient, Millwall, Norwich and Leicester. Yet all became established regulars at an elite side at a young age – despite the presence of foreign players, the cream does still tend to rise to the top.
The other list consists of those who have simply proven not to be good enough despite being given ample opportunity to prove themselves and develop to their full potential. It is hard to look at the careers of Kelly, Wilshere, Carroll, Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Aaron Lennon, and conclude that the reason they are unlikely to go to the World Cup is because they lacked opportunity.
Now, bear with me a moment here, because I’m going to throw some numbers at you. The last five World Cup winning squads have, on average, broken down into the following age categories: one player aged 18-20, three or four aged 21-23, seven each aged 24-26 and 27-29, three or four aged 30-32, and one player who is 33 or over (usually a goalkeeper).
Taking the latest Football365 World Cup Ladder as gospel, England’s 2018 World Cup squad will fit that profile almost exactly: one aged 18-20, five aged 21-23, seven aged 24-26, six aged 27-29, and four aged 30-32. If Marcus Rashford were four months older, England’s age profile would be exactly the same as Spain’s glorious World Cup-winning squad.
Again, the point here is not to suggest that England are going to win the World Cup because their players are the right age, but to illustrate that this is neither a side skewed too heavily towards youth or carrying around the rotting carcasses of stars from a bygone era. And if the age profile is right and all of the squad have had opportunities in the Premier League, then what conclusion is there other than that they are simply not good enough to win the World Cup?
It happens, and that’s fine. There is no country in the world which has produced a consistently over-achieving, world-beating crop of players for generation upon generation: even the strongest contenders for that accolade over the past 40 or 50 years (Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands) have had their ups and downs. I bring that up not to excuse complacency in player development, but to help contextualise our expectations.
Plenty enough has been written about the achievements of England’s youth-level sides in international tournaments this year: suffice to say, they’re bloody brilliant. The concern that they may not get enough football under their belts soon enough to fulfil that potential is well-placed and reasonable – but my hunch is that if they are good enough, they will get the chance to prove it soon enough, foreign players be damned.