Why Liverpool, Manchester United and co are slowly turning away from obvious Premier League talent

Steven Chicken
Ollie Watkins celebrates a goal for Aston Villa
Would Ollie Watkins still be a Villa player if he had been playing ten years ago? Yes, that is a confusing question

Quickly: off the top of your head, who is the only Premier League player in double figures for goals and assists this season? Hint: he has also scored seven in nine in Europe this season.

If you said Ollie Watkins, congratulations, you may now claim your small cake as a prize. (If you looked at the picture above, please be honest and return said cake to more honest readers.)

Premier League production line to top six slowing down for Best Of The Rest

With the greatest of respect to Aston Villa — and that’s the very least they deserve for their continued rise to greater and greater heights over the past few years – there was a time, not so long ago, when players like Watkins would have earned a move to a top four or big six club long before now.

England squads of old are littered with such players: Adam Lallana, Nathaniel Clyne, Ashley Young, Glen Johnson, Rickie Lambert, Andy Carroll, Daniel Sturridge, Wilfried Zaha. Had he been less loyal to Leicester, Jamie Vardy would surely have been part of the pack too.

These were players who shone at that level just below the very elite and, inevitably, would be scooped up eventually. Some went on to play bit-part roles before returning back down to their previous level; others enjoyed long and fruitful careers. 

That is not so much the case anymore. The Premier League now has more than a few players who don’t just look ready for that one big move, but have done for some time. Watkins is a prime example, as is West Ham’s Jarrod Bowen. Brentford’s Ivan Toney can tentatively be included, with the mitigating factor of that gambling ban having been a considerable impediment; still, Arsenal did not pull the trigger on a move in January as some had predicted might happen.

Dominic Solanke, too young and inexperienced to quite break through at Liverpool, is verging on joining that group too after an impressive season for Bournemouth. Morgan Gibbs-White, the standout player for Nottingham Forest, would have been ripe for big six pickings just four or five years ago. A decade ago, Liverpool or Chelsea would have snapped up another Hammer, James Ward-Prowse, for his set-pieces alone.

FFP, TV revenue and academy renaissance helping spread Premier League talent around

There are exceptions, of course: look at the money Arsenal spent on Declan Rice last summer, for instance. But increasingly, homegrown players seem to have to stand out to that kind of obvious extent to earn that kind of move.

It’s an interesting phenomenon. Lying behind it, we think are three factors:

  • The vast growth in TV money across the top flight that came in four years ago allowed the rest of the division to offer wages and transfer fees closer to what would previously have been solely the domain of Champions League clubs, with likes of Villa and Newcastle taking full advantage;
  • More stringent regulations over club finances mean that teams are, on the whole, less inclined to spend big on what could ultimately end up being squad players to them, instead looking abroad or, increasingly, to other big six clubs (Mason Mount, Cole Palmer) for supposedly more sure-fire hits or relative bargains for the same kind of role. Meanwhile, the likes of Villa have to ask huge fees for their best players so they can go out and sign the next one on the shortlist;
  • And finally, but related to both previous factors, a renaissance in English academy football means the top clubs are bringing through more of their own youngsters to fulfil their homegrown player quotas. (Those who are poached from other clubs now tend to have been so at a younger age.)

To be clear, we don’t see this as a bad thing: talent hoarding only entrenched that big four for year after year, and would leave many of those talented-but-not-world-beating players scrapping for minutes in the best years of their careers that could have been more enjoyably spent starring just a couple of places further down the table.

Still, from a purely curious and academic perspective, it feels a bit of a shame that the likes of Watkins and Bowen – now aged 28 and 27 respectively – may not ever get the chance to step up that other level and see if they are able to replicate it at the very tippy-top of the table as they might once have done.