When the latest television deal rights were announced for the EPL, there was a genuine sense of awe at the sheer numbers involved. Sky and BT Sport spent a combined £5.136 billion for live coverage of the Premier League from the 2016-2017 season, with the total sum representing a staggering 70% on the current deal of £3 billion. Despite the controversy surrounding the deal, there is hope that this financial package will benefit both fans and younger British talent.
This was reflected by the breakdown of the funds reported by the Premier League, with £56 million a year being earmarked for grassroots projects. These include the development of more than 50 artificial pitches throughout the UK, which will be used to drive player development and focus on the cultivation of technique rather than speed or power. These initiatives many not be crucial to the future of the Premier League, but they will have a huge impact on the development of our ailing national game.
An Issue of Opportunity or Skill: Why are Opportunities scarce for Home-grown Talent in the EPL?
The need for grassroots investment is critical, especially when you consider the lack of game time for English players of all age in the Premier League. This has been the focus of several studies in recent times, and although the lack of British representation suggests multiple issues the most worrying is the lack of youth player development. In simple statistical terms, British players contributed just 36.08% of the total workforce during the 2014-15 season.
While this marked a noticeable rise from the previous season, it is important to place this discrepancy into perspective. Firstly, this increase in playing time for British players can be largely attributed to the promotion of Championship winners Burnley, who used only one non-UK player throughout the whole of the season. Even then, the fact that just a third of English Premier League players are British is startling when you consider that just 16 overseas professionals featured during the opening weekend of the EPL back in 1992.
From this, it is clear that there is a significant issue in terms of youth player development in the UK. While it is easy to attribute this to the increased wealth within the game and the focus on securing cheaper players from abroad, there are some suggestions that grassroots academy’s and youth systems are simply unable to develop the calibre of professionals required for top flight football in the Premier League.
Sterling, Pogba and Loftus-Cheek: 3 Case Studies
To answer this question, it is important to look at some of the Premier League’s most intriguing youth prospects from the last few years and assess their development. Let’s start with Manchester City’s newly acquired Raheem Sterling, who has recently completed an acrimonious move from Liverpool for a staggering £49 million. Having signed from QPR as a 16-year old, Sterling had barely completed two full seasons in the top-flight before demanding a lucrative move to one of England’s wealthiest sides.
There are two significant issues with this deal. The first is that Sterling, despite his immense natural talent and potential, has yet to develop his game in terms of consistency and end product. Despite a golden period towards the end of the 2013-14 campaign in which the young forward scored nine goals in 33 appearances and starred alongside the talismanic Luis Suarez, Sterling endured a poor second season with just seven goals, a lack of assists and generally underwhelming performances.
This patchy form was undermined by poor decision making on the field, and it means that Sterling has much to prove as a first-choice, top flight attacker. Despite this, he has managed to command a huge £49 million transfer fee, which seems to lack any sense of value or logic given that Sterling remains extremely raw will need to work hard to establish himself as a first-team regular. Above all else, this transfer proves how the lack of exciting British talent creates significant and potentially debilitating hype when a skilful player finally emerges.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek, an Exception to the Rule
From one extreme to another, we arrive at a player who has received rave reviews in terms of his skill, attitude and application. Having been at Chelsea for several years and come to prominence during a series of high quality performances for the club in the FA Youth Cup, Loftus-Cheek finally made the transition to first team squad member last season. The players subsequently made his debut against Liverpool at Stamford Bridge after the league title has been won, capping a steady and confident display with an impressive 100% pass completion rate.
During an interview last season, Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho confirmed that Loftus-Cheek would have played more regularly last season were it not for the team’s trophy hunt, and the suspicion is that he will make a much-deserved breakthrough next season. The expected departure of Mikel will open an opportunity alongside Nemanja Matic in Chelsea’s midfield, and this is one that Loftus-Cheek is likely to grab with relish.
This is because this talented midfielder breaks the mould when it comes to young English talent in the UK, and boasts the attributes required to bridge the gap between youth and professional football. Physically strong, motivated and mature, he has a keen sense of football intelligence and presence that is so often lacking from young British footballers. In addition to this, he has also developed a continental method of playing, as his first instinct is to create an angle for players when supporting play and recycle the ball with a series of short passes when in possession. This is ideal for the modern EPL, while it is also the type of methodology that the national game needs to implement.
Paul Pogba, the other side of the Coin
These players highlight the influence that quality, playing style and value has on the lack of British players in the EPL, and the case of Paul Pogba narrates this view from an alternative perspective. Having been developed as a technically gifted and powerful youngster at French Club Le Harve, Pogba was controversially signed by Manchester United when just 16. The club subsequently paid a nominal fee of the player, securing the services of a well-coached and physically powerful specimen for next to nothing.
Pogba’s time at Old Trafford proved to be frustrating for the Frenchman, as he forced his way to the edge of United’s first team only to be cast in the perennial role of substitute. This was not due to a lack of talent, you understand, but more the desire of Sir Alex Ferguson to develop Pogba gradually and ensure a seamless transition to the English playing style. The failure to fast-track the precocious talent led to a breakdown in contract negotiations, which ended when Pogba moved to Italian champions Juventus on a free transfer in 2010. Now worth an estimated £70 million, Pogba has developed quickly into one of the most sought-after talents in the world.
Here we see a significant issue with the prevailing cost of over-hyped British youngsters in the English game. This extends outside the Premier League, as clubs throughout the league infrastructure are able to place a premium price of young players who break through their academies. Southampton charged Arsenal a quite staggering £12 million for the then 16 year old Theo Walcott in 2006, for example, while just two years later Manchester United were able to sign the more evolved and physically developed Pogba for a fraction of the price.
Our Final Thoughts
This underlines a huge issue in the English game, as young British players cost considerably more than those overseas. This is driven by wealth and greed rather than talent, as in most instances British youngsters arguably lack the technical skill of their foreign counterparts.
Grassroots development and an increased focus on technical and strategic player development will help with this, but for now we have a situation where British clubs can invest minimal amounts of time and money into sourcing the best youngsters from overseas rather than paying over the odds for unproven local talent that lacks the same breadth of abilities.