The changes in our society and the realities of the modern game in England are seeing more young players leave their comfort zone.
English teenagers playing football abroad is becoming the new trend.
It used to be unheard of. English players were comfortable with the home life, and foreign clubs rarely saw them as a worthy investment.
To sign an English player meant paying high wages for someone who has a low chance of adapting to another culture and league. The value simply wasn’t there.
Suddenly, things have changed.
This season alone has seen Jadon Sancho, Marcus McGuane, Reece Oxford, Kaylen Hinds, Daniel Crowley and Chris Willock, amongst others, leave England to play abroad.
The most fascinating thing in common for all those players is that they’re all aged 20 or younger.
What we’re seeing is an entire generation of English talent seeking to develop outside of the country, and it’s incredibly exciting.
There are many reasons why this is occurring more frequently.
This generation has a more open attitude to foreign football. Many of these players have grown up in a more cosmopolitan world. They’ve grown up with Spanish, Italian and German football readily available on TV. They’ve grown up with the internet and social media, where video clips of the best foreign teams are shared. They’ve played video games such as FIFA, Pro Evo and Football Manager, with their ever-expanding databases of players from all over the world.
In short, this generation have had far more access to foreign football than any other generation before it.
That frequent exposure normalises things. Football very much exists beyond the English borders, and players move countries all the time, so why not English players as well? If somebody wants them, why not give it a try?
Therein lies another key aspect: there is now demand for young English players.
There are two big parts to this.
One is that English football, especially youth football, is becoming highly regarded on the European continent.
While the senior England team struggles, the youth teams have been mopping up silverware. Scouts know full-well that this nation is producing high-quality talent with the technique and intelligence to play abroad.
The other part is that English prospects are undervalued.
The Premier League has become such a fierce competition that many teams are relying less and less on their academies. Unless truly outstanding players come through, youngsters simply aren’t being played.
If that pathway from academy to first team doesn’t exist, young players are going to have find solutions elsewhere. For many, that means going on countless loan spells. For some, that means leaving to a club who will play them, no matter where that club is.
These players play such little football, and aren’t on huge, lucrative deals. Hence, they’re far easier to sign than they used to be.
This is how Jadon Sancho, an outstanding talent from Manchester City’s academy, moved for just £7m. Despite his talent, City weren’t prepared to give him first team football. Instead, huge fees were spent on bringing in new players.
Likewise, Ademola Lookman at Everton saw his minutes dwindle despite several other youngsters getting a chance at Everton. When the opportunity to join RB Leipzig appeared, he took it. He’s already scored a winning goal for them.
In five years’ time, Sancho and Lookman could be worth ten times what they are now.
On top of that, foreign clubs know that there’s going to be high demand for English players from English clubs.
Premier League teams can have no more than 17 non-home grown players in their squads. To have a full squad of 25 means having at least eight home-grown players.
This is why Chelsea were so keen to buy Danny Drinkwater and Ross Barkley, and why Manchester City decided to buy Jack Rodwell and Scott Sinclair a few years ago. Knowing this, mid-table clubs, where the most English players can be found, charge high rates.
What we could see in the future is the same thing happening, only with foreign teams. Should Sancho become a great player, English clubs will be queueing up to bring him back. And as foreign clubs know all too well, the Premier League has the cash to make it happen.
Of course, to get that profit, the players need to develop and have the talent.
Our young players are coming through academies being coached by Spaniard, Germans, Frenchman and Dutchman.
They’re receiving an education that is drawing in practices from all Europe.
When Barcelona signed Marcus McGuane from Arsenal, they were excited to have a player who was both powerful and technically sound.
This is a club with a high-standard for technique, and they thought McGuane would be a worthy buy. That is surely a ‘win’ for coaching in England.
Having said all that, there is still work to be done.
Oliver Burke, a Scottish winger who came through Nottingham Forest’s academy, recently returned from RB Leipzig due to a lack of game time. Apparently, the coaching staff at Leipzig described him as a “empty hard drive” – the implication being that Burke lacked a lot of the fundamentals about the tactical side of the game.
England produces plenty of physically gifted players and are seeing more and more technically gifted players as well. But game intelligence and tactical understanding is still lacking.
Playing abroad could be the answer to that.
Young players can experience and absorb different playing styles and tactics. They will have to adapt to the various different approaches used in European football.
More importantly, they’re going to have the opportunity to experience it first-hand in actual matches.
This generation of talent have taken the bold step to try out a different culture.
They could grow as individuals on foreign soil, as these new cultures and ways of playing football challenge their preconceptions about the game.
But it’s also crucial that they adapt and prove that talent.
English players tend to boomerang back to the UK after a few years abroad. You seldom see them remain there.
What I’d love to see is players really establishing themselves in La Liga and the Bundesliga, instead only being there for a year or two and coming back saying “well, I tried”.
In doing so, we could see some terrific English players in the future.