By Will Guthrie
During the autopsy of England’s disastrous 2010 World Cup in South Africa, one moment stands out – an exasperated Fabio Capello throws his hands up and bemoans “where are all the young players?” during his press conference after The Three Lions had crashed out. This was after a youthful Germany team containing the likes of Thomas Müller and Mesut Özil had run rampant against an ageing England side and thrashed them 4-1. How amazing it is then, that just ten years later, England’s youth ranks are overflowing with valuable world class talent. It’s no secret that French superstar Kylian Mbappe is the world’s most expensive player, but following him are Raheem Sterling, Jadon Sancho, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Marcus Rashford. England’s future is suddenly very bright, let us explore.
This past week, a report was released ranking the most valuable players playing in the top five leagues in Europe by CIES Football Observatory, a Swiss-based research group that uses football statistical analysis. Incredibly, four of the top five spots are occupied by English players, all of whom are 25 years of age or younger. That is some turnaround from a decade previously when the best Capello could offer when pressed were the names Jack Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs, Gabby Agbonlahor, Theo Walcott and Adam Johnson, none of whom are regulars in the England squad today. In fact, Capello had such little faith in these players that just prior to that World Cup, he sent out an SOS call to several recently retired England stalwarts. The likes of Jamie Carragher, Ledley King and Paul Scholes were all asked to come out of retirement to bolster a squad whose lack of depth concerned Capello and while Scholes resisted, the other two answered the call. Sadly for England, their age showed and younger, more vibrant teams were able to stifle them or score on the counter attack.
The manner of their humiliating exit led to a review by the English FA to find out how a country with the biggest, most glamourous and self-proclaimed best league in world football could fail to produce world class talent. The conclusion was that a top to bottom overhaul was required, from grass roots up to the top level of football. The review recommended 350+ youth leagues be created, whilst 4,000+ coaches would be trained up for them. The report also recommended the creation of purpose made and artificial pitches all over the country to help encourage participation. Finally, and perhaps most crucially, the ‘homegrown rule’ was introduced to all professional leagues in England as part of the Elite Player Performance Plan. This rule states that all clubs must have a minimum of eight homegrown players in their squad of 25. The idea was to emulate the German FA’s plan in 2001 which created a veritable conveyor belt of talent that has benefitted the German national team ever since, even leading to a World Cup triumph in 2014 in Brazil. By enforcing this rule, it was reasoned more English players would see game time and further their development. It was hoped this would create more competition for places in the national side and eventually have England contending for trophies again after a dismal ten year stretch. It was a smart move that began paying dividends when England finished fourth at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. However, it seems this is just the tip of the iceberg, a preview of what’s to come.
Going into that 2018 World Cup, expectations were low. Having reached a low point where no managers of renown would touch England’s top job after witnessing the ruthless UK media sting Sam Allardyce with his own stupidity (Allardyce was filmed accepting a bribe from an undercover ‘journalist’), the only real option was Gareth Southgate, who had done a subpar job with the under 21 team in the England setup. Pickings were slim, but with all of this came the reduced expectations of the public and the media, the “England shirt weighs heavy” as Capello put it, was no longer an issue. Crucially, Southgate entrusted youth, picking a squad that could excite and break the shackles. Though unproven on the international stage at the time, players like Rashford, Alexander-Arnold and Ruben Loftus-Cheek were selected as part of the squad, along with some more established but young players such as Sterling and Dele Alli. Fast forward two years and three of those players are ranked in the top five most valuable in the world. A slight risk at the time has transformed the culture of the England set-up and the team today is arguably one of the strongest in the world.
The good news doesn’t end there. If you extrapolate the list to the top ten most valuable players, Harry Kane comes in at number ten and is regarded as one of the best strikers on the planet. It also appears that the competition for spots in the England squad will only grow fiercer. Right now, it seems as though every club in the top few levels of professional football in England can claim to have a prospect for the national side. At the very top you see names like Phil Foden (Manchester City), Mason Greenwood (Manchester United), Mason Mount and Callum Hudson-Odoi (Chelsea), Bukayo Saka (Arsenal), Morgan Gibbs-White (Wolves), Dean Henderson (Sheffield United) and Declan Rice (West Ham) featuring regularly in the Premier League and in Europe, and it doesn’t end there. Birmingham City F.C. starlet Jude Bellingham is just 16 and wanted by Manchester United for a fee in the region of £35 million. The review has worked, and the talent pool runs deep. The current setup in England has an air of Spain 2008 and Germany 2012, where prodigies were seemingly everywhere, and tellingly, both those groups of players would go on to win major trophies. What remains to be seen is whether or not the weight of expectation that will now follow will be too much to bear, but with the depth of talent England now has at their disposal, it’s not hard to imagine a rosy future for the national side, and dare we say it, a trophy or two.