Where are all the English football players?

|| The FA, their desire to limit foreign players, and what we can tell about the effect on English footballers ||

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According to reports, the FA doesn’t make any sense.

OK, let me try again: according to reports about what FA chairman Greg Clarke wrote to Premier League clubs, his letter makes no sense.

With Great Britain going through the turbulence of Brexit, English football’s rules around foreign signings need to be re-written.

“Government requirements are that players coming to play here should be internationally established at the highest level,” wrote Clarke, “making a significant contribution to football; and not taking the place of already settled talent.”

Further on (in Sky Sports’ report, which I’m assuming is quoting his letter linearly), he writes:

The new system gives a 500% uplift on guaranteed access to non-European talent, whilst also allowing the European talent in. However, the system doesn't allow access to lower quality foreign players who block the development pathway for home-grown players - and who rarely get to play.

Now I am confused on two levels. The first is that Clarke is talking about reducing access to lower-quality foreign players while also boasting a 500% uplift in access to non-European talent. The second is that he cites government requirements that foreign players don’t take the place of ‘already settled talent’ and then noting that the system won’t block the development pathway of home-grown players. Oh, while also saying: “Please be assured you still have access to talented young players; they have not been excluded.”

Clarke apparently wants to reduce foreign imports while boosting them, so as not to stand in the way of settled or developing domestic players (the ageing ones though, presumably, can get stuffed), although the development of home-grown players shouldn’t stand in the way of access to talented young foreign-born footballers. Simple.

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One thing that the FA are accurate in noticing that English players make up a limited amount of minutes in the Premier League. Out of the big 5 European leagues, the EPL has the smallest share of home nationality minutes.

Percentage of minutes played by home nationality in top tier, 2019/20 season (source: FBref)

  • Spain/La Liga: 59%

  • France/Ligue 1: 49%

  • Germany/Bundesliga: 41%

  • Italy/Serie A: 38%

  • England/Premier League: 35%

But while Britain is an island, there are still ways off it. Footballers who want or need to are free to move abroad to play in the best competitions that they’re able to. Yes, compared to other European leagues (even beyond the big 5) the English don’t make up much of their home top tier, but English players don’t play abroad much either. They made up a miniscule share of the minutes played in the other ‘Big 5’ leagues (i.e. excluding the PL) last season, at around 0.5%.

NB: ‘Foreign Big 5 min. share’ applies to all leagues — for example, for French players it’s their percentage of minutes in the Bundesliga, Premier League, La Liga, and Serie A.

In the bottom right, you’ll see the Russian Premier League. Interestingly, Gabriele Marcotti pointed out that that league has tried a strictly nationalist rule and it didn’t quite work.

My take is that if English players were good, they’d play elsewhere if they were crowded out of the Premier League.

Fortunately, one of those places is still at home: the Championship. By clubelo’s ratings, England’s second tier is a better-quality league than the Eredivisie (marginally).

English players made up 53% of the Championship’s minutes last season, a much larger share than in the Premier League. The FA/British government may wish to point out that this is still quite a small share, and that Spain and Germany’s second tiers (who are also strong by clubelo ratings) had a ‘home nationality share’ of 76% and 67% respectively last season.

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I would party grant them that point. It might be noted that the differences between home nationality share in those second tiers are roughly similar to the differences in home nationality share in the top tiers. England, low; Germany, higher; Spain, highest.

The trouble with all of this — and I say this after spending a few hours in circles — is that it’s quite difficult to logic it out and show one way or another whether English players are having their development blocked.

Maybe England just isn’t producing players up to the required standard. Maybe there’s no actual problem at all: England reached the 2018 World Cup semi-final after all; one of the most exciting generations of young talent is coming through; seven of the top 12 goalscorers in the Premier League (at time of writing) are English.

And things are far better in terms of playing abroad nowadays too. In 2019/20, there were a good smattering of English players featuring across the Bundesliga, Eredivisie, 2. Bundesliga, and Primeira Liga. Five years previously, it was pretty much just Ashley Cole and Micah Richards in Serie A. (Bizarrely, Ashley Young and Chris Smalling bring that cycle full circle).

But most tellingly of all, in 2014/15 English players actually made up a smaller share of minutes in the Premier League and Championship than 2019/20.

I’m unsure of 2019/20 was a blip or a sign of a trend. At time of writing, 2020/21’s figure is 36%, higher than last season, but we’ll have to see whether that holds up.

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One final thing to note.

It always felt, from my vantage point, like it was assumed that the Premier League would be able to essentially pay their way out of Brexit impact. That the heft that the competition has would mean that its part of the football industry would get favourable terms in any new rules.

But, despite Greg Clarke’s numerous references to the British Home Office in his letter, it may not be the government that the Premier League is tussling with:

All politics, ain’t it.


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Shout-out corner

A brief shout-out corner this week as I’ve left finishing this newsletter off much later than usual. I’m a sucker for a data visualisations-breakdown thread, so here’s one from The Athletic’s Tom Worville.

The latest on the other newsletter, Mark’s Notebook, was about why Chelsea might end up being fine this season despite a questionable manager.

Oh, and also big shout-out Marcus Rashford, and everyone else who’s pitched in - in the absence of the state - to make sure that kids don’t go hungry over the school holidays.

You can donate to FareShare, the charity that Rashford works with, here. A tweet with the latest statement from the Child Food Poverty Task Force is below


Be kind.