It’s a déjà vu feeling this morning as Arsenal once again come under fire for the lack of Englishmen in the squad, their transfer policy, and being entirely to blame for England failing to qualify for Euro 2008.
The major talking point is the PFA’s new report, the ridiculously titled ‘Meltdown’, in which the reasons for England’s failures are made clear. And most of the papers have picked up on the talk of a lack of Englishmen in the Premiership, and launched an attack on Arsenal. But when you read a little closer, it becomes apparent that Arsenal are not guilty of the charges laid out in the report:
“The bottom line is a very simple one. Older, ready-made foreign players are blocking young English players’ path into the Premier League.”
“We are not objecting to clubs bringing in young foreign players to their academies, because at least there is a level playing field there for young English players.”
Earlier in the week I explained how long young players have to wait before they become regulars for Arsenal. In the meantime, they are usually placed into the academy and youth setup, to learn their trade. Importantly, this is alongside the English players, of which there are plenty (the PFA point out that only 13 of 57 academy players at Arsenal in recent years have been foreigners).
Once in the youth setup, everyone has the same chance to graduate, and only the very best will. Is it Arsenal’s fault that the best ones happen not to be English? Or perhaps, is it because those English players of 14, before they reach the Arsenal setup, are far inferior technically and mentally to their foreign counterparts?
Arsenal rarely buy ready made foreigners, in fact they do this far less than Chelsea, Man City, Portsmouth, Liverpool and a whole host of other clubs not being accused by today’s tabloids. They buy young, nurture, and let the natural selection of talent occur. If Fabregas is better than Sidwell after a few years in the youth system, then which one will break into the first team and which one will be allowed to leave?
The PFA are trying to encourage youth development, by saying ‘we don’t mind if you bring foreigners in to your academies to join the English there, as long as you focus on your youth development to give all these players the best possible chance of reaching their potential’. What club does that better than Arsenal? The laboured point that the team often contains no Englishmen conveniently ignores the fact the players such as Cole, Sidwell, Bentley, Muamba, Harper and more came through the Arsenal setup and have made names for themselves in the Premiership. Cole and Bentley have even represented England, the others have simply not been good enough.
The PFA then makes a suggestion which doesn’t appear to help the English at all:
“Uefa have a rule that eight players in the 25-man squad for European club competitions must be home-grown.”
“We would like to extend that so at least three or four in the team, irrespective of nationality, have come through the club’s development programme.”
I can see what they’re trying to do here. By making clubs focus on players in their academy, even though they allow foreigners there, they are hoping that that the good English players will also receive more attention and perhaps become part of these three of four home grown players.
But Arsenal already do this. ‘Home-grown’ counts any player that has spent three years at the club between the ages of 15 and 21, so includes Fabregas, Clichy, Djourou, Bendtner, and Traore, as well as the English contingent of Randall, Connolly, Gilbert, and of course Walcott and Hoyte. This ruling will change nothing, except for altering the bench, as explained by Wenger:
“I was at the centre of an experience [in France] where we had to play three players in the squad who were under 21. You know what these people became? Professional bench players.”
“Every week they sat next to the manager, not only did more French players not play but they did not even play in the reserves or practice enough”
Wenger has tried the English approach before, spending vast sums on Francis Jeffers, Richard Wright and more, but these players turned out not to be good enough. Look at the English players who came through the Arsenal setup – with the exception of Ashley Cole, who left through no fault of Arsenal’s, the likes of Sidwell, Harper and Bentley wouldn’t get in this Arsenal team. And if there was an Englishman out there who could, can you imagine how much they’d cost?
The fact is that the top English players are priced at a level only affordable by United and Chelsea in recent years. Only now, through foreign ownership, are other clubs able to splash the cash so freely. Arsenal, still under English rule (a point always ignored by the xenophobic press), have always had a policy of not spending beyond their means. The English equivalents of their team are wildly priced, if they even exist (which, comparing England to Arsenal, I suggest they don’t). Even Walcott, for all his talent, would’ve been cheaper if he had held a Spanish passport. It is a point endorsed by Gianluca Vialli:
“The sheer price of English players is the main turn-off. Shaun Wright-Phillips is worth £20 million because he’s English. If he were Portuguese, he’d cost a quarter of that.”
This is seen not only in the Premiership, but abroad. Not only do English managers refuse to spend ridiculous sums on these players, but how many Englishmen move abroad? Compare that to Spain, whose league rivals the Premiership, yet exports plenty of players to our shores. Could it be possible that the whole world sees our players lacking in value for money?
If buying English players is too expensive, only one realistic option remains – producing the players yourself. In 1998, Arsenal’s new academy opened, overseen by Arsene Wenger, and entrusted with the responsibility of training players the Arsenal way. And that includes English players, such as Henri Lansbury, who joined the club a year later, at the age of nine. Now seventeen, he is an England youth international and has now appeared for the Arsenal first team. The trouble in football is the lack of patience afforded by fans and the media – Lansbury has been with the club for eight years, listening to how Arsenal don’t give a chance to English players, and probably itching for his opportunity to prove the doubters wrong. And he isn’t alone – with a decent representation of Arsenal in young England sides, it will be a justification of every Wenger policy when they begin to step up and shine in a few years time. England players playing like Arsenal? And some have the temerity to suggest that Wenger is harming the English game?
While some of the PFA’s findings are based in reality, Michel Platini’s are anything but. He made a fresh attack on Wenger yesterday, and it was one of his more bizarre claims:
“Wenger is a friend but I don’t like his system to acquire young players.
“He never develops someone himself, he only buys the talents. That’s the wrong way.”
Really? Sixteen year old don’t come fully developed – Wenger signs young talent and develops them, guiding their career. Most players that have ever played for him dedicate their achievements to him. So quite how Platini makes the claim that Wenger ‘doesn’t develop players’ is beyond me. There are plenty of other clubs in the Premiership buying a team full of foreign players at their peak. To me, a criticism of those clubs would be more appropriate, but that wouldn’t match the flavour of the month, now would it?
With friends like Platini, who need enemies?
The intention of all of this is to find a way to revitalise the England football team, which is fair enough. So here’s a few pertinent facts.
There are 191 English players in the first team squads of the twenty Premiership clubs. An England teams fields eleven of these, or sometimes last season, nine, when Beckham and Hargreaves flew in from America and Germany respectively. There are plenty of players around, getting opportunities. The problem is simple – they are not good enough.
If the press truly believed that we haven’t been producing decent English players over the last decade, they wouldn’t have been going on about a ‘golden generation’. The fact that they’ve repeated this term ad nauseum until this year’s ultimate failure, suggests that we have in fact been producing a set of excellent footballers, and perhaps the talent in the country is there.
That the team has failed has been due to a number of factors. An inept coach certainly didn’t help, as these players were more than capable of qualifying for the tournament. But it was the style of play that was the giveaway – as Wenger has said repeatedly, the standard of football schooling in this country is atrocious, giving every other nation a massive headstart that it is rare to claw back after the age of sixteen. If you wish to compete on the world stage, you have to understand ball retention at any early age, and have more subtlety to your play that simply lumping the ball as far forward as possible.
The national footballing centre at Burton was supposed to solve this, based on the French talent factory of Clairefontaine, but was scrapped due to the spiralling costs of Wembley. This project must be relaunched.
The solution is not to mandate quotas, not to join the blame culture and insist that it is all the fault of Johnny Foreigner. The top players benefit from playing with others with comparable talent, and by the very definition of these players as the best we have, their teammates, if English, cannot be as good. Bringing excellent talent in from abroad will force everyone to raise their game.
And for the purposes of the England football team, it is only the top talent that we care about. How does it matter if the number of Englishmen in the Premiership has dropped from 400 to 200 if we only require the best eleven?