Jose Mourinho was right, and Jose Mourinho wanted to make sure everyone knew he was right. In his pre-match press conference, Manchester United’s manager came armed with statistics on Marcus Rashford’s appearances throughout his tenure. If Louis van Gaal’s attempt at the same strategy – a response to Sam Allardyce criticism in February 2015 – was shambolic, Mourinho was far more calm and assured. This was him in his element.
You might point out that Rashford has only played 11 90-minutes’ worth of matches in 2018, to use Mourinho’s own unit of measurement. You might ask more generally about Mourinho’s treatment of young players, and Josh McEachran will tell you his own story. But you cannot doubt that Rashford has played plenty of football for a local-born 20-year-old at an elite club.
Yet in the grander scheme of things, Mourinho’s answers are irrelevant. His was an attempt not at championing English youngsters, but self-defence. But this is an argument where the proof lies in the question, not the answer. That we are even discussing the exact number of minutes given to English football’s next great hope is indication enough of the problem. Our young players are fighting the tide.
In other countries, managers are not spending this week being quizzed so readily about the minutes afforded to young, domestic players. There might be one exception: Italy. “I was asked the same question in Italy: why is it so difficult for Italian players to play at the big clubs in Italy?” Maurizio Sarri said last week. “I think it’s normal. It’s difficult to play here. It’s difficult.” Italy’s national team has reached its nadir, failing to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in their history. Just coincidence.
The unspoken truth of England’s summer overachievement is that it should never have happened at all. For all the arguments and counter-arguments about easy draws and lack of open-play chance creation, the World Cup provided such intense joy to so many principally because it was so unexpected. Gareth Southgate led England further than every manager since Terry Venables with the scantest resources of that period. Of team that started against Switzerland on Tuesday, five had started one or fewer Premier League games so far this season. England’s reserves are Premier League reserves.
The pool has shallowed to the point of puddle. Last week, the Guardian reported that 30.4% of the 79,200 Premier League minutes this season had been given to English players, a further drop from last season and another new low. Those figures are skewed by a significant English contingent at Bournemouth and Burnley.
The usual retort at this juncture is that the best talent will always break through, but that seems a highly optimistic – to the point of naive – assessment. Jurgen Klopp spoke in the summer about how only Nathaniel Clyne’s injury had led him to taking a chance on Trent Alexander-Arnold, but again the best example is Rashford.
‘Marcus Rashford making his debut points out what a terrible job of squad-building Van Gaal has done,” as one United fan in the Guardian’s live blog wrote as Rashford made his debut against Midtjylland in February 2016. ‘Welbeck, Hernández and Wilson would all clearly have been better options at the moment, with Rashford the one out on loan.’
Rashford got his chance because Wayne Rooney and Will Keane were injured, and Anthony Martial pulled out in the warm-up. There’s no doubting that he took his chance – and chances – that evening, but was only afforded that opportunity through misfortune. Are we supposed to believe that the same pathway would have appeared without those injuries? What if Manchester United had signed another striker in summer 2015?
Chelsea and Arsenal have provided the least minutes to English players so far this season, 228 combined out of a possible 7,920. But perhaps that is no coincidence – these are two clubs under pressure to retake their seats at the top table of European football and gorge on the the financial proceeds. Both have new managers in charge.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek is one player under the ‘minutes played’ microscope. But Sarri was told to take Chelsea back into the Champions League, or expect to be labelled a failure and potentially lose his job. With Roman Abramovich’s ownership called into question, Chelsea cannot afford to be outside of the top four for long. Every season outside that cabal only makes re-entry harder.
To assist him in that task, Sarri was given a transfer budget and chose to sign Jorginho, a passing midfielder who flourished under the same manager at Napoli, and Mateo Kovacic. Kovacic is 24, and had played an average of 36 games per season in Real Madrid’s three Champions League-winning seasons. The pair joined N’Golo Kante, the best dynamic central midfielder in the world. Loftus-Cheek (and Ross Barkley) are left scratching around.
The point is obvious: Sarri was not appointed to develop young English players; he was appointed to improve Chelsea. The two concepts need not be mutually exclusive, but neither are they dependent on one another.
The greatest mistake is blaming Premier League managers for the lack of minutes for young players. The rapid rise in broadcasting revenues increases the ease of of buying players to fix problems, but it also lowers patience. The average length of managerial tenure is the lowest it has ever been in the English top flight, but also the lowest in Europe outside Serie A.
With job security so low, why should a Premier League manager be expected to be anything but selfish? It can hardly be pure coincidence that the two Premier League clubs with the highest number of English players also have the longest-serving managers. The Premier League is a shrine to short-termism; player development usually requires a long-term view.
The talent is there; that much has now been proven. One England youth team winning a major tournament could be considered an outlier, but triumph at the Under-17 World Cup, Under-19 European Championship and Under-20 World Cup in the same year cannot. Speak to youth coaches at home and abroad and they will happily talk up England’s treasure trove of ability at youth level.
There are workarounds to the problem. More young players are prepared to move abroad than ever before, crucial for personal as well as professional development. The Football League may increasingly become the best breeding ground; James Maddison and Ryan Sessegnon are two recent graduates that might soon break into England’s senior squad. The question of ‘B’ teams, as unpleasant as it seems, will not go away. But the obvious conclusion is that, as a rule, young players barely have a fighting chance in a league where standing still is going backwards, and going backwards constitutes crisis.
On Sky Sports News, pundits will shake their heads and wearily opine about the lack of opportunities afforded to English youngsters. Those same pundits will criticise – mock, even – Tottenham for not buying any new players this summer and question if the bubble has burst. The comfy chairs on which they seat were bought by the same media giant that fuelled such wanton short-termism.
And so the club vs country argument is a charade, a battle lost the moment the Big Five had their breakaway sanctioned by the Football Association in 1992,. That FA blueprint was a sh*t sandwich that made woolly promises but contained within a line in the sand for our domestic game.
“I really don’t have the answer,” said Aidy Boothroyd, England Under-21’s manager, this week when asked about how his squad could hope to get competitive football at club level. Of course he doesn’t; there isn’t one. The Premier League is a brilliant product, Britain’s greatest modern export, but it is also a steamroller. This is no country for young men. Our exceptions only prove the general rule.