Victory for the England Under-20 team in the recent World Cup has raised expectations for the England Under-21 team, which at the time of writing is a victory away from guaranteeing a semi-final place at the UEFA Under-21 Championship in Poland.
Even if this group of young players goes onto win the tournament does it really promise a new golden generation for English football? The answer is probably no, at least not with the current league setup where the Premier League billions mean that most of the top English clubs are intent on buying in what they regard as the crème de la crème of World football in preference to developing their own talented home-grown players, many of whom are loaned out, whilst others are given minimal playing time.
Of the current England Under-21 squad, only a handful played regularly for their Premier League teams and out of the Premier League’s top six, only Chelsea’s Nathaniel Chalobah played any first team football (159 minutes), starting once and coming off the bench nine times.
The total number of minutes that England Under-21 players played in the Premier League last season totalled just under 18,000 minutes. Compare this with Germany, Italy and Spain, whose players appeared in well over 30,000 minutes in their respective leagues and in the case of Spain, close to 40,000 minutes.
The Spanish model has perhaps been best at developing young talent and achieving success at every level. The Spanish Under-21 squads which won the 2011 and 2013 European Championships included such players as David de Gea, Ander Herrera, Javi Martinez, Thiago Alcantara, Adrian, Juan Mata, Alberto Moreno, Inigo Martinez, Marc Bartra, Martin Montoya, Asier Illarramendi, Isco and Koke, all of whom have gone onto to play for top European clubs, both in Spain and in other major European leagues, with many also having success with their national sides at the highest level.
There is a frightening array of talent in Spain’s current Under-21 squad, seven of whom (Hector Bellerin, Gerard Deulofeu, Saul Niguez, Denis Suarez, Marco Asensio, Inaki Williams and Mikel Oyarzabal) have already been capped at full international level and with almost all of the squad playing regular first team football. Real Madrid’s Marco Asensio scored a hat trick in the first game of the Under-21 tournament, to add to the goal he scored in the Champions League final only a few weeks ago; whilst Saúl Ñíguez and Denis Suárez have been important members of the Atletico Madrid and Barcelona squads during the past season.
If England are to have any chance of competing at the top level, Premier League clubs must give young English players the opportunity to play on a regular basis. There are clearly plenty of young, talented and technically proficient players available, but as not only Spain, but also Italy, France and Germany have shown, it is only through regular playing time that these players will be able to achieve their true potential.