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Foreign Imports Into The Premier League

It goes without saying that the Premier League is the most entertaining league in world football. Sure, there might not be as many world class players as there are around Europe, but the sheer unpredictability game on game gives it a thrill not seen anywhere else. What then makes it so special? If England itself hasn’t produced so many elite level players, in the ilk of a Ronaldo, a Messi, a Zidane, then is it the influx of foreign playing and coaching talent that has moved the Premier League ahead of La Liga in Spain, or Germany’s Bundesliga?

According to a UEFA report, the Premier League has the highest percentage of foreign players of any European football league. A staggering 69.2% of all player’s in England’s top flight are foreign, most commonly represented by the French and Spanish players in the league – a figure that may be somewhat surprising to some amid all the talk in recent years that top English clubs should be promoting young English players for the good of the nation in major tournaments. It is also worth noting that the Championship, England’s second tier league, is sixth in Europe for foreign player percentage. It seems obvious to say that the Premier League is all the better for being able to enjoy players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Thierry Henry, Eric Cantona, Sergio Aguero etc, the list really is endless, but is seeing these players week in week out coming to the detriment of English talent?

In years gone by, England enjoyed a ‘golden generation’ of national team talent, the likes of Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Michael Owen & Wayne Rooney in the same team was a privilege that many of us failed to appreciate at the time (probably due to the 50 years of hurt!). This back in a time where foreign imports in the Premier League were much fewer than today. In more recent times, Harry Kane & Raheem Sterling are arguably the only players capable of being included in the world class conversation, which for World Cup 2018 semi-finalists, only two genuine world class players doesn’t seem enough. The last English player to win the Balon D’or, the prize for the best player in the world, was Michael Owen back in 2001, a time where England was coming into a golden generation of talent, no-one close since. In fact, the only winner of the prize from the Premier League since then was Cristiano Ronaldo from the great Man Utd side of 2008 – thus highlighting the lack of genuinely world elite level players in the league, whether English or foreign, not to take anything from the Premier League greats of more recent times. The Independent newspaper having had their say on the top 100 players of the Premier League placed 4 of the top 10 as English, 1 Welsh and 5 foreign. Obviously there are some all time greats of the game in this list, objective as it may be, but does it highlight that even as the English top division all time highest scorer, the Englishman Alan Shearer only makes it in at number 7?

It seems safe to say that the Premier League is what it is because of its foreign players and managers, that near 70% of foreign playing staff in the league should reserve the credit for making it so riveting as viewers. Of the top sides in the division, it is arguable that Harry Kane is the only star player of English heritage, the others made up of French, Belgian, Egyptian and Gabonese to name a few, perhaps Jamie Vardy of Leicester, though they are not yet considered a mainstay of the elite. It is perhaps more pertinent to think of the young talent coming through these teams’ academies. The likes of Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham have had to patiently wait as they have been sent out of loan numerous times by Chelsea, before a transfer ban has given them their chance in the first team. Marcus Rashford was given his big chance, which he took, due to injuries and a lack of other options, while Mason Greenwood is currently on the fringes at Manchester United due to a lack of other options. Phil Foden, a player Pep Guardiola called ‘the most talented I’ve ever seen’. This is a manager with Lionel Messi on his resume by the way – but Foden is on the fringes, if that, of Manchester City’s Premier League squad having not started a match in 13 this season so far. Pep’s description of Foden hasn’t stopped Manchester City adding to their star-studded midfield, seems even more unlikely he will get the playing time he requires up against De Bruyne, Gundogan, Rodri, David Silva, Bernardo Silva, Sterling et all. All these players’ have something in common, there are a host of foreign talents ahead of them in their respective club’s pecking order, or they now have a chance due to players leaving. Either way, it doesn’t bode so brilliantly for the future of England, as bright as some of the English youth is, if they are stifled at club level, they will never reach their potential at International level.

Let us look at the flip side, how many English talents ply their trade abroad? Currently, Jadon Sancho is in the England squad despite being a star of the Bundesliga, aside from him all other candidates for the National side reside in England. A couple of others, including Reiss Nelson, who also went to the Bundesliga have done similar, though he isn’t quite national level. Going back, David Beckham played abroad for a number of clubs, Michael Owen went briefly to Real Madrid, Owen Hargreaves was brought to England from Bayern Munich and before them Gascoine and Lineker among few other less high-profile names. The list literally isn’t endless.

Of the current Premier League managers, 8 are English, 12 foreign. Nothing too stark in those figures, not like 70% of players being foreign. Some of the best talent of the Premier League era has been foreign, after the influx of European and International managers hit the league. Jose Mourinho, the ‘special one’ has held two of the biggest jobs in England and is currently embarking on his third, Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp currently manage the two best teams in the country by some distance. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is at one of the biggest clubs in the world, if not one of the best current teams. Mauricio Pochettino won’t be too far away from a big job. Frank Lampard is a young English manager given a chance at a big club based on his legendary status there (we won’t go into Solskjaer..), Brendan Rodgers, a British manager excelling at a club challenging again, though in general British/English managers are not getting the major jobs due to the wealth of foreign talent vying for the same roles – much like we deduced in the playing ranks.

To conclude, having had a brief look into the English vs foreign talents in the Premier League, it is abundantly clear that our league is all the richer for embracing foreign talent. How far will our clubs take the boundaries, or will Brexit have too large an impact one way or another on limitations to squads? One thing is for sure, England, and Gareth Southgate and the managers of England’s youth squads will want to protect the legacy of young English talent coming through at top clubs – to preserve the future, and quality of our national side.

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