The Runner Sports

Does English Premier League Really Have A Youth Problem?

In the past few years, there has been plenty of hand-wringing within the soccer media regarding young English players not being afforded the opportunity to play first team minutes in the Premier League.  The common perception has been that the Premier League targets foreign players who are in their prime instead of developing young stars.  I want to challenge that assertion that young players, foreign or domestic don’t have a place in top flight English soccer.

To do this, I examined the rosters of each of the top eleven Premier League clubs, as the table stands March second, and looked at how many players would be age eligible for the Olympics (aged 23 or under).

What I found was that while some clubs in this top eleven of English soccer don’t have a huge number of academy based prospects, many, if not all, had players meeting the Olympic qualification requirements.  In fact, many of these clubs’ most exciting players are in fact England born academy prospects.

For an even greater example of this youthful exuberance of young players in the Premier League, look no further than yesterday and this past weekend.  Two of the unquestionably biggest clubs in the world, Chelsea and Manchester United had young prospects score incredibly important goals for their respective clubs.

Sunday Marcus Rashford, who happened to join Manchester United at age seven, stamped his name into the record book by scoring two goals on his Premier League debut.  His goals were not flashy but displayed an awareness of a much older player. These two goals came against a club known for bringing in youth players, Arsenal.  Arsenal themselves have four players, two being English, who are receiving heavy Premier League minutes before their 24th birthday.

Chelsea yesterday, was helped out by one of their young players, as Kenedy scored in only his second Premier League appearance.  Kenedy isn’t an English player, but at only 20 years old he certainly fits the bill of youngster.

These aren’t the only examples of young players making an impact recently in the Premier League, as the club who is one of the favorites to win the title employ a host of youngsters.

Tottenham has done a masterful job in both their transfers and also bringing along academy prospects.  Tom Carroll and most significantly Harry Kane both joined Tottenham as youth players and the club has developed these young players into important first team contributors.  Tottenham has also brought in through transfers the likes of Eric Dier, Ben Davies, Kevin Wimmer, Nabil Bentaleb, Erik Lamela, and Son Heung-min who are all twenty-three or younger.  Perhaps the crown jewel (Harry Kane can make a case as well) is Dele Alli, a young 19-year-old English international who represents the future of his national team.  This season, Alli has scored or set up an incredible amount of goals for a player so young.  That is not the most important factor, however, but rather the sheer amount of first team action Alli is receiving.  As seen on a tweet by Europa League: “Dele Alli has played more league games than any other player aged 20 or under in Europe’s top five leagues.”

Other examples across England have also cropped up, from Ross Barkley and John Stones of Everton to Raheem Sterling of Manchester City and Jack Butland, Luck Shaw, Jesse Lingard, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

England is loaded with youth players as the country seeks to phase out the old guard of Steven Gerrard, John Terry, and Frank Lampard.  To say opportunities aren’t there is false.  Now, is the league on the level of the Netherland, France, or Germany in terms of giving youth an opportunity? Probably not, but the need for incorporating youth is being met in an unconventional manner.

Given the financial pressure of staying up in the Premier League and the uniquely English fixture congestion, many clubs have no other option than to play unproven youth.  With many more high leverage matches in the Premier League than any other league around the world, injuries pile up.  I’m not saying La Liga and the Bundesliga don’t present their own challenges, but the manner with which their fixture lists are set up, the fact is those two leagues are more forgiving.

The Bundesliga plays four fewer league matches and potentially many fewer cup matches per season. The DFB-Pokal, the German equivalent to the F.A. Cup has a maximum of six matches for a Bundesliga club while the F.A. Cup and League Cup combined offers many more given replays are an option.  For example, Liverpool has played 35 domestic matches this season compared to 27 for Borussia Dortmund.

That is why English injury lists are so long and why Premier League clubs have been giving valuable minutes to youngsters. Those youngsters are then turning those opportunities into key developmental minutes on their route to being in the preferred eleven when the whole squad is healthy (see Ross Barkley and Dele Alli)

No, the English Premier League does not have a youth problem.  Young players are certainly receiving their opportunity, just in unconventional ways.

John Harbeck

Ohio sports and all things soccer.If you like my writing follow me @JHarbeck5 on twitter

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