THIS weekend, Arsenal and Chelsea meet in what is sure to be another chapter in the simmering rivalry between the two London giants. Thankfully, there will be no tiresome Wenger v Mourinho debate to dominate the headlines, but Arsenal are celebrating 20 years of Le Professeur – the man that brought the club great success in his first 10 years in charge.
Whatever your view on Wenger, you cannot deny that he brought a new dimension to British football. But the Premier League era characterised by Wenger, foreign ownership and free movement of players, has coincided with a dramatic erosion in the production and development of young English talent. Wenger’s Arsenal and Abramovich’s Chelsea are among the main culprits of building multi-national football teams that include very few English players.
At the Emirates, how many English players will be on view? Precious few. Arsenal’s great English hope, Jack Wilshere, is now in therapy on the south coast and Chelsea’s last significant youth product was John Terry (although Ruben Loftus-Cheek may yet be a key player in the future). Despite all the lip service paid to youth programmes and academies, the quick way to build your team is to go shopping in the window and grab a Frenchman, an African or Spaniard.
On the opening weekend of 2016-17, the 20 Premier League clubs started with just 77 English players out of 220 – that’s 35%. What hope does that give Sam Allardyce of selecting a competitive England squad? The margin of error is so very narrow. If there are 77 top-class players to choose from – and looking at the list of those that started the campaign, the 77 are hardly crème de la crème – the resources are very slim. If Big Sam needs a 22-man squad, that means that it is a ratio of one in 3.5 can look forward to a cap (!). Compare that to the 1970s, 1980s and even early 1990s and it was likely to be one in eight or even higher. By the law of averages, the more players you’ve got, the more choice you have – even if they’re all below par.
Arsenal (27%) and Chelsea (18%) were among the worst offenders – Manchester United (18%), Manchester City (18%) and Watford (9%) were also right up there. Obviously, the wealthy can shop anywhere – the Gunners have been looking to Galeries Lafayette far more than John Lewis and Selfridges for years. Likewise, Chelsea have long needed a Portuguese phrase book when they send their player acquisition agents out on the road.
The big six clubs – Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Man.City, Man.United and Tottenham – are all far more inclined to spend abroad. They fielded 17 of the 77 English players that started the season – that’s an average of less than three and a percentage of just under 26%.
If you take these clubs out of the equation, the percentage of English players rises to 39%. Less “fashionable” clubs like Bournemouth (73%), Burnley (63%), Crystal Palace (55%) and West Bromwich Albion (55%) are much more inclined to have English players – and with the exception of WBA’s Tony Pulis, who is Welsh, they all have one thing in common – English managers.
It is no surprise that imported managers are attracted to what and who they know. Wenger was certainly among the first to adopt this approach. He did it at a time when France was in the ascendancy, culminating in the World Cup win of 1998 and European Championship of 2000. Since then, France have rarely been as successful and it is no coincidence that Wenger’s golden period was in and around the time of Vieira, Henry and Petit. When Arsenal won the double in 1998, they had eight regular Englishmen – by 2004, when they became “invincible”, they had just Ashley Cole and Sol Campbell. Wenger still buys French when he can, but Arsenal don’t have a monopoly of the best footballeurs any more.
How Brexit affects the cosmopolitan nature of the Premier League remains to be seen, but it is worth noting that around a quarter of players come from European Union countries other than the UK and that the same percentage are signed from non-EU countries. Less than 10% are from other UK countries – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
We all agree that the influx of foreign players has made the Premier what it is today and Wenger and coaches like Mourinho and Guardiola added technique and know-how that just wasn’t present [in abundance] in England back in 1992. But the cost has been the slow decline of England’s national team and squads of hired guns that have no affinity with the towns and cities they are playing in. It could be that not enough people care about international football – it has certainly become sterile, bloated and uninteresting and the UEFA Champions League has emerged as the new rock and roll.
On the other hand, if we’re happy about that – and FIFA and UEFA have already started to chip away at their flagship competitions by suggesting pan-European and multi-centre World Cups and European Championships – do we need to worry?
But there’s another more toxic side to this which we should be concerned about. The economics of football are precarious. There’s lots of liquidity in the game at present, thanks to TV money, Oligarchs, oil-men and Asian entrepreneurs, not to mention the unstoppable rise of China. The amount of money paid for and to players is slightly obscene and surely is unsustainable. How long can this go on before the bubble bursts – surely development of home-grown talent has to be integral to the strategy of top clubs? Furthermore, if there is a global recession or China does really run out of steam, the impetus from emerging market billionaires may come to an end.
When Arsenal and Chelsea run-out at the Emirates, it is likely that you will be able to count them on one hand, and still have a couple of fingers to be very Churchillian with your hand signals. But while you’re at it, tip your hat at Wenger’s durability – 20 years is no mean feat, even at a club with the stability and relative conservatism of Arsenal.