Why are young English players moving abroad?

Jadon Sancho’s unusual step of moving abroad has seen him break into England’s senior side. Several other young English players have followed suit in the last two years and Fox Sports Asia discusses how this recent trend could be beneficial for England football team.

In 2017, Jadon Sancho, a U-17 World Cup winner with England, rejected a new contract with Manchester City, due to disputes over assurance of playing time. As a result, he moved to Borussia Dortmund to become a first-team player and inherited the #7 kit left vacant by Barca-bound Ousmane Dembele. 

It is rather unusual for English players to move abroad, especially at such a young age but Sancho’s brave decision is already proving to be the right one. He is now a regular for Dortmund and his six league assists in a mere 215 minutes are the highest in Europe’s Top 5 leagues this season.

Limited opportunities with Premier League clubs

In 2017, England won the FIFA U-20 World Cup and only two players from that squad, Lewis Cook and Dominic Solanke, have been capped at the senior level with both players earning a call-up due to lack of options rather than on merit. In fact, Solanke, who won the Golden Ball at the U-20 World Cup, only made six starts for Liverpool last season and scored once in 27 appearances. He is yet to play for the Reds this season and made the bench only in a League Cup game. 

Barring Lewis Cook, no member of England’s victorious side at the U-20 World Cup is close to nailing down a starting spot for their parent club. One reason why Cook has progressed more than the others and gets regular Premier League exposure is that he is contracted with Bournemouth while most of England’s biggest prospects are tied down by one of the ‘Big 6’ clubs; where breaking into the first team is quite difficult. Case in point – Dominic Solanke, who is Liverpool’s third choice striker. 

The difficulty faced by youngsters at the top Premier League clubs is best shown by the situation of English players at Arsenal and Chelsea. Both clubs have named five starting XI in eight Premier League games this season without an English player.  

Look at the plight of Ruben Loftus-Cheek. He opted against another loan move this season to fight for a place in the Chelsea team but he has been restricted to a grand total of 99 minutes of footballing action across all competitions so far.

Considering how difficult it is for first-team opportunities to come by, especially at top Premier League clubs, the success Sancho found with his move to Dortmund should serve as a blueprint for other young English players; and based on evidence, the exodus of English players has already started.

The attraction of other top leagues in Europe

English players rarely play abroad and this can be backed up by the fact that England was the only team at the 2018 FIFA World Cup with all players in the squad playing in their home nation.

However, since the 2017 summer transfer window, a new trend has emerged where England’s youngsters are attracted to the possibility of playing in a top flight league outside England, especially in Germany. Last season, Reece Oxford of West Ham, Ryan Kent of Liverpool and Ademola Lookman of Everton went on loan to Borussia Monchengladbach, Freiburg and Leipzig respectively.

Lookman, a U-20 World Cup winner with England, started seven out of the 11 games he played for Leipzig in half a season. He played for 576 minutes while scoring five goals and assisting three more. In his Everton career so far, Lookman has only played 490 minutes in the league and made four starts. Leipzig wanted to sign the 20-year-old permanently but a move didn’t materialise. The forward is now stuck at Everton with only 46 minutes of League action this season.

From Manchester City’s academy, Denzeil Boadu and Sancho moved to Borussia Dortmund in 2017. Sancho was called to the Manchester City first team along with Phil Foden and Brahim Diaz and while the latter two played 45 and 30 minutes respectively in the league last season for Man City, Sancho was on the pitch for 684 minutes for Dortmund.

Players moving to leagues other than the Bundesliga last season include Chris Willock and Marcus McGuane to Benfica and Barcelona, respectively, from Arsenal on a permanent basis.

The exodus continued in in the 2018 summer transfer window with young English player moving either permanently or on loan, to top-tier clubs outside the United Kingdom. For instance, Noni Madueke left Spurs to join PSV with the Dutch club having an excellent track record when it comes to grooming young players. 

Similarly, the opportunities for young players are there in France and Germany. In fact, Under-21 players at Champions League regulars Schalke, Dortmund and Monaco have featured for a higher percentage of minutes than any of their counterparts in Europe’s Top 5 leagues. 

Some notable young English prospects who moved permanently in the summer are Jonathan Panzo (Chelsea to Monaco; pictured above), Reo Griffiths (Spurs to Lyon), Keanan Bennetts (Spurs to Monchengladbach), and Ronaldo Vieira (Leeds to Sampdoria). Among those who moved on loan are Patrick Roberts (Man City to Girona), Sheyi Ojo (Liverpool to Reims), and Reiss Nelson (Arsenal to Hoffenheim).

The demand for young English players is understandable given the quality of players coming through at the youth level. It might be a smart decision for these players to hone their skills abroad and get regular top-flight experience before returning to the Premier League. Only time will tell how much it will benefit the national team but the early signs are promising.