Sam Wallace: Free-for-all transfer 'utopia' will be another step back for Premier League

The Arsène Wenger model of producing better academy footballers in order to solve the declining number of native players is unrealistic

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The Independent Online

The truth is that tightening up the rules on Home Office work permits for non-European Union players coming to the Premier League would only save 10 to 20 places in the squads of leading clubs a year, but the situation has got so critical for English players that it could make a significant difference.

England Under-17 teams have been European champions twice in the past five years, in 2010 and 2014, and reached the semi-finals of the competition in 2011, which suggests the clubs are producing players comparable to the leading nations. The problem  is, too few of them are getting a run in those clubs’ first teams.

Arsène Wenger’s proposal to throw open the doors to any non-EU player is typical of a manager who has never liked restrictions in signing players. But even he should know that his utopian view that it is simply a question of producing better academy footballers in order to solve the declining number of native players is unrealistic.

The key reason why Dutch, French and Spanish junior players flourish at their domestic clubs is the opportunity they get to play first-team football at a young age. For every young player, there is a fork-in-the-road moment – a point where he needs the experience of first-team football in order to develop, however much potential he might have.

In the Premier League, the richest, most competitive league in the world – from first to 20th – the team that finishes last still collects £60m and the economic imperative to develop native talent is simply not as strong.

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The Arsenal manager was prevented from signing a teenage Angel Di Maria due to the current rules on buying non-EU players (Getty Images)

The Football Association wants to tighten the work permit rules because this is one factor it can affect to the benefit of young English talent, given that the development of players is dominated by the clubs. If anything, the proposed exemption for any non-EU player costing more than £10m is too low. Either way, the British Government would not accept an abolition of all work permit criteria.

In the speech which launched his commission into the declining number of English footballers in the Premier League, the FA chairman Greg Dyke quoted Gary Neville in an interview with this newspaper and others. “I’ve always felt the cream would rise to the top but I’m not quite so sure any more,” Neville said. “I’m no longer sure that if a player is good enough he will have a chance of getting through.”

It cut through the tired old notion that if a player did not make the grade, he only had himself to blame. Developing academy players into senior professionals is hard. Look at Wenger’s Arsenal where, for all his undoubted good intentions when it comes to young players, only Kieran Gibbs and Jack Wilshere can truly be said to have been developed at the club through their childhood.

The Arsenal model in recent years has been to promote young players, but the kind of young players, such as Cesc Fabregas, Philippe Senderos, Johan Djourou, Wojciech Szczesny, Francis Coquelin, Serge Gnabry and Hector Bellerin, who are harvested from the academies of other European sides in their mid to late teens. The latest signing, Krystian Bielik, from Legia Warsaw, fits the same mould.

This is happening at a club where the manager will steadfastly refuse to make a signing in favour of keeping open the development pathway of a young player. At others, the situation is much worse. Chelsea have won three of the last five Under-18 FA Youth Cups and yet, when they had a Champions League dead rubber against Sporting Lisbon last month, not a single academy-produced player made the starting line-up.

Today, Wenger took the old hard-line argument of the right, that protectionism at any level is unacceptable because it compromises the market. “If you want to be the best league in the world then you have to accept that you have to produce the best players in the world,” he said, “so the question is: how can you produce the best players?”

But even the best players need a chance to play, a developmental stage for which there is no substitute. As a manager who has given more of those chances than most, Wenger must surely know that himself.

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