The scout, from one of the clubs most globally respected for bringing through talent, couldn’t quite believe the situation – let alone what he was seeing. It was a run-of-the-mill under-23 game, but Fulham’s Matt O’Riley was putting in anything but a run-of-the-mill performance. The teenage midfielder was brilliant.
“It’s amazing,” the scout said. “Fulham spent how many millions in the summer for two midfielders, and we wouldn’t pay for either of them. But O’Riley can’t get in the team and we’d pay for him.”
There are many continental clubs who feel the same about a lot of young English talent, especially regarding the groups of players born in 2001 and 2003. Most of that interest comes from Germany.
Jadon Sancho’s impact at Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich’s interest in Callum Hudson-Odoi are really only the most prominent first moves in what is a growing trend, and what might become the primary issue for young English-produced players over the next few years. Whether to go.
The route to actually fulfilling their talent, and avoiding so many of the obstacles that the Premier League puts in front of them, might increasingly be abroad – and especially the Bundesliga. Those clubs certainly feel more interested in them than their English owners.
One football figure who attended the under-23 match between Arsenal and Manchester City at Boreham Wood on Monday evening said “you’d probably have to go to a World Cup to find more international scouts”.
Added to the many Championship clubs there to see who might be available on loan were pretty much all of the big European clubs, looking to keep in touch with young players’ agents and thereby be kept informed of their contractual situations – to get real talent on the cheap. Some scouts now joke about how they’re already getting “filthy looks” from Premier League clubs who know what they’re up to.
In the words of one Bundesliga figure, though, “Jadon Sancho is a real eye-opener”. In the words of one concerned parent of a teenage prodigy, “Jadon is an example for us”.
A sense of the situation is given by a brief list of some of the young players who are generating serious Bundesliga interest to go with Sancho and Hudson-Odoi:
20 years old – Reece Oxford (West Ham United)
18 – O’Riley (Fulham); Xavier Amaechi (Arsenal); Curtis Jones (Liverpool); Arvin Appiah (Nottingham Forest)
17 – Mason Greenwood (Manchester United); Tyreece John-Jules (Arsenal); Arthur Okonkwo (Arsenal); Luca Ashby-Hammond (Fulham)
16 – Troy Parrott (Tottenham Hotspur); Morgan Rodgers (West Brom)
15 – Louie Barry (West Brom); Harvey Elliott (Fulham); Leojo Davidson (Manchester City)
The agent of one young player spoke about how as many as 12 Bundesliga clubs are regularly onto him about his next move. That reflects how virtually the whole of the German top division are intently looking at English-produced young players, but other countries are beginning to catch on. Some see it as an inevitable inversion of the days when Premier League clubs were taking Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique as were mere teenagers, and a natural progression from that and the way the transfer market has evolved.
There was first of all the necessary overhaul of English talent development in the last decade – that was ironically influenced by Germany and Spain – that has for the moment mostly been producing fast and technically creative wide players like Jones and Amaechi. This is precisely the type of player the German system has actually struggled to produce, as they mostly manufacture an abundance of “universalist” midfielders, and was one reason for what was a somewhat plodding squad at the 2018 World Cup.
The exception has been Leroy Sane, but his situation further reflects the trend. Previously a budding star at Schalke, he would have been exactly the type of player that Bayern Munich just cherry-picked, as they have done to every club in Germany almost every year since the 1970s. Until now.
The explosion of wealth in the Premier League has allowed English clubs to outbid Bayern in such situations, and forced them and other clubs to start looking elsewhere. Hence the interest in a genius talent-spotter like Sven Mislintant, as well as an underused talent like Hudson-Odoi.
That is what much of this is boils down to. It is a release valve for a pressurised transfer market, correcting an inefficiency in it. It’s basic supply and demand.
English clubs now bring in the best talent from abroad once they’ve had one or two years to prove themselves in a senior league, with that doing all of: (a) removing a regular starter from a foreign club; (b) denying another club from that country a previously customary purchase; and (c) denying their own young players opportunities to play and progress.
It is entirely logical, then, that those same foreign clubs would look to those same young English players.
It also solves the much-discussed long-term problem of giving 17- to 19-year-olds proper game time, but not in the manner Premier League sides anticipated, and maybe meaning rivals buy them for greatly inflated prices in a few years.
Such solutions, then, only produce more questions.
Since these players are so fancied by major European clubs, why is it that English clubs won’t use them? Why do they instead opt for much more expensive but slightly older imports? And why Germany now?
Despite such apparent economic waste, some of this does boil down to the hard numbers of business, and elite sports.
As figures who work on such deals from all sides explain, the fundamental question put to any scout regarding a player is whether “he’s better than what we’ve got?” This goes to a deeper level with the highest-level English clubs, though. The question is not just whether a player is better, but whether he is ready enough that there is minimal risk of dropping points if he is used. Those clubs will know a young foreign player is ready, because he has already been given top-division experience in another league. They won’t know whether their own young player is, because they won’t risk that experience, creating this curious circular problem.
These are what the stakes are now at the top clubs. Those are the demands. This is what Maurizio Sarri was getting at at the end of December when asked about the use of club graduates like Hudson-Odoi.
“It’s not easy at this level to take the young players from the academy and [be] ready to play,” he said, before being asked whether those young players can be impatient. That should not necessarily preclude the promotion of young players, though. Many who work on the continent simply can’t believe how wedded English clubs are to a hierarchical system regarding age. It is like they get hung up on it, and won’t trust an 18-year-old if they can bring in a 21-year-old. The director of football at a Ligue 1 club confided that, “we can’t believe some of the quality English clubs have and don’t use. Age doesn’t come into it with us, it’s just about level of quality.
“English clubs seem to give the least amount of respect to the same players they’ve spent years developing.”
That may just highlight another suspicion that many have, that these are as much side-businesses as academies. There is a growing belief – even from some coaches who work within these clubs – that the main objectives of some youth structures is no longer to produce talent for them, but to earn money through sales.
“It’s a form of farming,” one agent quipped.
This also represents a conspicuous evolution from what used to be seen as best practice for young players, as ideally illustrated by Sir Alex Ferguson and now arguably best replicated by Tottenham Hotspur.
Ferguson ensured United made plenty of money through the sales of so many graduates over the years, but only after so many of them got proper runs in the team to first test them – and not just in the League Cup. A youth product like Luke Chadwick still played 24 Premier League games for United, while scoring a crucial title-race goal along the way.
That type of thing doesn’t really happen at most top clubs any more, bar exceptional circumstances. What has instead happened is a trend whereby promises are made to teenage prodigies, but they are then firmly “kept in their box” as League Cup or Europa League players while the club signs from elsewhere.
The issue, and something making so many now consider the strong German interest, is that the families of players “are getting wise to this”.
The parents of one highly sought-after teenager – who is seriously considering Bundesliga offers – agreed to speak to the Independent, but only on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation.
“One of the things clubs do is five minutes in the Carabao Cup. Parents now talk about it among themselves. We have seen the clubs go and buy players in their position, and the new signing is no better. This puts questions in the minds of parents.”
Many might see this as impatience, or supposed greed, but it’s difficult to think like that when the wider perspective is explained. Parents complain of a lack of communication from clubs, but also name-check the experience of Lewis Baker. He was one of the brightest talents in England, only to sign a two-year contract at Chelsea rather than go elsewhere at the crucial late teenage age when tangible experience is essential. He is still not getting that at Chelsea at the age of 23 after so many loans and so much of the “fake football” – in the words of one Bundesliga figure – that comes with the under-23s.
This is what all of this comes down to: that talent is maximised, and not wasted by falling through gaps in the market, by failing to get that key finalising experience at a crucial age.
“We’ve got to think what’s best for our son,” one parent says. “We don’t think it’s realistic for our son to get a start in the Premier League so we’re almost forced to think outside it. The second point is about communication. We get none at this stage. We don’t know how our son is valued by the club. So the third point is about empowerment. If he gets interest, they suddenly want to talk to you, then you find out about the pathway. Then you can make decisions.”
“There is an arrogance that some of the boys will not leave their comfort zone,” the other parent interjects. “I have had a conversation where someone senior at a club said this. They have failed to realise there is another generation of parents who are more savvy, and are open to going abroad.
“Sancho just proved the case. He proved he’s a good player, and only needed the platform to express himself. What surprised some of us parents is how people woke up to this. It is not a surprise to us.
“And it’s good for a child to experience a different country. We are at an age now where international barriers have broken down, and I think that’s happened at football now. It’s no longer a case that boys are scared of moving abroad.”
It may well transform their careers, as has happened with Sancho, and as now seems to be a particular possibility with Germany. It offers a country where there isn’t much of a language barrier, as well as a league where many of the managers are young and were former underage coaches, who are more than willing to work with teenagers at first-team level.
The Bundesliga then may end up as the finishing school for so many young UK-developed players just desperate for that senior start.
The irony at the mention of “international barriers breaking down” is that Brexit may all change this again, and may actually suit young English players because it will make it more difficult for Premier League clubs to sign from abroad.
So much of that is uncertain, though. The appeal of Germany right now is that it removes the uncertainty from young careers. It gives them a much more favourable situation.
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