Sancho, Nelson and Hudson-Odoi next? The invasion of Europe by English youngsters
As Bayern Munich pursue the Chelsea teenager, chances abroad for homegrown talent mean the future is brighter than ever for Gareth Southgate’s England
Few pundits, if any, would have predicted that the January transfer window would see Bayern Munich come in with a £35 million offer for Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi.
To put it into perspective, that is more money for an unproven 18-year-old with 19 senior appearances than the Bavarians agreed to pay for World Cup winner Benjamin Pavard earlier this month. Yet it is just a fraction of what Premier League clubs spend on international stars.
Of course, the cash-splashing among England’s elite might play its part in creating what is regularly dubbed ‘the best league in the world’, but it’s also what is making homegrown talents assess options away from home – a rare occurrence among English players.
That Maurizio Sarri feels he needs to go into the market this month to replace his fourth-choice midfielder – Cesc Fabregas, who has left for Monaco – says it all. The Italian has arguably the best academy in England to delve into but is seeking a replacement elsewhere.
Many have called for changes to the FA’s homegrown rules, which currently state that eight players in a club’s 25-man squad must have been on the books of an English team for at least three years before the age of 21.
However, it is something clubs can easily get around when it gets to naming their starting XI and seven substitutes, not to mention the definition of ‘homegrown’ allowing foreign imports to qualify for this status.
Stricter rules in this area is something that has been tried in Russia, with only six foreign players allowed on the pitch at once in domestic league games.
However, it has had the opposite impact for the Eastern European nation and is believed to be the main reason for the country’s stagnation in player development, with local talent prepared to stay at home and live off big wages rather than test themselves abroad in stronger leagues.
“The limit on foreigners harms the level and strength of Russian football. Players do not have the incentive to play abroad, and they’re not good enough to attract top European clubs,” said former national team coach Leonid Slutsky.
Wisely, the Football Association (FA) opted for other ideas.
Introducing their advanced youth award – the under-age level equivalent of an UEFA A Licence and mandatory for academy coaches – and creating St George’s Park are just two of the many changes that have shaped an incredibly talented up-and-coming generation of footballers, of which Hudson-Odoi is just one.
Indeed, the FA’s hard work has already bore fruit, with England winning the FIFA under-17 World Cup, the UEFA European under-19 Championship and the FIFA under-20 World Cup in 2017.
Now, the players who delivered those successes are moving abroad in search of regular game time.
Charles Buchan, founder of the Football Writers’ Association, wrote in 1958: “I asked a Spanish reporter if any big clubs in the Peninsula had eyes on British stars. ‘I don’t think so,’ he said. ‘You have some grand craftsmen, but the Spanish prefer artistes, of which you have only a dozen or so.’”
That remained true until recently. However, the level coaching in England has now improved, and with it the quality of footballer.
As a result, the interest of Europe’s elite has been piqued, as underlined by Bayern’s pursuit of Hudson-Odoi.
“He has qualities that suit our game. He’s a strong dribbler, fast, and carries a goal threat,” said sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic.
Higher quality coaching isn’t just producing more technically gifted players, though; the new generation are also more ambitious.
When Darren Moore, now the West Bromwich Albion manager, took the FA advanced youth award back in 2015, he told the Guardian: “One thing I will take from this course is the thought: ‘What environment am I setting for the players?’
“Chelsea delivered a great presentation on how to give players more ownership [of their development].”
That presentation has come back to bite the Blues. Dominic Solanke was one of the first of their stockpiled and loaned-out youngsters to stand up and take ownership of his development.
Although his move to Liverpool didn’t work out, and he has since switched to Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth, the Chelsea striker must be given credit for searching for first-team football.
Nathaniel Chalobah is another who realised his quality, packed up his bags and swapped Stamford Bridge for Vicarage Road. His rewards for impressing at Watford came quick too, with him making his senior England debut last October.
Chris Willock, Reece Oxford and Ademola Lookman were among the first to take this mentality abroad, before Sancho ensured it hit the headlines.
“[Sancho’s success at Dortmund] has affected everyone,” Solanke said. “What he’s done, getting into the England team at such a young age, it will influence a lot of young players.”
Indeed, now the trail has been blazed, Europe has become a real option for many youngsters.
“People said at the time I was crazy to go to Germany but I saw it as another learning curve for me,” said Everton’s Lookman, who racked up five goals and four assists in a short 11-game loan at RB Leipzig. “I’m glad I did go. I learned about being more of a goal threat.”
Former Liverpool youngster Tom Ince, meanwhile, is a prime example of how times have changed.
The forward left Anfield in 2011 at the age of 19, in search of first-team football. Three years later, he received an offer from Inter but rejected it as he did not believe he would play regularly.
“I stood in the San Siro and the English boy inside me told me to go to the Premier League,” Ince told the Telegraph.
If he had been born seven or eight years later, into an era where young players seem to have a braver mentality, things could have been much different. Instead, he chose Hull City and, ironically, made just seven appearances. Today, he plays for Stoke City in the Championship.
Encouragingly, moves abroad are once again attractive prospects for English talent, instead of a plan B for the country’s trouble-causers and misfits.
The FA can look on proudly as their players rebuild the reputation for the nation on the continent – one made a laughing stock in recent years by a plethora of gaffes, from Jermaine Pennant’s forgotten Porsche to Joey Barton’s French accent.
While the FA would love to keep their best talent in the Premier League, they will have few complaints if players moving abroad reduces the dressing room ‘cliques’ that plagued England’s previous ‘Golden Generation’.
“Not being able to separate club ties to international football [held ‘the Golden Generation’ back],” Rio Ferdinand told the Daily Mirror. “When I went to Man United and [Frank] Lampard went to Chelsea, we stopped talking. I just didn’t like him anymore really because he was playing for Chelsea.”
In stark contrast, Sancho and Nelson have revealed that they have a WhatsApp group with a few other players which sparks encouraging, friendly competition.
Speaking about his Bundesliga rival, Sancho told BBC Sport: “I’ve got love for him, he’s got love for me. We just keep on pushing each other. If I do well on a weekend, I think it pushes him. It motivates both of us. I like seeing Reiss do well and I’m sure he likes seeing me do well, so it’s good.”
If Hudson-Odoi does complete a switch to Bayern Munich, he and Sancho will be fierce rivals and compete on opposing teams in one of Germany’s biggest fixtures, Der Klassiker.
But instead of destroying a friendship and hindering England, it would likely bring the best out of both teenage sensations – and see him added to a group chat of ambitious youngsters with the world at their feet.
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