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FA Identify Real Problem, Propose Horrible Solution

In which the FA get half the equation right

Will we be seeing Archie Wilshere in an Arsenal B team in a few years?
Will we be seeing Archie Wilshere in an Arsenal B team in a few years?
Shaun Botterill

England has become, at the top of the pyramid anyway, a predominantly non-English league, at least as far as playing staffs are concerned.  The makeup of the 20 teams in the Premier League has skewed dramatically over the years, as clubs have realized that there are talented players everywhere; the days of clubs looking only in their geographic area for talent and of the plucky English youth from the estate doing a trial with a club and becoming a David Beckham or a Rio Ferdinand are, for all intents and purposes, dead.

Over the years, as scouting has become more prevalent and as media has become more accessible, it's just as easy for an Arsenal to go scour the German third division for a young talented player as it is to raise one from scratch; write a check, get the player, save on all those pesky development costs and years.  With the incessant pressure on Premier League teams - at least the ones at the top to stay top and the ones at the bottom to stay up - this approach makes sense.  After all, if you only have a half hour to make dinner for four, are you going to bake bread from scratch, or are you going to buy a loaf at the store on your way home from work?

This "buy not build" approach has, as mentioned, created a massive shortcoming of native-grown English talent; as more and more teams adopt this approach, young English players are sort of left to wither on the vine because teams would just as soon buy an 18 year old from (insert country here) who did all their developing in that country, and may only need a few months to be ready to play in England.  It's what an old boss of mine used to call "tripping over dollars to pick up dimes" - it's a great approach in the short term, but it can be harmful in the long run, at least if your aim is to grow English talent.

Most big clubs have academies now and the academies are full of young English players, but their development tends to stall when the process described above starts to happen - the English kids just become filler, or the taxi squad for the B team, as the new (insert country here) phenom shows up, a process which does no English kid any good whatsoever.

The numbers are stark, too - according to the FA, only 32% of Premier League players are eligible to play for the English national team, and if you look at the top four clubs, that number drops to 28%.

The FA, of course, is responsible for the development of all levels of the English game except, crucially, the Premier League, who split off from the FA and its oversight when they invented soccer in 1992.  So there will always be a bit of tension between the aims of the FA, which is supposed to be looking out for the overall health of the game in England as well as the national team, and the Premier League, which is looking out for the bank accounts of its team owners. Since the Premier League exists only to enrich itself and its member clubs, they have no obligation to care about the nationalities of its players - they just want the best, regardless of origin.

With that in mind, as circumstances evolve, the FA always has to recommend changes that will help the overall game but not piss off the Premier League, who are under no obligation to cooperate with anything the FA decides. So when faced with the dilemma of "how do we get more English talent coming up through the ranks, which helps the lower levels of the game as well as the national team?", the FA presumably had a few options:

1. Incentivize Premier League clubs to use more English talent, either by mandating a squad quota (probably illegal under EU law), offering cash or FFP incentives to allow squads to carry more English players (probably unenforceably vague, maybe illegal) or by requiring that academies only enroll English players within certain age ranges (utterly pointless because it doesn't solve the problem).

2. Partner with the Premier League to funnel some of the league's squillions of TV dollars into either the current England national academy at St. George's Park, or into the youth setups of lower level teams that currently don't have a strong youth academy, in order to help them develop English youth.  Yeah, I couldn't really type all that with a straight face either.  But it's a thing that theoretically could be done.

3.  Do nothing and watch the gap between the rest of the world's top national teams and England grow ever bigger. (1966 was almost 50 years ago)

So, as you can see, there's no real easy solution to the "how do we make English people better at soccer" dilemma.  What did the FA decide to do?

They decided to recommend a dramatic overhaul of the English football pyramid.

In short, they recommended that the FA should:

- Add a new division of Premier League "B" teams that would sit in between the current League Two and the Conference.  Teams in this division could not rise further than League One and would not be eligible for the FA Cup.
-  Allow Premier League teams to loan up to eight players to any one team and "retain more control over them" during the loan, whatever that means (recall/re-loan on demand?).

There were also some recommendations of reforming the work permit system to allow fewer non-EU players in the Premier League, but that was small beer compared to those two changes.

I see a few issues with the new division idea.  First and foremost, it doesn't really solve the problem - what's to stop Premier League teams from buying exactly as they buy today, stuffing the English kids in their squad into their B team and forgetting about them?  Sure, they get "development time" in competitive games, but there are currently dozens if not hundreds of English kids in League Two and League One, and how often do they bubble up and become Premier League stars or England team regulars?  This wouldn't automatically change that, it would just create a permanent underclass.

It also kinda destroys the idea of the league pyramid.  If you have a set of teams that can benefit from having Premier League backing and squads, what does that say to the Burton Albions, Cheltenhams, and Dagenham & Redbridges of the world?  "Hey, guess what, teams who have to scrap to survive and play in front of 225 people and have the players do their own kit laundry and buy their own boots - Chelsea B's coming to town!".  Chelsea B will be full of talented players that have hopes of making it to the big club one day, while Burton Albion will be full of decent players who probably have summer jobs.  How "competitive" will that really be?

That's not to say that a Premier League B League would automatically lay waste to all the teams it plays, of course, but the infrastructure advantages baked in to being a PL B team are immense (probably better travel arrangements, undoubtedly better facilities, coaching, and equipment) and would instantly put existing League Two/One teams at something of a competitive disadvantage.

So, what actually is the answer to the problem of a lack of elite English talent?  I don't know.  It's not an easy problem to solve.  But I don't think the way to solve it is to allow the Premier League to dictate how the entire league pyramid should be structured.