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Are the Best Young Players in the World Shunning the EPL?


Who are the very best young players in the world?  For the purposes of this article, “young players” are those no older than 22.

First there are the obvious: Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Alexandre Pato, Francesc Fabregas, Karim Benzema, etc.  Their class has been established before this mysterious “young” label vanished, and subsequently they command enormous transfer fees, if their clubs are even willing to part with them.  They often aren’t and for good reason.  These are players who will win Ballon d’Ors, change Champions League finals in a single play, and will also sell shirts.

Then there is a second tier of young players who might becomes world class, but aren’t quite there yet: Chelsea’s Mikel, Villarreal’s Giuseppe Rossi, Werder Bremen’s Mesut Ozil, Real Madrid’s Gonzalo Higuain, etc.  Another way of saying this is, although they wouldn’t be guaranteed a starting position on a Champions League final team, they’d at least be on the bench.

Then there’s a third tier of players who are still unpolished and generally unproven, though many people believe they have the quality to go on a to great things.  These are players like Inter’s Santon, Everton’s Rodwell, AZ’s Dembele, Palermo’s Pastore, Bayern Munich’s Kroos, or Athletic Bilbao’s Muniain (the new youngest La Liga goalscorer, or “the Spanish Wayne Rooney”).

What strikes me from these lists, which are meant to be totally cursory and by no means inclusive, is the lack of EPL representation.  Considering the league has come under fire for “luring youngsters away from the academies that developed them”, why do football’s future luminaries seem to ply their trade on the continent?

Some might say they don’t, and that the best youth in the EPL could easily match Serie A and La Liga’s best young players.  Aaron Lennon, Fellaini, Agbonglahor et al, the argument goes, have just as much class.

Teams like Arsenal, Everton, West Ham, and Manchester United have fine traditions of developing youth players into great players.  These traditions, especially at Everton currently, look like they’ll continue.

Yet despite Arsenal’s policy of youth, I see few players who will go on to be world class.  Fabregas already is, Nasri has a great chance of becoming, and for Jack Wilshire and Aaron Ramsey, it’s too early to tell.  But can anyone see Bendtner as Ibrahimovic’s heir, or Denilson as a second Fabregas (or a defensive midfielder, or whatever they want to make him these days)?

In La Liga, Serie A, Ligue 1, the Eredivisie, and the Bundesliga, these young players have a greater chance of getting lots of playing time and actually being stars.

Would Fiorentina’s Stevan Jovetic (in my opinion the second best teenager in the world, behind only Pato), have started for Liverpool in the match in which he scored against them?

Probably not, likely because he isn’t good enough to do so.  As exciting a prospect as Jovetic, he still could not have replaced Gerrard, Torres, Benayoun, Riera, or Kuyt because he isn’t a better player than any of them.  He does, however, have the potential to be better than the last three especially.  Yet in Liverpool he would ride the bench this season, just as he would at Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal, or Manchester City.  He would get chances at smaller clubs, but he wouldn’t taste Champions League football like he does now at Fiorentina.

At the best clubs in the EPL, the competition is too great for young stars to truly break through, it seems.  I don’t mean seeing the least four minutes ten games per season, but rather the chance to play 90 minutes regularly.

With the exception of the “predestined” youngsters – the Fabregases and Messis and  Rooneys and Ronaldos – the Serie A, La Liga, Eredivisie, and the Bundesliga provide better opportunities.

It seems the youngsters and their agents realize this too.  Javier Pastore, Palermo’s 20 year old midfielder, was hesitant to join Manchester United when the rumors were flying because of the lack of minutes.  Instead, he opted to join Serie A’s 8th place Palermo.  He might have joined a team in the Champions League, but now he gets to play about 30+ games per season, ninety minutes each.  His contract lasts until he’s 25, when by then, he could be one of the premier playmakers in the world.

When the “Big Four” come knocking, the theory goes, you don’t turn down the golden opportunity in your career.  It’s supposed to be your big chance to break into the national team, to win trophies, and become an elite player.  This doesn’t seem to be the case in the EPL, with the exception of the truly greatest.

For simply the good players, let Chelsea’s Saloman Kalou be a warning.  When the Blues signed him in 2006, it seemed like the 21-year old could be Chelsea’s Cristiano Ronaldo – a winger who could score lots of goals and dribble past opponents.  Instead, he’s gone from promising star to inconsistent substitute, age 24.  One can’t help but wonder what might have happened if the Ivorian had opted to join a German, Italian, or Spanish club instead of one of the EPL’s elite and hyper competitive giants.  Would the consistent minutes have made him a better player?  It’s very possible.

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  1. navaz

    October 30, 2009 at 3:59 am

    i think young players should achieve something big n leave the club …like KAKA was at milan he was da worlds best player won champions league with milan ….same way c.ronaldo was at MANchester for 6-7 years he became top scorer and got the champions league cup n barclays cup….same way players like jovetic ,pato ,mata ,pablo hernandez ,arsenal youths ,david santone ,mario ballotelli ,thomas muller ,edin dzeko ,miralem pjanic ….are hot prospects and r much more in demand n talked about compared to 5 star players … once brazilian ronaldo ruled ,zidane ruled ,figo ruled ,…but as players cross 27-28(most of them) their game changes….n iseriously feel barclays is overrated ..just 4-5 teams r good …..and the way spanish ,german ,italians score its really entertaining ….and like pato scored 2 goals against madrid that shows his capability ….team chemistry ..having star studded players in a team has nothing but a players former club suffering eg milan wen kaka transfrd ,c.ronaldo manu-real madrid …..theres more than resentment for the people to see their superstar leave the club for money or fame or for a change ,…but the truth is ,all the youth players around the world should stay in their respective clubs till they grow n achieve n make the people happy

  2. Sarah Millery

    October 15, 2009 at 10:28 pm

    Gaz, Jermaine Pennant is way to old to be consider a young player, and quite frankly his attitude is not right. I would concede that he does have some skill, but he is too lazy (claimed by teammates) and we all know that skill will only take you so far, and the rest of the way needs hard work.

    So I am still waiting for an English player to travel and make his name abroad, but I just don’t think there is one or even one in the making (as they are snapped up by English clubs)

    • The Gaffer

      October 15, 2009 at 11:03 pm

      Sarah, it may take an English manager going over to the continent to be gutsy enough to bring some of his English footballers to Europe. I’ve been surprised that Steve McClaren hasn’t tried to bring some of the Boro youngsters over to FC Twente, for example.

      The Gaffer

  3. r4 firmware

    October 15, 2009 at 3:24 am

    Nice post. I am totally agree with Vishnu. I love roony and he played best.

  4. Sarah Millery

    October 15, 2009 at 1:56 am

    I don’t think they are necessarily shunning the EPL, I think its just that players from certain area’s like South America, prefer the Italian or Spanish style of play, so they feel they can progress better in those leagues. The quality Spanish youngsters like to stay in Spain, with a few exceptions (Fabregas and a few coming through the ranks at Liverpool), which is really the same for English youngsters (I cant think of one that went to another league to progress? Can you name one?)

    • Gaz

      October 15, 2009 at 2:38 pm

      Jermaine Pennant could be one if he actually progresses.

    • Thomas

      October 15, 2009 at 5:30 pm

      Absolutely agree. South American style is more similar to Spanish and Italian. Also, it’s much easier for a South American to assimilate into Spain, even Italy, because of the language. A Brazilian can probably learn Spanish or Italian much faster than say English.. this could be a generalization, but I feel many S. American players are also not extremely educated, as they have concentrated on Football rather than school, so their English is probably non existant.

      And I also have to agree that besides a few players here and there, most Youngsters stay in their native country to develop, rather than moving to England. When they do move, they already seem to be at that next level.

      Though you see promising youngsters go to big clubs on the Continent, it’s not like a 17year old is going to go to Juve or Inter and play any significant minutes either. As of now, it just so happens that Joevetic is at Fiorentina. He will probably move within the next 2 years.

      Also, it’s not like there haven’t been plenty of promising youngsters who have gone to England to develope either…go from Club to Club and look.

      Ronaldo, Nani, Anderson, Rafael & Fabio, Mascheda, Cesc, Nasri, Denilson, Diarra, Clichy, Bendtner, Van Persie, Mikel, Kalou, Lucas, Babel.

      And that’s just scouring the top 4 sides. There’s plenty of promising youngsters who have chosen England.

  5. ish

    October 15, 2009 at 12:22 am

    kalou has got a lot of game time, more then many of the starters due to injuries and lack of attacking players. He just isnt consistent enough even with starts.

    mikel is pretty close to world class.

    Another thing with young non-eu footballers, getting them into england with work permits is hard. thats why nearly every player in the youth level have some form of eu passport.

    Generally if a player is good enough to start they will. Its just that finding a fabregas, pato, messi or that level player is very rare. Of the thousands of young players who are professional only a handful reach the summit of best player.

  6. Lyle

    October 14, 2009 at 2:31 pm

    I agree with the general sentiment of your argument. Young players get fewer chances in England because so much is at stake. Its not coincidence that West Ham yo-yo’s from the top league to the second league because it plays lots of youngsters. Seasoned players are simply better at keeping teams up in the league, I think and managers don’t want to blow points just to see if a kid has what it takes to play in the EPL.

    England must start sending players to the other leagues. Young players need to be challenged and learn from other people. They can show themselves in plenty of places besides England, I think.

    The new North Atlantic league might be a good place to start.

    I also think the FA should allow EPL teams to either own or help run League Two and League One clubs so that the EPL team can send players to play down a few leagues when they’re ready for that.

  7. Geoff

    October 14, 2009 at 10:21 am

    I think you will find that it has more to do with the £ being at 25 year lows, and EPL clubs are getting out-bid.

  8. Don

    October 14, 2009 at 4:21 am

    Pato is World Class?

    Bendtner is ahead in his development compared to Ibrahimovich at the same age.

    • David

      October 14, 2009 at 1:47 pm

      Scoring a goal almost every two games… yea, Pato is world class at the ripe old age of 20.

    • David

      October 14, 2009 at 1:50 pm

      Also, Bendter gets more games than Ibrhimovich did at 21, but he doesn’t have the same goalscoring average as Zlatan did.

    • Lyle

      October 14, 2009 at 2:27 pm

      I’m with you, Pato is not World Class at the moment and might not ever be. He seems to overrated in my opinion.

  9. vishnu

    October 14, 2009 at 1:53 am

    yep, completely agree with you on this. If Nani had gone to Spain/Italy or Germany before coming to United, he’d be on the same level as Rooney. Which begs the question, why aren’t english teams willing to loan their players out to clubs on the continent? yes the game is different over there, but if the kid improves, he’ll have a better chance at developing his skill set, and then adapt to the Englishness of the EPL.
    If Diouf and Ljajic light up the prem, we may see more of it.

    • The Gaffer

      October 14, 2009 at 9:35 am

      I’m no fan of Nani. He has some skill but to me is a poor man’s Cristiano Ronaldo, but nowhere near the talent or potential. Nani would be better suited learning from Ryan Giggs than playing on the continent.

      The Gaffer

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