Blog by: Matt Vincent
Over the last decade or so, there has been a real shortage of truly exceptional young British talent rising through the ranks of Premier League clubs. The shortage has not gone unnoticed, and has been one of the favoured complaints of a nation which is unusually skilled at finding any and every fault in the system and turning it into a full-blown grievance.
The media, and many fans too, are obsessed with teams having British players at their heart. Any club that doesn’t has allegedly lost its soul in the eyes of the British eyes. Because of this, anything that appears to be a threat to the development of young British talent is jumped on and attacked with little thought to the logic (or lack of) behind those attacks.
It should come as little surprise, therefore, that Tottenham Hotspurs manager Andre Villas-Boas has come under some fire recently for his rather controversial transfer policy.
The North London club has heavily favoured foreign talent in the transfer market of late. In this transfer window alone, Villas-Boas has ushered four British players out of the door at White Hart Lane whilst each of the Portuguese manager’s 7 summer signings hail from outside the British Isles.
Welshman Gareth Bale left for the greener pastures of Real Madrid in a well-publicised world record transfer, whilst three English players (Scott Parker, Tom Huddlestone and Steven Caulker) were deemed surplus to requirements and effectively shown the door.
In their stead, Villas-Boas has brought in Brazilian midfielder Paulinho, Belgian Nacer Chadli, Spanish striker Roberto Soldado, Romanian defender Vlad Chiriches, French midfielder Etienne Capoue, Denmark’s Christian Eriksen and Argentinian winger Eric Lamela.
With the evidence stacked against him, it appears that Villas-Boas has been selected as the latest villain of choice in the nation’s fight for the development of domestic players.
Tom Huddlestone, one of Spurs’ outgoing British players, added fuel to that fire when he made his own criticism of Villas-Boas in public. The English midfielder, who was out of favour at White Hart Lane before being moved on to Hull City this summer, claimed that the Portuguese manager is replacing young English talent with established foreign players, and insinuated that Villas-Boas himself was at least partially to blame for the lack of chances for English players at the top levels of our domestic league.
Without attaching any blame to Villas-Boas, that is exactly what he has done. He has sold British players and replaced them with foreign talent. That is an indisputable fact. But, for so many reasons, that does not make him the villain here.
There is a very simple reason why Villas-Boas has shied away from signing British players during his time in the Premier League; the inflated prices that managers and chairmen attach to their British players. This “British Premium” is very off-putting to a manager who knows he can take a short trip on to the continent and find better players for the same price.
The problem is apparent just by looking at a handful of transfer deals over the last couple of years.
When Jack Rodwell left Everton to join Manchester City last season, it cost the Manchester club around £12m. Real Madrid and Inter Milan each spent £12m for Mezut Ozil and Wesley Sneijder, while Spurs managed to nab Rafael van der Vaart for just £9m.
Andy Carroll became the most expensive English player of all time when he completed a £35m move to Liverpool. On the other hand, Swansea captured Spanish forward Michu for only £2m. Michu has 24 goals for Swansea in two years, while Carroll has netted 18 in the past four seasons combined.
Stoke midfielder Charlie Adam, who left relegated Blackpool for Liverpool in 2011, cost the Reds nearly £7m. Liverpool signed wonder-kid Philippe Coutinho from Inter Milan for around £8.5m in January.
Defenders are not immune from the inflation either. Joleon Lescott cost Man City a whopping £24m from Everton, while Glen Johnson cost Liverpool a sizeable £18m. Pablo Zabaleta, who made the premier league team of the year last season and who has outshone both Lescott and Johnson ever since his arrival to the Premier League in 2008, cost Man City a fraction over £6m.
Villas-Boas alluded to the problem himself when he justified his decision to avoid bringing in home-grown players into his squad. The Portuguese manager explained to UK newspaper “the Independent” that:
“There is one problem with English players in the English Premier League – the price. They are rated for the top players. I think players in England cost you a lot more than what you can get out of Europe particularly in the case of Nacer Chadli and Etienne Capoue so at the moment it is a market we have been looking at with players that we have been following.
“The other two (Paulinho [£17million] and Soldado [£26million]) are renowned internationals that we had to pay a very high price for but I think it is the right price for players of that level.
“Eventually if a good deal at the right price for an English player arises I wouldn’t have any problem with that.”
Villas-Boas is exactly right. To avoid the astronomically high asking prices put on British talent, managers like Villas-Boas are gazing their eyes more and more to continental Europe where less money can be spent on better players. Why spend £15m on Joe Allen when you can spend £11.5m and get Christian Eriksen? That doesn’t make him the enemy to English development; it simply makes him a sensible and astute businessman.
However, even if the so-called “British Premium” price tag didn’t exist, the criticism Villas-Boas has faced is still entirely unjustified. At the end of the day, he is just a manager trying to do his job.
The only real expectation that is ever attached to a manager’s reign of a football club is that he will do his very best to improve the side and become more competitive and successful with each passing season. That is the very first lesson in the manager 101 handbook.
How a manager achieves that success is something entirely up to the manager himself. He is completely free to do whatever he can within the laws of the game to make his team better, and that includes his operations within the transfer window. He is under no obligation whatsoever to sign British players or to protect and develop British home grown talent if it will not help his team get better.
That is what Andre Villas-Boas has done in this summer transfer window. He doesn’t get paid to safeguard the future of the British national football squads. He gets paid to make Tottenham Hotspur as good a team as he can. And in trying to do that he will always and he should always sign the best players available to him at the right price, regardless of their nationality. That is why he ushered Scott Parker out of the door and brought in Paulinho. That is why Jan Vertonghen lines up at centre half at White Hart Lane and not Steven Caulker.
So stop laying the blame at Andre Villas Boas’ feet. Because, quite frankly, protecting English talent is not his responsibility. That responsibility, and therefore the blame for any failure to achieve it, should land firmly at the doorstep of the Football Association and no-one else.
Unfortunately, the efforts of the powers that be to help the development of British players in the premier league seem to be more of a hindrance. The legislation concerning quotas on home-grown players in squads, which was introduced to force clubs to use more domestic based players, has only helped continue the trend towards an increase in foreign talent.
The idea was to make home-grown talent more attractive, and indeed the demand for quality young English players has certainly shot up in the last few years. However, as a side effect of that increase in demand the investing in youth has just become more and more expensive. It is simple economics; demand drives up the price.
There is also another problem with the system. The home quota rules require 8 “home-grown” players in a registered Premier League squad of 25. However, the definition of home grown is not somebody with a British passport. It is not a nationality test. “Home grown” simply means a player who has trained for three years under the age of 21 with a club in the English or Welsh professional system.
Most teams in the EPL, with the exception of the super-rich top 3 or 4, use that legislation to their advantage. They prefer to stockpile foreign youth for cheaper prices, knowing that a few years down the line they will be considered home grown anyway. Arsenal are most obvious example of that; they’ve been stockpiling young French players for years.
The answer to Britain’s problem is complex. To develop British youth, players need real exposure to the top levels of competitive football. However, nobody has figured out how to force the introduction of domestic players into the top levels of football without inflating their valuation beyond reason.
Some people believe that a problem doesn’t exist; that the cream will always rise to the top regardless of investment in foreign players. Wayne Rooney, Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott never had any trouble making a name for themselves after all.
For others, the answer lies in British football’s wonderfully efficient loan market or perhaps the introduction of “B” sides much in the same way as Spain.
It is a dilemma, set to be sold by people far cleverer and far more invested into the system than I am. But what I do know, beyond any reasonable doubt, is that Andre Villas-Boas is definitely not the problem.