About six months ago the FA Chairman, Greg Dyke, declared that the small number of Englishmen playing in the Premier League was a problem, and announced the creation of a Commission to investigate the matter. Last week the Commission published its report, calling for some radical changes in the structure of League competition.
The main proposal is the creation of a “B League” for Premier League clubs, in which their younger players could gain competitive match experience. This, it is argued, would benefit the Premier League clubs by helping in the development of their trainees, while giving more English players an opportunity.
The other proposals include a development of the loan system which would enable the lending club to have a greater say in the training and development of the players they loan, an increase in the number of home grown players to be fielded and tighter government controls on the granting of visas to non-EU players.
On reading the document three thoughts came to my mind:
1. Why is the falling number of Englishman playing in the EPL a problem?
The most shocking thing about the report is that it nowhere explains what the problem is. The comment that comes nearest to an explanation is that “A direct relationship can be drawn between the numbers of available players playing regularly at the highest level in the best performing teams and the performance of a national squad.”
This is justified only by referring to Germany and Spain, and no serious statistical evidence is offered. As stated the argument appears circular- if the national team is one of the best performers then wouldn’t it have the best players, who would therefore play for the best clubs? Surely such an important claim requires a little more serious analysis?
Above all, if the argument is right and opportunities for English players have been declining, shouldn’t we expect that the performance of the England team has also declined? This claim is made in passing “The fact that the phenomenal and laudable success of the Premier League has not also been accompanied by improved quality and performance of the England team is a source of grave concern”, but supporting evidence for this proposition is lacking.
We commented on this issue in Soccernomics, and I posted a blog about it when Dyke’s first announced his Commission. A reasonable evaluation of the evidence suggests that as the number of Englishmen in the EPL has fallen the performance of the national team has improved, and certainly not worsened. I think it is in fact substantially better. The reason is that the national team relies on a small number of players, and the rising quality of the EPL has given the top English players better exposure.
2. What would this mean for the structure of league competition in England?
The proposals all seem to enhance the power of the Premier League clubs, most likely at the expense of smaller clubs. While the B League teams would not be allowed to rise above the level of League One, by creating a new source of competition to attract fans would put pressure on existing teams that already endure very small gates. The report harps on parallels with Germany and Spain- which have always been dominated by teams in the top tier.
England has always been an exception with 92 professional teams in four tiers since the 1920s, and there have been calls to rationalize this structure since the 1960s by reducing the number of professional teams. This proposal is more subtle, but is likely to have a similar effect, both in giving more control to lending clubs and creating more competition for the smaller clubs.
In many ways the B League proposals sound a bit like the takeover of the minor leagues in baseball by the major league clubs since the 1950s- many fans still bemoan the loss of truly independent minor league teams, even in a system without promotion and relegation.
3. Will restricting player mobility and increasing the power of big clubs really produce better English players?
At one point in the report the Commission seems to give the game away. All of the arguments are couched in terms of the superiority of Spain and Germany- more players from these countries play at the highest level- but a large fraction of them do not play in their home country. Englishmen almost exclusively play in England. To put it another way, if opportunities are restricted in England- why haven’t English players sought out opportunities in countries like the Netherlands, France and Denmark?
In Soccernomics we argued that the lack of an international outlook has been a significant barrier to the acquisition of the skills which make for a competitive national team. Instead of addressing this issue, the FA wants to adopt measure which restrict opportunities for foreign players.
History shows that a policy of grand isolation almost never improves your international competitiveness, but just makes you weaker until one day you are forced to open your borders again on worse terms. The FA are not calling for a complete ban, but surely limiting opportunities to face competition from foreign players will not help to improve quality.