If there’s one particular moment that sums up why England’s younger internationals continue to struggle for opportunities to play regularly, it was provided shortly after the January 2018 transfer window. Everton’s England U21 international Ademola Lookman, who had been featuring infrequently that season under Sam Allardyce, was offered a loan move until the end of the season with Derby in the English Championship. He however preferred a move, which had been arranged for him to move to Germany, and play in the Bundesliga with the youth focussed RB Leipzig, who had finished second in the preceding season behind Bavarian giants Bayern Munich. When asked about the move, Sam Allardyce is reported to have stated that he had attempted to persuade Lookman to stay in the UK and play at Derby instead of testing himself against some of the best players in Europe and labelled the youngster ‘stubborn’.
Lookman had played 142 minutes in the league in the 25 games prior to his move to the East German club, adding another 215 in cup competitions with often second-string sides. In his first game for Die Rotenbullen he scored the winner from his short cameo, and never looked back, scoring 5 goals in total and providing 4 assists along the way in 11 appearances, 4 of which were as a substitute. Having been given the opportunity to play regularly, and at a club with a focus on young players who primarily avoid signing players over the age of 24, he thrived and excelled which led to a reported £22m bid in the summer from RB Leipzig to keep the youngster, an offer rebuffed by the Merseyside club.
Around the same time as Lookman was making his breakthrough over in East Germany, another young England international was taking his first foray into the world of professional top-level football over on the other side of the country. After rejecting a new contract offer from Manchester City, where he had been playing with either the U18s or the U23s, he made the move to the Bundesliga and joined Borussia Dortmund for a fee reported to be around £8m. The talented winger would wear the number 7 shirt vacated by Ousmane Dembélé following his move to Barcelona. Jadon Sancho attracted a huge amount of attention with a whole host of big clubs making moves for the teenager. Following his move, for the first half of the season, he struggled with injury and was fleetingly involved in games, being used off the bench on a couple of occasions. Fast forward to January, and following his first start for Die Schwarzgelben, he managed to make two more consecutive starts before he was sidelined for around 6 weeks. Once he returned however, he hit the ground running and benefitted from a run of games at the end of the season, starting all of the last 4 games and excelling in particular in the game at home to Bayer Leverkusen during which he provided 2 assists and scoring one.
Moving on to this season, Sancho has been a revelation with the North Rhine Westphalia club. So far this season, he’s featured in all of Dortmund’s games in the Bundesliga, scoring 4 and providing 6 assists for the club, with another goal and assist in the Champions League. Sancho may have turned himself into a regular starter for Dortmund, though given that he is making a significant contribution when is on the field, it can be of no surprise that he’s graduated to full honours with the senior England squad. In the recent Nations League game against Croatia, he was the first substitute to come off the bench to influence the game, over the likes of Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli. Both he and Lookman have also demonstrated that there is an alternative way to make it these days and that to young players at Premier League clubs that they require the opportunities to show what they can do, something which they are oft afforded in the money orientated world of the English Elite Clubs. In addition to Sancho and Lookman, Reiss Nelson has also seized his opportunity at Champions League outfit Hoffenheim benefitting enormously from moving abroad and learning other footballing cultures, hugely accelerating his development. Nelson has followed in Sancho’s path over in Germany, netting 6 goals in 7 games and also providing an assist in that spell whilst on loan from parent club Arsenal. There were rumours prior to Southgate announcing his last squad that there would be a space for Nelson, given his excellent form, though he had to settle for a space in the U21 squad this time around.
Contrast the fortunes of the players described above with Phil Foden at Manchester City. Foden is without doubt one of the jewels in the crown of the England Youth setup, and although he will be learning enormously under one of the best coaches in world football, he does not seem to be getting the required opportunities to show his talent at the highest level. This year, his appearances have been limited to mostly second string occasions, with 90 minute appearances coming against Oxford United and Fulham in the Carabao Cup and 75’ coming in the Community Shield against Chelsea, only racking up 64 minutes so far in the league. Contrast this further with Lookman and Sancho’s adventures into the Bundesliga, Sancho racking up over 1200 minutes since the start of last season in the competition as well as over 200 minutes this year in the Champions League, whereas Lookman has played for only 200 minutes fewer in 11 appearances for RB Leipzig than he has since the beginning of the 2017/18 season with Everton, again with the majority of these coming in second string games in the Europa League or the FA/Carabao Cups.
In essence, our youth internationals need more playing time, and currently this is not something they’re able to acquire at Premier League clubs. As such, it is hardly a surprise that they’re wishing to take a chance and head over to Europe to ply their trade where they can develop, play more and enjoy their football. Not only have Sancho and Nelson benefitted from more playing time out in Germany, but against better quality opposition too, with Sancho recently inspiring Borussia Dortmund’s comeback from 2-0 down to beat Bayern Munich in Der Klassiker. Add into the mix the benefits of learning several different ways of playing and many different aspects of playing football that these young professionals can gain from moving out of their comfort zone as players and people in general. Lastly, credit must go to Gareth Southgate for being brave enough to reward these achievements and being daring enough to take a chance or being ‘stubborn’ if you ask Sam Allardyce.