England success comes despite lack of Premier League opportunities
Gareth Southgate thanked so many people after England's quarterfinal win vs. Sweden in Samara on Saturday that his press conference could almost have been mistaken for an Oscar acceptance speech.
However, amid the 47-year-old's typically generous distribution of credit to staff, substitutes and academy coaches, there were stark words of caution. Southgate reminded his audience that this has been a triumph against the odds, wrested from a system that remains broken.
"We're in a semifinal but we only have 33 percent of the (Premier) league to pick from," he said. "That is still a huge problem for us."
The richest club competition in the world has been routinely blamed for England's failure in international competition. You know how the argument went: The players with three lions on the shirt were too tired after long, uninterrupted seasons playing with more intensity and less protection from fouls than their continental rivals, while the influx of foreign players hampered their development.
The national team's success in Russia has shown up that narrative as overly reductive. A pool of 33 percent -- actually 34.2 percent, according to transfermarkt.com -- when handled with care, creativity and diligence, can evidently be big enough to challenge for a major trophy, especially when many of the players have benefited from working with the world's best coaches and teammates at their clubs.
Nevertheless, as Southgate pointed out, wins over Panama, Tunisia, Colombia (on penalties) and Sweden should not detract from the persistent, fundamental issue of England having the fewest players in top-flight football of all the major nations.
In 2017-18, only 203 professionals in the Premier League were eligible to feature for England. The other 390 were either foreigners or have declared for other national teams. Three talented youngsters are playing in the Bundesliga -- Jadon Sancho (18 years old, Borussia Dortmund), Keanan Bennetts (Borussia Monchengladbach, 19) Kahlen Hinds (20, Wolfsburg) -- while Jonathan Panzo (17, Monaco) is in Ligue 1, but there are no Englishmen contracted to Serie A or La Liga clubs. (Loanee players do not count.)
Compare that with the Bundesliga, where 49.2 percent of players -- 264, in only 18 teams -- are German; with a further 21 playing in either the Premier League, Ligue 1, Serie A or La Liga, mostly at top clubs, the pool available to Joachim Low is a whopping 38 percent bigger than that of Southgate.
Spain (62.6 percent Spanish players in La Liga) and France (52.3 percent French in Ligue 1) have an even more pronounced advantage. Ahead of the World Cup, then-Spain manager Julen Lopetegui had a choice of 356 professionals from La Liga, Bundesliga, Premier League, Serie A and Ligue 1; France boss Didier Deschamps could whittle down 384 first-team players, from the same five leagues, to his squad of 23.
Are English players not good enough to take up more places at home and in the other 78 clubs of Europe's top leagues or have they merely suffered from being underrated, as Southgate suggested?
"Hopefully, with what our junior teams are doing as well, this will be a sign to all clubs, at home and abroad, that English players have super technique," he said after the Sweden win.
It will be curious to see whether that perception will indeed change after the national team's exploits in Russia. The Premier League's wealth and globalised ownership structures have acted as a squeeze in the past, with the temptation to strengthen by tapping the vast foreign market of players proving too strong.
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Fans have been in on the act, too: There is relentless clamour for big names from abroad and, conversely, not much patience to see Englishmen grow as players. The limited appreciation for Jordan Henderson shown by Liverpool supporters before the start of last season is a good example.
A new-found appetite for English youngsters among clued-up Bundesliga clubs, as mentioned above, could be a sign that the quality of academy graduates is increasing. But the difficulty to get these players into the Premier League (or other top clubs) will continue as long as there are no orderly passageways connecting youth teams to the seniors.
For every Jordan Pickford or Harry Kane, who come through the hazardous, capricious loan system, there is a multitude of talents falling away somewhere in the second or third division, before being quietly released.
None of these problems should take away anything from Southgate and his squad; on the contrary, they only serve to underline their achievements. He has played a by-no-means-brilliant hand -- the equivalent of J10 suited, perhaps -- brilliantly and made the most of the three heavyweights that should have been on England's side of the draw, Spain, Germany and Argentina, flopping badly (pun intended).
However, for England to arrive at future tournaments as favourites rather than underdogs, the underlying odds will have to change. One way or the other, Southgate needs to have more aces up his sleeve.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and author of "Bring the Noise: The Jurgen Klopp Story." Follow: @honigstein