The Future Of English Football…Is Abroad

How Eric Dier could change the future of the England team:

Benfica's Maicon (left) battles for the ball with Sporting Lisbon's Eric Dier (centre) as teammate Lucho Gonzalez (right) looks on

By, Jake Bayliss @jakeybaylisss

As December begins football enters a reflective mood, looking back on what has been one of the most memorable years in recent history. Countless end-of-year lists will be devoted to the best players, matches, and goals of 2016, with each one proclaiming to have the definitive answers.

All these lists ever succeed in doing however, is to provide fuel for heated discussions, via pubs and WhatsApp groups. Not that we mind, of course. What would the sport be without it? Football is based around having different opinions.

But if England fans were asked to name the three standout young players of 2016, the voting would be close to unanimous: Dele Alli, Eric Dier, and Marcus Rashford.

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At a time when the England team, and the F.A. in general, seem to be in constant doubt about the best way to develop young players, their emergence has raised some interesting points. All three took different routes to the top.

Rashford and Alli represent the more conventional ways: In Rashford’s case, bide your time and wait for opportunities at a Premier League club; in Alli’s, rise through the lower leagues.

Dier’s path to the top level is more well-travelled, but one rarely taken by young English players. In recent years, English players abroad have generally consisted of either journeymen or players mis-sold the promise of an easy retirement (see Gerrard, Ashley Cole et al.).

Initially played at either full-back or centre back throughout the 14/15 season, it was Dier’s time in Portugal that made him so versatile. It is clear that the Sporting academy provided him with a deep understanding of the game, making him more tactically aware than most of his English peers.

And nowhere is his footballing intelligence more prevalent than in holding midfield.

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Ironically, aside from several stop-gaps and a criminally underused Michael Carrick, England have not had a clear holding midfielder since Owen Hargreaves. There is a clear parallel between Hargreaves and Dier in terms of them beginning their careers abroad. And it can be no coincidence that two players, who chose a similar route to each other, both represented an alternative to all other English midfielders.

Obviously not all English players in academies abroad will become holding midfielders, but their unique footballing backgrounds dictate that they will offer something different to ‘home-grown’ players.

The key difference between Hargreaves and Dier, however, is the timing of their careers.

Hargreaves was treated with a degree of scepticism prior to his performances at the 2006 World Cup. He faced two problems. Firstly, he was viewed by certain sections of England fans as an ‘outsider’. Growing up in Canada and moving to Germany as a teenager meant that some fans struggled to see Hargreaves as ‘one of their own’.

The other obstacle Hargreaves faced was also to do with him being different to most other English players — he was playing abroad. Although he was performing regularly at the very highest level for Bayern Munich, due to fans not being able to watch him regularly this achievement was often overlooked. Besides, he chose to stay in Germany even when English clubs came calling – was he afraid of the windy nights in Bolton? (Stoke were in the First Division in 2003)

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Dier, on the other hand, avoided this scrutiny. Post-Golden Generation, English football looks very different now compared with even ten years ago. We, as fans, have regular access to La Liga, Serie A, the Bundesliga, and have in-depth knowledge of players across the world. A player with Dier’s skillset is embraced rather than questioned.

The domination of Pep’s Barca and the creation of the ‘super-coach’ has resulted in the complexion of European football changing dramatically in just a few years. Technique and tactics are king – and that suits Dier.

And it is not just Dier who is benefiting from this style of play, either: John Stones and Raheem Sterling are likely to improve radically under Guardiola. However, having had the experience of another footballing culture, Dier seems to be one step ahead of his peers.

At a time when Joe Hart seems to have rediscovered his best form whilst on loan at Torino, the clamour for more English players to venture abroad is ever-growing — and they should be encouraged to do so from an early age.

Top level academies in England seem to have prioritised stockpiling the best young talent from across the world. Chelsea are often used as the go-to example, but it is happening throughout the country and these players rarely make the first team.

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There is a reason why Tottenham, Southampton, and Arsenal are held in such high regard – they are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Football at academy level is severely competitive by design, however, English players continue to hamper their own chances: all remain based at home, clubs consistently bring in players from abroad, and their chances become increasingly slim.

Not only does going abroad give players a better chance of success than the inflated English academies but it also provides an opportunity for them to excel, both in terms of life experience and footballing ability.

Rather than waiting around for the latest F.A. initiative, more young players should be encouraged to try their luck abroad. The ‘English way’ of playing is limited – as we have learned over the years —and these academies represent a new opportunity, a chance learn another style of football.

The stars of the Premier League — Aguero, Ozil, Coutinho, Costa — have all benefitted from playing in multiple countries. English players should be no different and Eric Dier’s success at Tottenham should signal a change in English football.

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Jake Bayliss