By Tim Todd, Pounds Sterling
A few years ago I wrote a piece about how the Football Association’s Affirmative Action quota system for English players would not result in an increase in English players playing in the Premier League but would rather simply increase the demand, and thus the price (both in terms of transfer and salary), of the few top level English players available. And as we see from recent headlines, it doesn’t matter if they are doing laughing gas off the coast of Ibiza or if they are being fined for telling the truth during an open top bus parade, Englishmen are in and they are going for a premium.
The Premier League is somewhat unique among football leagues in Europe in that 59% of the players in the League are not English. Most of the other top leagues, with the exception of Italy, have significantly lower percentages of expats playing football on their soil: Germany is 43%, Spain 39%, and France 32%.
Leagues like Italy (54%) and Portugal (53%) have extremely high numbers of foreign players because they tend to be more liberal toward the immigration of Latin American players. Getting those players in from Brazil and Argentina and getting them European citizenship is a major transfer strategy for clubs in these countries.
In England, the driver is simply economics. The Premier League is the most watched in the world, the teams are awash in television money, and the competition levels are high. The result is that most teams in the Premier League have a high number of foreign players and this is especially true for teams competing for the Premier League title. Chelsea are 87% foreigners, Man City 79%, and Arsenal 77%.¹
Man U are unusual among the top teams in that they are only 57% foreigner as of last season. However, with van Gaal’s current spending on players like Depay and with the imminent departure of players like Young I expect the percentage of foreign players to grow at United.
And foreign players correlate fairly well to team success in the Premier League. Burnley had the fewest expat players, just 23%, QPR were 43% (17/20 teams), and Hull were the oddballs with 59% (10/20 teams) whilst the top three teams had the top three most foreign players.
What the FA’s rules accomplish is to place a premium on “Homegrown” players which actually has another deleterious effect: because top quality English players are rare, their prices are higher, and since there is no premium on foreign players (because they don’t fill an artificial need), the same quality foreign players are cheaper. The result is that foreign players actually look more attractive to teams in the Premier League. A club like Southampton can sell off all of their English talent to the big money clubs and buy twice as much foreign talent for the same price.
Both Man City and Liverpool seem intent on signing mostly English talent this summer. Liverpool have signed James Millner, Danny Ings, and are trying hard to throw even more money at Southampton² by offering £9m+ for Nathaniel Clyne. Meanwhile, Man City haven’t purchased any players, yet, but have offered £40m for Liverpool’s Raheem Sterling and reportedly offered £40m for Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere.
To give some context to how crazy the money on offer is for Sterling and Wilshere, Man City bought Kun Aguero from Atletico Madrid in 2011 for £36m³. When Aguero came to City he was a 23 year old proven goal scorer who averaged 24 goals a season for 4 years in all competitions for his club. Raheem Sterling has scored 23 goals in 124 competitions for Liverpool over the last 4 years. Sterling is just 20 years old and you might expect his numbers to get better over the next few years, though that is a huge gamble when you consider the fact that he has been pictured multiple times huffing nitrous like he’s a character from Blue Velvet.
Meanwhile, Jack Wilshere is 23 years old and has only played one full season with Arsenal in his 7 year career. In fact, over the last four years, Wilshere has averaged 23 games a season in all competitions for Arsenal.
With Aguero just 27 years old and with Aguero averaging 27 goals a season for Man City the smart money would be for either Arsenal or Liverpool to offer a straight trade: Wilshere or Sterling for Kun Ageuro.
Of course, that will never happen because no one is that crazy.
Data on foreign players in Premier League: CIES Digital Atlas
¹Welsh players don’t count because they are Welsh, not English.
²Liverpool gave Southampton £55m last season, over half of their total expenditure on summer transfers
³Some places report the amount as high as £40m, but he was purchased for €45m which at today’s rate is actually just £32m so I went for the middle number.