26 March 2019, by: Zach Lowy

Another Golden Generation for English Football?

After an underwhelming period of group stage eliminations and knockout round humiliations, England have returned to the fore as one of the most feared sides in the world. Their youth sides won both the FIFA U-20 World Cup and the U-17 World Cup in 2017, while their senior team advanced to the 2018 World Cup semifinals. England’s youth academies are churning out top-tier talents at an unprecedented rate, and the Three Lions are reaping the rewards.

Let’s take a look at England’s class of 2000.

Since moving to Borussia Dortmund in 2017, Jadon Sancho has not only emerged into one of the most sought after footballers on the continent but a trailblazer for the rest of England’s young generation.

Sancho rose up Watford’s academy ranks before joining Manchester City in 2015. In May 2017, City’s chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak envisaged that him, Phil Foden, and Brahim Díaz would be promoted to the first team next season by Pep Guardiola. But with the likes of Leroy Sané and Raheem Sterling ahead of him in the pecking order, Sancho rejected a £30,000 a week offer from City and held out for a move to Dortmund, where he would enjoy far more minutes on the pitch. It was a risky move, but it paid off.

Several of Sancho’s agemates have followed in his footsteps, ditching higher wages in England for more playing time abroad. Jonathan Panzo left Chelsea for Monaco in 2018, before being sent on loan to Monaco’s satellite club Cercle Brugge this summer. Reo Griffiths, on the other hand, left Tottenham for Lyon after scoring 27 goals in 20 matches for their U-18 side, although his opportunities in France have been even more scarce than Panzo’s.

More often than going abroad, though, another pattern we’re seeing is English youngsters dropping down to the Championship on loan to try their luck at the professional level. This January, Rhian Brewster, Emile Smith-Rowe and Marc Guehi left their Premier League parent clubs for Championship loans, and they’ve paid off thus far.

Brewster and Smith-Rowe are starting for Swansea City and Huddersfield Town, respectively, whilst Guehi started a run of matches at Swansea before being dropped from the squad after a 4-4 draw against Hull City. Championship clubs can only name five loan players in their matchday squads, and due to the form of Conor Gallagher (another Chelsea product), Brewster, Freddie Woodman, Aldo Kalulu and Ben Wilmot, Guehi has gotten the short end of the stick.

Certain Championship clubs have proven to be ideal breeding grounds for young talent. Derby County came agonizingly short of promotion last season with Fikayo Tomori (’97), Mason Mount (’99), Jayden Bogle and Harry Wilson (’97) all starting under Frank Lampard. This season, Max Bird has become a regular starter in midfield under Philipp Cocu.

There are plenty of cases where a Championship loan would’ve been a wiser option remaining as a fringe player in the Premier League. Angel Gomes was part of the England team that lifted the U-17 World Cup in India, but without a loan to bridge the gap between youth football and professional football, he’s found himself ensconced in a purgatory. Concerns over his physicality and height have starved him of opportunities, and with his contract expiring this summer, he’ll have to leave Old Trafford to find the right team to nurture his talent.

Nevertheless, there are certain occasions where, due to a unique set of circumstances, players can emerge from nowhere and become key players at the top level. Aaron Wan-Bissaka (’97) demanded to leave on loan to a League Two side in January 2018, but Roy Hodgson denied his request. Due to an injury crisis at Selhurst Park, Wan-Bissaka was thrown into the deep end, and he ended up becoming a starter after a few games. The rest, as they say, is history.

It’s been a similar story for Brandon Williams. He wasn’t even included in the preseason tour last summer, and yet, he’s been a regular under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer this season. He filled in for the injured Luke Shaw and impressed with his nonstop hustle and penetrating runs forward. Shaw, to his credit, has responded by winning back a starting spot; the competition from Williams has lit a fire under Shaw and motivated him to regain his top form.

Former United manager David Moyes faced a similar dilemma when first-choice right-back Ryan Fredericks was sidelined with a shoulder injury in February. Rather than replace him with Pablo Zabaleta, who, at 35, simply doesn’t have the athleticism required for the Premier League, Moyes trusted Jeremy Ngakia with the starting job. He’s only started four matches so far, but he’s already proving to be a sturdy option in defence.

Aside from Sancho, the two brightest talents in England’s star-studded class of 2000 are Callum Hudson-Odoi and Phil Foden. While Foden has seen his opportunities limited, with the more weathered İlkay Gündoğan and Bernardo Silva being preferred, there is a sense that his luck is about to change. This month, Foden started in the EFL Cup Final against Aston Villa, and the Manchester derby as well. With David Silva set to depart after a glorious 10-year-spell at the Etihad, Foden has everything it takes to become the maestro’s long-term successor in midfield.

Hudson-Odoi, on the other hand, has had a markedly different fate. Former manager Maurizio Sarri drew ire from Chelsea fans for his usage of him, preferring the veterans Pedro and Willian over his teenage starlet. It seemed as if Bayern Munich were going to replicate Dortmund’s success story with Sancho by signing Hudson-Odoi and giving him the chance to replace the retiring Arjen Robben.

The teenager ruptured his Achilles tendon in a match against Burnley, a potentially career-ending injury for any footballer. Nevertheless, Chelsea kept their faith in their starboy, tying him down to a five-year contract which quadrupled his salary to an eye-watering £120,000 a week.

It hasn’t had the intended result. Despite Lampard’s continued confidence in him, Hudson-Odoi has failed to replicate his vivacious performances under Sarri, and given the severity of the injury, it’ll be a while before he’ll be able to trust his body and regain top form. He hasn’t started a match since February 1, with repeated hamstring issues keeping him stuck on the treatment table. Nevertheless, Hudson-Odoi has what it takes to become a regular for both Chelsea and England, and with Pedro and Willian set to leave on free transfers this summer, he’ll be expected to play a leading role in Chelsea’s youth revolution.

On the other side of London, Tottenham are plotting a youth revolution of their own. Japhet Tanganga (’99) has come out of nowhere to become a starter under José Mourinho, whilst Oliver Skipp, Ryan Sessegnon and Jack Clarke could become regulars, as the club look to move on from the Mauricio Pochettino era and turn a new leaf. Given Spurs’ woes at the right-back position, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Max Aarons join that crop of talent this summer, especially in the likely scenario that Norwich City gets relegated.

Due to the saturation of talent at the top level, more and more English youngsters are prioritizing playing time over mouth-watering wages. Tariq Lamptey snubbed a contract offer from Chelsea in January and joined Brighton for a cut-rate fee. He’ll be fighting it out with Martin Montoya for a starting spot, and he’ll have the chance to develop and fine-tune his style under Graham Potter.

England’s class of 2000 continues to perform at the top level and pave the way for their younger compatriots. It’s only a matter of time before more of Sancho’s agemates follow his lead in starting for the Three Lions and dazzling in the Champions League.

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