Greg Stobart: English soccer is nearing rock bottom

With Premier League teams struggling in Europe and English participation in top-flight matches at an all-time low, expect no better from the national side.
The Premier League likes to consider itself the Hollywood of the soccer industry.

It is the biggest and the best, they say. Eyes from every corner of the globe are attracted to the razzmatazz, the superstars and the quality of the performances.

But in the last year or two, English soccer has produced some dodgy scripts that don't live up to the billing, let alone award-winning acclaim. After last year's Champions League semifinals were made up of two teams from Germany and two from Spain, none of the four English representatives in this year's competition was able to win the first leg in the last 16.

Arsenal and Manchester City are packing up the set and turning off the lights after they lost their home legs 2-0 to Bayern Munich and Barcelona, respectively. Manchester United suffered an embarrassing 2-0 defeat away to Olympiakos and few would rate its chances of progressing to the quarterfinals given the team's awful performances under David Moyes.


Which means Chelsea is likely to be the sole representatives of the Premier League in the last eight of the Champions League, providing the club can get past Galatasaray, with whom it drew 1-1 in Istanbul last week. The Turkish chamions, incidentally, were smashed 6-1 when Real Madrid came calling in September.

Roy Keane was eviscerating in his assessment of the quality of the Premier League as his eyes bulged following United's display in Greece and few, if any, would argue with the former United captain.

The Premier League may pay the biggest wages and market itself brilliantly to the beer companies, betting websites and banking institutions, but it is no longer the best competition.

Amid the wreckage England manager Roy Hodgson is left trying to build an Oscar-winning cast with only a handful of decent actors.

Figures from Opta show that English representation has dropped to a record low this season, with players from these shores playing just 31.97 per cent of minutes in the Premier League so far.

In La Liga, the home of the reigning World Cup and European champions, Spanish players account for 61.35 percent of all minutes played while the figure stands at 48.21 percent in the Bundesliga, the home of the Champions League holders.

The old argument used to be that playing alongside the best in the business would raise the level of the young Englishmen coming through at clubs' academies. But the domestic game is left in a situation whereby the club teams are struggling compete in Europe and the national team lacks anything like the depth of talent that its competitors can boast.

Spain, for example, was able to leave Fernando Torres, the most expensive player in the history of English soccer, Juan Mata, Manchester United's record signing, and pricey Spurs striker Roberto Soldado out of its squad ahead of a midweek friendly against Italy.

Just 159 of the 511 players to have played in the Premier League this season — less than a third — are English. The downward trend has steadily continued since 71.9 percent native players featured in the league's inaugural campaign in 1992-93.

The major worry is whether the trend will even stop, let alone whether it can be reversed. It will take some time for the Premier League's 340-million-pound plan to produce results in the form of homegrown players.

The same goes for St. George's Park, which is likely to be more useful to the FA as a production line for quality youth-team coaches than for young players.

On Wednesday, England's buildup to the World Cup begins in earnest with a friendly against Denmark at Wembley, but hardly anyone expects the Three Lions to fare any better than progression from the group stage in Brazil, where they are due to face Uruguay, Italy and Costa Rica.

Hodgson's most recent 30-man squad includes some exciting young talent. Few could complain, for example, about the quality of the performances produced by Liverpool duo Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling in recent weeks.

The problem is that there simply aren't enough young Englishmen playing at the top of the domestic game. It is so desperate that the FA has even been considering poaching patently non-English players for the national side, like Adnan Januzaj, the 18-year-old Belgian of Kosovan-Albanian decent who could qualify for the Three Lions under residency rules in time for World Cup 2018.

The best opportunity for a young English player is more likely to come in the lower leagues, with 53.64 percent representation in the Championship and 67.46 percent in League One.

That route has certainly worked for three Southampton players — Adam Lallana, Jay Rodriguez and Rickie Lambert — in Hodgson's latest squad. You've got no chance of making it if you're not playing.

Sunday's Capital One Cup final between Manchester City was an exciting game to watch but the four scorers were an Italian, Ivorian, Frenchman and Spaniard. There's a joke in there somewhere — maybe something along the lines of, "What good does that do for the England team?"

When Arsenal was completely outclassed by Bayern Munich in February, the scorers were both academy graduates. The four Champions League semifinalists last season — Bayern, Borussia Dortmund, Madrid and Barcelona — were all built around a core of players from their own nations. It is almost like they stumbled across a formula of which no one in the English game had ever thought.

Only twice in the last 15 years has an all-English XI been fielded in the Premier League. The last team to do it was Middlesborough under Steve McClaren on the final day of the 2005-06 season. Before that you have to go back to February 28, 1999 — 15 years ago last Friday — when John Gregory's all-English Aston Villa side was thrashed 4-1 by Coventry City.

It all paints a depressing picture but the fact is that, on the big awards nights, it's other clubs and other national teams walking away with all the prizes.