Thursday, 30 June 2016

If The Premier League Had Fewer English Players, The England National Team Would Probably Be Better

In response to yesterday's blog about the England football team being over-achievers, a reader asks whether the problem of England's poor performances is also in no small part down to the hundreds of foreign players playing in the Premier League, making it hard for home-grown talent to flourish.

It's a popular argument, and one which has been made before by professionals like Steven Gerrard, Michel Platini and Alex Ferguson. For surely the sheer number of foreign players in our league is bound to make it harder for English players to get good enough to be top international players.

At first glance, the argument seems impeccable - the more English players that get regular match time for their teams each week the better the squad of players the England manager will have. Unfortunately, while attractive, the argument is probably the opposite of the truth.

The problem for the England team (well one of their problems) is not that there are too many foreigners; it is that there are not enough foreigners. Yes, paradoxically, the fewer English players in the Premier League the better I'd expect their international team to be.

Here's why. Foreigners playing in the Premier League are there because they are good players. Therefore, more and more good foreign players in the Premier League means it's harder for English players to break into their club teams, which means at the top clubs you need to be a really good English player to be playing regular football (a point I developed more fully here).

The book Soccernomics seems to back this up, showing that since foreigners started to populate the Premier League in greater numbers (from 1995 onwards) England's overall win ratio is up by six percentage points (although naturally other factors could be at play too).

I also remember reading about how in the 1980s and early 1990s discrimination against black players proved to be costly for a team's success. Basically, when team's wage budgets were similar (a factor that is perhaps the biggest indicator of a team's likely success) the teams with the fewest black players finished lower in the league than teams with more black players.

When all clubs were deliberately slow in signing black players (which was sadly the case in the 1970s and early 1980s) discrimination costs were not very high. But when some clubs started to sign talented black players, the clubs that still discriminated paid increasing costs, as results suffered as a consequence (I've blogged before about similar discrimination penalties in the market here).

The upshot of all this is that, as you'd expect, increasing the pool of talented players occurs more fruitfully when there are no discriminatory barriers to that pool being increased. And when the pool is open to footballing quality from all over the world, the standard increases, meaning the standard required by English players increases too. As long as the ratio of English players to foreigners doesn't drop below a prohibitively low threshold, more foreign talent in the pool will probably increase the home-grown talent too.