The Imbalance in English Academies

Cast Iron Tactics
4 min readJul 14, 2020


Do you think the abundance of talented forwards/creative players breaking through from English academies simultaneously (Foden, Sancho, Greenwood, Saka, Willock, Nketiah, Brewster, Jones, Abraham, Hudson-Odoi) and the accompanying lack of central defenders and central midfielders is a result of an over correction in development coaching in this country?

These lads who are making the breakthrough at 18, 19, 20 would’ve been 8, 9, 10 — the age that players usually get pushed into formal football environments — back in 2010. At that point, the senior national team had just failed to qualify for Euro 2008 and then got absolutely battered by Germany in the round of 16 at the 2010 World Cup.

If you look at that World Cup squad, there’s a real disparity in quality across the various positions. You’ve got Shaun Wright-Phillips, Aaron Lennon, James Milner, Joe Cole, Peter Crouch, Emile Heskey, Jermain Defoe, Wayne Rooney as your forward options; compare that to John Terry, Jamie Carragher, Ledley King, Matthew Upson (ok, fair enough), Michael Dawson (replace Rio Ferdinand who pulled out due to injury) at CB and Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Michael Carrick, Gareth Barry in the centre of midfield.

It feels like in response to those failings there was a conscious decision to actively prioritise ways of developing attacking footballers, perhaps on the assumption that we’d continue to produce good quality CBs and CMs because that’s what we’d been doing anyway.

The England DNA nonsense document was introduced in 2014, when most of these lads were 15/16 and at the point that clubs make decisions about which players they’re going to release from their academies. It seems plausible that the emphasis there would’ve had some influence on how those players progressed.

Obviously it’s hard to make sweeping assertions like this about a generation of English players as they’ve come through at different clubs and each individual club runs their academy in their own way. But a lot of the academy staff at those clubs will have done their coaching badges with the English FA, so what they choose to put on the curriculum for those courses and what sort of teaching they prioritise will influence what sort of methods those coaches use and influence the type of players these academies produce.

Maybe it’s just a fluke, but there are remarkably few central defenders (who play semi-regularly) in top level football who have come through the Premier League academy system.

The only Premier League players from the elite clubs are Craig Cathcart, Jonny Evans, and Michael Keane (Manchester United, Evans and Cathcart joined at 16 from Ireland), Andreas Christensen and Nathan Aké — (Chelsea, joined from Brondby at 15 and Feyenoord at 16), Ben Mee and Eric García (Manchester City, García joined from Barcelona at 16) and Conor Coady (Liverpool, converted central midfielder).

The other guys from clubs that were mostly in the Premier League during their development: John Egan (Sunderland, joined at 17), Shane Duffy (Everton, joined at 16 from Foyle Harps), Chris Basham (Newcastle, released at 16), Tyrone Mings (Southampton, released at 16), Gary Cahill (Aston Villa), James Tomkins and Kortney Hause — (West Ham, Hause released at 16).

(Mings went and played non-league with Chippenham Town and Basham/Hause dotted around various EFL clubs after getting released from big academies.)

The majority have graduated from EFL clubs: Joe Gomez and Ezri Konsa (Charlton), Steve Cook and Lewis Dunk (Brighton), Jack O’Connell and James Tarkowski (Blackburn, Tarkowski was at Oldham from 16), John Stones and Mason Holgate (Barnsley), Jamaal Lascelles (Nottingham Forest), Adam Webster (Portsmouth), Lloyd Kelly (Bristol City), Jack Stephens (Plymouth), Scott Dann (Walsall), Rob Holding (Bolton), and Harry Maguire (Sheffield United).

And there’s a couple from non-league:

Ben Godfrey (York City) , Craig Dawson (Radcliffe Borough), and Dan Burn (released from Newcastle at 11, joined Darlington (I know he plays LB now but has been a CB most of his career)).

It’s possible that there’s just a lag effect — attacking players tend to break through earlier because making mistakes in wide forward areas is less damaging than making mistakes at the back, so managers are happier to take a risk on youngsters in those roles — and there’s a set of great young defenders waiting to get a chance.

But in the recent past, it’s seemed liked Premier League clubs have stopped producing quality CBs. They’ve either signed them from abroad (or imported them from foreign academies at 16) or they’ve relied on the rest of the English football pyramid to produce central defenders for them.



Cast Iron Tactics

I write long, boring, and increasingly deranged articles about football tactics and West Ham @CastIronTactics on Twitter