There were a lot of raised eyebrows when Kieran Trippier completed his move from Tottenham Hotspur to Atletico Madrid last summer. The right-back became the only Englishman in La Liga but he isn’t the first. More and more English players are choosing to move around Europe with considerable success. This is nothing new but why are so many of them avoiding Spain?
English players playing in mainland Europe have always been out of the norm. Kevin Keegan moved to Hamburg in the 1970s but it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that things really started to change. Gary Lineker, Ray Wilkins, and Paul Gascoigne all had considerable success across Europe, as did Paul Ince and Steve McManaman a decade later.
David Beckham and Michael Owen were the big names of the mid-2000s but there haven’t been too many since. The Welshman Gareth Bale has, of course, been a key part of a hugely successful Real Madrid side but we haven’t seen too many Englishmen abroad in the last decade.
But that is starting to change, especially in Germany. The Jadon Sancho Effect is in full effect. Named after the English youngster who swapped Manchester City for Borussia Dortmund, Sancho has become one of the world’s best young players in the Bundesliga. He scored 12 goals in his first full season in Germany and has already got more in his second.
A relative unknown when he made the move, his success has led to many other clubs in Germany scouring England for young players who are unable to break into the first-team setup in the Premier League. Arsenal’s Reiss Nelson and Emile Smith Rowe spent time on loan in the Bundesliga last season and Everton have sent Ademola Lookman and Jonjoe Kenny there too. Reece Oxford, Keanan Bennetts, and Anthony Evans round off the list of Englishmen playing in Germany.
“It’s an attractive prospect for some of those young players to leave England in order to gain experience by playing in another high-quality league,” claims Joti Chatzialexiou, director of sports at the German Football Association.
“German clubs are always interested in talented players who could later develop into valuable assets.
These are mostly younger players looking to learn their craft and get the first-team exposure they wouldn’t usually have in England. Germany is perfect for that but over the last year, we’ve seen some high-profile players move to Italy as well. There are some marked differences between the Premier League and Serie A, as some current players have noticed.
“In England, you play with much more intensity,” said Angelo Ogbonna in an interview with Betway after he swapped Juventus for West Ham United in 2015.
“In recent years, football has totally changed. It has become more tactical but this is compensated by speed.
“In Italy, the game is very tactical and so even defending is viewed as teamwork. Here, you often find yourself one-on-one against another player duelling with your opponent.”
Perhaps that is why we’ve seen some more experienced English players swap the Premier League for Serie A.
Last summer, both Ashley Young and Chris Smalling headed for the Italian leagues after lengthy periods with Manchester United. Ashley Cole, Micah Richards, and Joe Hart have all done the same in the last few years. It’s interesting that they are all defensive players who made the move in their late-20s or early-30s towards the end of their careers. That may be down to the more tactical nature of Serie A that Ogbonna discussed.
It’s happening all over Europe. Lee Cattermole and Jordan Spence are playing regularly in the Netherlands, as is Stephy Mavididi for Dijon in France. Daniel Sturridge, Cameron Jerome and Steven Caulker are all playing for top flight Turkish clubs. But the same cannot be said of Spain. Kieran Trippier is the only Englishman in La Liga and he has noticed similarities between Spain and Italy.
“In the Premier League, I was too eager to get forward. I feel like here, my understanding of when to go forward, when to defend, my positioning, has been helped a lot,” he told the BBC.
“It starts on the training field. Tactically the manager works with you individually and, for me, man-management is the most important thing and I think he’s unbelievable at that.”
But Trippier is something of an anomaly, as are Atletico Madrid in Spain. La Liga isn’t really a league that can offer young English players a chance at first-team football like the Bundesliga, nor is it a slower-paced, highly-tactical division like Serie A.
It’s somewhere in the middle so it’s hard to see why Spanish clubs would pay the premium price tags on the heads of English players. Until that changes, don’t expect to see too many more like Kieran Tierney in La Liga.