In a league oft defined by a propensity to shun the complexities of in-depth scouting networks – and instead throw their cash at fashionable players emerging domestically – it is perhaps surprising that Premier League clubs do not delve into the lower leagues more frequently. Whilst those at the very top confuse inflated fees with genuine quality and abuse their own financial might by ignoring the greater intricacies of global scouting networks (think Liverpool’s constant raiding of Southampton players), England’s mid-table clubs resort largely to finding young gems in mainland Europe (think Newcastle and Aston Villa).
But a recent flurry of Premier League goals scored by players poached from the Football League – Dele Alli, Benik Afobe, Odion Ighalo, Charlie Austin, and Jamie Vardy to name a few – have shown why the transfer strategies of England’s finest may be hugely flawed. Afobe has scored in two successive games, Ighalo and Vardy have bagged 30 between them for the league’s two surprise packages, and Austin scored on his debut at Old Trafford on Saturday; in a season when goalscoring has been a serious problem for all of the top clubs, how is it that Championship players are providing so much of the firepower?
The Championship is a misunderstood league. Many of the attributes needed to achieve success in England’s second tier are easily transferable to the Premier League, but this fact is often masked – and talented individuals become lost amidst the chaos of competition. It is arguably the most challenging division in the country; there is a very small gap in quality between the top and the bottom, and the tactical preferences of clubs are less idealistic than those in the tier above.
An absence of clear variety in tactical style creates complex, gritty matches often defined by sudden flashes of quality. It is for this reason that strikers are the most frequently poached from the lower leagues; goals are quantitatively measured, and thus the quality of these individuals is far easier to spot. Clearly, if players like Ighalo, Vardy, and Alli can adapt to Premier League level so quickly and expertly then there must be players in less glamorous positions equally capable of making the leap.
Some of the best young English players came through Football League youth systems. This is a fact plainly overlooked by many, but one that offers an interesting insight into the value of game time during teenage years and the lessons that Premier League scouts can learn. Chris Smalling played for Maidstone United until he was 19, Fabian Delph was plucked from Leeds at 20, and John Stones from Barnsley at 19. You can also add to this list Ashley Young, Adam Lallana, Gareth Barry, Joe Hart, and Danny Ings.
All of these players will have learnt to become more adaptable, stronger, and direct whilst scrapping it out at a lower level, and, of course, were then capable of making an impact in the Premier League far quicker than a player signed from abroad.
It is difficult to deny that more effort should be made to sign English players from smaller clubs; the difference in quality is never as big as many people think (hence why newly promoted clubs so rarely plummet straight back down), and the amount of money and time that could be saved makes it well worth a punt. West Ham’s recent acquisition of Sam Byram could prove to be a very astute piece of business, as could Leicester’s capture of Demarai Gray.
Below are just a few examples of players that deserve their chance at the highest level, and who would come for a lower fee and ready for a more immediate impact than signings from Europe:
Rhodes has been one of the most consistent goal-scorers in the Championship over the past three seasons, amassing 56 league goals in 116 games. A combative striker adept at holding up the ball and finishing with his head, Rhodes would surely be an ideal signing for any struggling Premier League club in search of a striker with bite. Crystal Palace should be interested, but currently it is Swansea, Middlesbrough, and West Ham being linked with £11 million offers before the window closes.
For £8 million, it seems as though Premier League clubs are not willing to take a gamble on Fulham’s 29-year-old attacking midfielder. McCormack has already scored 15 goals this term, and is very unlucky to have never been handed an opportunity at the highest level after so consistently performing for Cardiff, Leeds, and Fulham.
Forestieri has been a revelation for Sheffield Wednesday this season, helping them launch a surprise play-off bid with 11 goals and three assists. The Argentinian is a nimble, quick-footed playmaker who is dribbling through defences with ease in the Championship; he would make a fantastic addition to any Premier League team in the bottom half of the table.
Judge is Brentford’s most important central midfielder and a player of high intelligence and instinctive positioning skills; he is not only a versatile destroyer but also an elegant passer of the ball, controlling midfield in most matches. He also boasts a remarkable record of 15 goals and 20 assists in his last 66 Championship games. Assuming Brentford do not win promotion this season, he should be a primary target for a host of Premier League outfits.
The main reason Middlesbrough have conceded just 14 times this season is Daniel Ayala’s imperious defending. The Spaniard was highly regarded when he joined Liverpool as a teenager, but has only found his feet since signing for Boro three years ago. Averaging 3.5 interceptions and 5.2 clearances per game, he is a strong, quick centre-back that will play a crucial part in Middlesbrough’s Premier League campaign next season – unless a bigger club comes in for him first.
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