The first few weeks of a Premier League season present a bevvy of new faces for fans to take in and study.
Whether they’re from Peru or near Paddington Station, the sense of intrigue that trails these players is what makes the return of the football season so exciting. Those new faces are the physical embodiment of our hopes and fears for the campaign, and they build a reputation with each good or bad touch.
The start of the 2019-2020 season has brought with it those same new faces, but also an interesting trend — starts for young English players in the top six.
“I make it 22 English starters at the top 6 clubs this weekend - the most in nearly six years,” Omar Chaudhuri, Head of Football Intelligence at the 21st Club, tweeted after the opening weekend. “With an average age of 23.5, there hasn’t been this many English starters at the big 6, with an average age so low, since early 2007.”
It began on Friday night with Liverpool against Norwich City. Joe Gomez started alongside Virgil van Dijk at centre-back, while Trent Alexander-Arnold maintained his position at right-back.
At Tottenham Hotspur, the departure of Kieran Trippier to Atletico Madrid has opened a space for Kyle Walker-Peters, much to the delight of Spurs fans. During the last two seasons, the 22-year-old has clocked up less than 600 Premier League minutes with Spurs. This year he already has almost 250, with only three games played.
While Chelsea have undoubtedly been impacted by a transfer ban, others have chosen to integrate youngsters. Arsenal signed six first-team players this summer, but four of those new arrivals started on the bench in their season opener against Newcastle United.
Instead, Unai Emery put his faith in Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Reiss Nelson, and Joe Willock to varying degrees. The game at St James’ Park represented Willock’s second start in the space of a few months, while Nelson was returning to Premier League action with the Gunners for the first time since April 2018, after spending last season on loan at Hoffenheim in the Bundesliga.
It was the first time Arsenal named two English teenagers in their starting XI for a Premier League game since February 1998 (the duo that day were Paolo Vernazza and Matthew Upson vs Crystal Palace). Willock maintained his place for the trip to Anfield at the weekend (as did Maitland-Niles) and produced a solid showing defined by driving runs into the final third.
As for Chelsea, Frank Lampard’s weekend was made better by his first Premier League win, and it was a success fuelled by English youngsters.
Lampard was not afraid to use young players at Derby Count, and on Saturday Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount scored all three of Chelsea’s goals, (in what was Chelsea’s youngest starting XI since 1994). The duo will likely maintain their place in the team, while Callum Hudson-Odoi, Reece James, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Fikayo Tomori will also push for opportunities this season under Lampard.
“We’ve had managers at Chelsea where they’d be 50 yards away, there’d be a Champions League U19s game going on, and the manager’s sat in his office, rather than coming out to watch,” Jody Morris, Lampard’s assistant, and former Chelsea youth coach, said in September last year. “It’s very disheartening. It’s not my place to go over there and start talking to managers, but some managers aren’t interested - they don’t care about youth.”
Elsewhere, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has introduced a big-money signing Aaron Wan-Bissaka but also trusted academy graduate Mason Greenwood after the teenager showed well in Man Utd’s pre-season fixtures.
“Towards the end of last season we didn’t score a lot of goals, and you do think players will have an impact and Mason Greenwood pathway would have been a lot more different if we had another forward there and I believe Mason is going to be playing and involved a lot and when he is he’s going to score goals,” Solskjaer said this month.
The fact three of England’s top six are in the process of rebuilding may shorten the depth of competition for the biggest prize, but it has clearly opened up opportunities for English youngsters. In the past, the scarcity of these openings has forced players to seek playing time elsewhere (often in the Football League), but it would seem the landscape is now changing.
The idea that English youngsters are getting consistent opportunities — in the top six and even further down the league can only be a good thing for the national team, especially with the European Championships slowly creeping into view. And it means those same fans, eager for the birth of a new star at their club, could also be watching the beginning of a successful professional career.