When Oliver Burke, 19, turned down an offer to play for Tottenham Hotspur and chose RB Leipzig instead, it caused a stir in the British media—how could such a talented young Brit “snub” a Premier League title contender for a German team named after an energy drink?
The Scottish winger has appeared in eight games for Leipzig, notching two assists and scoring his first Bundesliga goal September 25 against FC Köln. In his mind, his decision has already been vindicated.
“For a young man I don’t want to go somewhere that is a big club and be thinking am I going to play? Am I going to progress?” he revealed. “Or are they just going to stick me out on loan, which happens a lot at English clubs.”
Players rarely voice those concerns publicly, but they surely resonated with every young British player who’ve been approached by high-caliber clubs. Though the Premier League is the indisputable pinnacle of the English-speaking football world, if more in spectacle than in substance, so why would anyone turn it down? British football culture is famously skeptical of natives who chose to leave the island to play on the continent or, heaven forbid, further afield; it signals either a player’s inability to play at Premier League standards or their intention to retire.
Some of the responses to Joe Hart’s one-season loan to Torino, for instance, read a bit like obituaries. Jack Wilshere’s potential move to Roma was met with similar skepticism, but crisis was averted when he went to Bournemouth instead of the Eternal City.
Yet as Burke said, staying in Britain often means either less playing time or a going on a succession of loans. The Premier League’s elite status makes it extremely difficult for young players to break into the first team, even for domestic prospects; moreover having the eyes of the world upon you isn’t necessarily the best thing for a developing player.
Take Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge, who scored for England against Burke’s Scotland Saturday but who cannot seem to find his place in the first team at Anfield. Sturridge, he of the 22-goal season a few years back, still gets regular call-ups for the national team, yet his club seems to have moved on from him. Even as he scores goals in League Cup starts, he languishes on the sideline while Firmino dominates the starting role when it counts. Also lost in the mix at Liverpool is Divock Origi, a young Belgian international who would almost certainly be starting if he played in any other league.
Jack Wilshere is another Englishman who has gone from potential England captain to Premier League benchwarmer. Injuries and his own off-field behavior have exacerbated his situation, but his case exemplifies how these issues can be magnified in a high-pressure setting. Arsenal gave the young Wilshere his chances, trying him in various positions as he developed in order to figure out the best fit, but he has not been able to re-establish himself amidst a series of setbacks. Nobody disputes his talent, but he has yet to show consistent value to an elite team.
The Premier League is not kind to unknown quantities. Clubs like Arsenal are multinational brands who can’t afford to wait and see whether a player gets over their particular issues; or, rather, they can afford to bring in replacements, which the rigorous competition often demands.
Even when their younger players are healthy and focused, can Premier League managers be blamed for not starting them more often? They work under the kind of scrutiny normally reserved for the Clintons and Kardashians of the world. Their average tenure, even factoring in Arsene Wenger’s two decades of service, is under two years. They answer to boards who know there are dozens of men eager to replace them and fans for whom the continued excellence of their club is not so much an expectation as a birthright.
In these conditions, it usually makes sense to go with the safer option: subbing on young players in the dying minutes of already-decided games. The Wengers, Klopps, and Guardiolas of the world have immense financial resources at their disposal. When you’re trying to win the league, why play a recuperating Wilshere over an in-form Mesut Özil?
More and more, young players who can’t crack the starting eleven go out on loan. Chelsea set a new league record with 38 players loaned out this season, who are almost all prospects with their sights set on making the first team. Most of them came up with Chelsea’s youth squad, but it’s few will ever feature in the first team. Players like Patrick Bamford and Lucas Piazón can expect two to four years of bouncing around the lower English leagues or other European leagues on loan, all to earn the right to fight for playing time with Diego Costa, Eden Hazard, or whomever the super club purchases next.
This isn’t necessarily a poor strategy on the part of Chelsea, currently second in the Premier League table, but players like Burke have a right to opt out. Several Bundesliga clubs are making a point of giving young players a fighting chance in the first team this season, and the results have been exciting for all involved. Thomas Tuchel, whose Borussia Dortmund boasts one of the world’s finest youth systems, has made sure that 18-year-old Christian Pulisic gets a fair amount of time in a rotation that includes German international Marco Reus and another budding star, Ousmane Dembélé. The American has scored twice and added three assists in eight Bundesliga appearances, and Dembélé has had similar success. Tuchel’s platoon has proven that, even at the highest level, choosing between world-renowned veterans and promising debutantes doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game.
Burke’s Leipzig, the league’s youngest team, have gone all-in on prospects, signing 20-year-old striker Timo Werner and 21-year-old Davie Selke to lead their charge into the top flight. Werner has tallied five goals and three assists and, even at his age, provides Red Bull—sorry, that’s RasenBallsport—with several years of Bundesliga experience. A product of Werder Bremen’s youth system, Werner debuted at 17 and has already seen far more top-flight minutes than most of Chelsea’s loanees.
The Bundesliga certainly rivals the Premier League in terms of the overall level of competition, but some English speakers insist nothing comes close to their league’s intensity. It’s worth asking, however, as Simon Kuper recently did over at ESPNFC, if that intensity is always a good thing. Perhaps a little less outside pressure makes the Bundesliga a little more welcoming to developing players. Or perhaps Germans are simply more willing to put their faith in unproven youngsters, having watched as a commitment to youth development brought them to World Cup glory in 2014.
Not every young British player can hop on a plane and go start for a Bundesliga club, nor should they, but they would do well to seriously consider playing on the continent. The Premier League will always be there to hoover up the world’s greatest players at the height of their talent, but that doesn’t mean all domestic talent must develop domestically. If you believe you’re capable of one day winning the Premier League, how would you rather spend your formative years: challenging for a Bundesliga title, or going on consecutive loans to MK Dons, Derby, and Vitesse?