We aim to look at which positions English footballers are most successful at. And are the traditional views of English football accurate anymore?
Our first obstacle is: how do you measure the success of a particular position? Any attempt to use subjective information is flawed. If you look at a list of the best current English footballers, forwards would dominate, because they are most notable, as they win games. Does that mean we're better at making forwards? Not necessarily; the situation would be the same for any country.
Similarly, a look at the transfer fees paid for English players would be foolish; it's well established that forwards and midfielders cost more than defenders and goalkeepers. And this excludes players who spend their entire career at one club, or who move on a free transfer. It is also misleading as prices will be influenced by how the player is sold (i.e. a player on the transfer list will cost a lot less than one who isn't; even if their ability is the same). It also can be very hard to find out transfer fees for players, which limits your data.
However, there is one way of measuring player success, where the data is readily available and there is plenty of it. The way we will be measuring the success of various positions is by the proportions of players in that position who are in the Premiership, compared to the lower divisions. Thanks to an almost entirely free market for football players, clubs are only going to sign the best possible players they can. So if there is a particular position the English produce their best players in, then the clubs in the Premiership are clearly more likely to sign them as opposed to a foreign counterpart.
However, going through every domestic squad in England and counting the England and non-English would arduous, and the chance of making a mistake would be quite high. If only there was a database of every squad available, created by the best scouts in the country, with a flexible search option, easily available...
So off to Football Manager I went. I recorded the total English and non-English players in each of the four divisions of the Football League, for the following six positions: goalkeeper, centre back, full back, central midfield, winger, striker. To see the full Excel output, see the Appendix.
One clear problem with just counting the players is that there may not be an equal amount of players in the league for each position. So we needed to normalise the data, and to do this we worked out the percentage of players who were English for each position in each division. This led us to this rather neat graph:
- By far, the weakest position for English footballers is goalkeeper. This may be reflected by the national team. In the 2010 World Cup, the two goalkeepers England used, Robert Green and David James, now ply their trade in the Championship. Since then, a few lower-league players have been called up to the England squad, however only Jay Bothroyd was an outfield player.
- The five outfield positions can be ranked as such: central midfield, full back, centre back, winger, striker (highest to lower). That winger and striker, the two most forward positions, are the lowest is also unsurprising; the traditional view in the English game is that English players are more solid than foreigners, who should be left to try their tricks on the wings or up front. In the Premiership era, most of the most iconic strikers have been foreign (Bergkamp, Cantona, Torres, Henry, Zola...).
The main issue with using Football Manager for data is duplicates. If a player can play in many positions, they will come up in searches for each of those positions, so the difference between certain positions can be blurred, as can the total player counts. For that reason, we should ignore any precise numerical figures from the data. However, the percentages should still be fairly representative, because there is no clear evidence that English are significantly more or less versatile than foreigners.
So from our data, we can see that in the English football league, roughly 81% of players are English, and in the Premiership about 64% are. This may well be the lowest of any domestic top-flight league, however that is a study for another day.
The traditional views of what positions English footballers are good at are not far from the truth. However, the idea of the plucky English goalkeeper, bravely resisting opposition attempts at goal are perhaps overly nostalgic. That the English struggle to produce quality wide players and strikers is further evidence that the development of talent in this country is too physical and not skillful enough. Big powerful strikers and fast wingers are good enough up to a certain level, but you will need to have that extra creative edge to be able to succeed at the top.
Football Manager 2012 - database of players playing in England. Correct as of the end of the summer 2011 transfer window.