Arsene Wenger is today being quoted as stating that the new Premier League rule reducing squad sizes to 25, as being “a disastrous decision for football and for the players”. When the rule was introduced, the rules stating that Premier League clubs had to have a “Squad List” of just 25, with eight of these being “Home Grown”, it was seen as a great thing for the England football team. The idea was sound in principle, as those sides seen as being full of foreign players, and those teams that were seen to be stockpiling players would have to start to develop more English players, and wouldn’t be able to hoard players. In practice, the reality is very different, and for all the hype behind the introduction of the rule, it’s relatively toothless. In fact as rules go, it’s the on pitch equivalent of the Fit and Proper Persons Test.
For a start, it seems to be aimed at the larger clubs, in terms of keeping their squad sizes down. However, the larger clubs are already used to the rule, as a very similar rule has been in force for the Champions League and the UEFA Cup/Europa League for over a decade. Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United and all the other regulars have been used to dealing with these limits for longer than the Premier League have even been considering it, and Jose Mourinho even imposed 25 man limits on his own squads when he was at Chelsea. But as far as teams stockpiling players is concerned, it’s not going to stop them. For a start, when the ruling was announced, the vast majority of Premier League Clubs had squads of 25 or less to begin with. Secondly, only three clubs are over the 25 man squad limit – Manchester City (31), Wolverhampton Wanderers (28) and Bolton Wanderers (27). All three have been happy to spend money on extra additions over the summer, with Manchester City spending over £60m on adding three extra members to their squads, Wolves adding four players to their squad, and Bolton adding three. Clearly, the ruling hasn’t stopped those clubs adding to their teams, and unless players are shipped out by the end of the transfer window, you’ll be able to field a team of players employed by Premier League clubs, but ineligible to play for them, even in terms of injury crises. And that’s where the first tough decisions for Owen Coyle, Roberto Mancini and Mick McCarthy come in. They have to decide which players they have to jettison from their squad. Let’s say, for example that Coyle omits Riga Mustapha and Danny Shittu from the squad. In December, Coyle has an injury crisis in central defence – the club will be paying thousands and thousands of pounds per week wages on a World Cup defender, yet will be unable to play him. The club will be able to loan these players to Football League clubs outside the transfer window, but Shittu for one refused at least one loan to the Championship last season.
Secondly, the squad limit is only limited to those players not considered “Under 21”, where the Premier League’s definition of “Under 21” is rather oddly a player born on or after 1st January 1989 (rather than using the beginning of the season as a yardstick). So while West Ham United’s Zavon Hines (born 27th December 1988) and Newcastle United’s Andy Carroll (born 6th January 1989) both turn 22 over the course of the season, and Hines is only 10 days older than Carroll, one is considered an “Under 21”, while the other is not. It also means that clubs can stockpile as many of these players as they like, as they are all considered eligible. The so-called big four have stockpiled young players for years, and this ruling only encourages it. In fact, at the time of writing, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United have 108 professional players considered “Under 21” between them, which means that 54% of the players registered to those four clubs were born between January 1989 and July 1993 (you cannot sign professional forms with a club until your seventeenth birthday). In the Premier League as a whole there are at least 287 players*, which relates to 38% of registered professionals in the Premier League. It’s a fair assumption that this will not relate to the matchday squads. That’s a hell of a lot of youngsters not playing football at the most important part of their careers.
And then, we come down to the “Home Grown” rule. The rule was reported in various media outlets that each club has to register 8 players out of 25 as being “Home Grown”. This was seen as being a great fillip to the England team. There was a slight misreporting of the rule. The rule actually states that you can name seventeen players who are not “Home Grown”, and stated no minimum or maximum of “Home Grown” players. So, you can name a 17 man squad with not a single “Home Grown” player. Again, this was seen as cutting back on the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea, who both employ a vast majority of foreign players. Again, this has not happened, as 19 Premier League clubs have seventeen non “Home Grown” players. Only Liverpool have more non “Home Grown” players than they can name, and they only have 18 – Roy Hodgson recent signing of Milan Jovanovic taking them over the limit.
In order to not risk the ire of the European Union, the definition of “Home Grown” players has to avoid stating nationality of the player concerned, and to do this, the Premier League has decided on considering a “Home Grown” player as one who spends three years registered to an English or Welsh club (a consideration made with the possibility of Cardiff City or Swansea City joining the League in the future) before their 21st birthday, or three seasons up to and including the season when they turn 21, regardless of their nationality. As you would expect this sees a lot of players from Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland considered “Home Grown”. It also considers Premier League players from fifteen different countries (including 3 Frenchmen and Nigerians, as well as two each from Cameroon, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and the USA), as well as a number of English capped players born abroad and English born players who have chosen to represent nations of their parents or grandparents birth. One English International who isn’t considered as “Home Grown” is Owen Hargreaves, who is considered to have been trained in Canada and Germany.
For those interested, despite Wenger’s claims, Arsenal only have 20 players they need to name, in their squad, of which only 12 are not considered “Home Grown”. Of the 8 that are considered “Home Grown”, they include players from Brazil, Cameroon, Denmark, France, Italy, Spain and Switzerland. Only Jay Simpson is English. For those wondering how their Premier League club fares under the new ruling, here is the state of each squad at the time of writing:
|West Bromwich Albion||22||10||12||7|
|West Ham United||22||11||11||13|
“Squad List” refers to the number of players eligible for the Squad List. Numbers in bold are where the club currently exceeds the maximum allowed.
For a ruling that on the face of it is designed to protect the England team, and force clubs to cut back on their numbers of players they employ, it seems to be a ruling that is not only toothless on both fronts, but also could backfire, as clubs stockpile young players on a greater scale, but adding more talented foreigners to their ranks, so that they can be considered “Home Grown” in the future. All in all, it doesn’t appear to affect current players, which explains why the PFA sanctioned, rather than condemned the rule. After all, the ruling only currently affects four clubs, all of whom who have added to their squads over the summer, and the players left behind will still be paid, and available to be loaned elsewhere. It’s almost as though the Premier League clubs have designed and ratified a rule to benefit rather than hinder themselves. After all, it is the Premier League clubs that have to create and vote on their own rules.
* For some clubs, identifying which “Under 21” players are professionals, and which are academy players not registered as professionals is trickier than others. When in doubt the player is not considered to be a professional, so the “Under 21” figures may be a little conservative.