It has long been the case that English players do not leave the Premier League whilst still being in the England setup. In the recent past, the only buck in the trend was David Beckham. He was still heavily involved for England whilst playing for Real Madrid and even his move to Spain was made almost 20 years ago.
Everyone else was playing for the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, and Tottenham Hotspur. That’s why it has been so interesting in recent years to see young English players make the decision to move abroad and ply their trade elsewhere.
It’s a serious risk. You’re less visible to the coach, and you’re less visible for the majority of England fans and public opinion can be a big deal when it comes to England call-ups. You’re essentially easier to ignore or miss.
English players across Europe
We’ll get to the English Serie A contingent in a moment but there are examples of English youngsters heading abroad for more game time that help to set a scene. Jadon Sancho was arguably the most high-profile example in recent years. He left Manchester City when it was clear he wouldn’t be getting serious game time, and headed to Borussia Dortmund.
The fact that he performed so well in Germany has to have been a part of why many others have followed suit. In 137 games for Dortmund, Sancho scored 50 times and got 64 assists. That led to the €85 million switch to Manchester United and the opportunity for regular starts in the Premier League.
The fact that he hasn’t made a splash at United yet is its own separate story, but that is assumedly the school of thought for young English players heading abroad. You leave a top Premier League club, perform really well with less pressure elsewhere, and then get a move back to England and a regular starting spot.
It’s something that Sporting Clube de Portugal forward Marcus Edwards has also done, with less fanfare than Sancho. He left Tottenham permanently for Vitoria Guimaraes and then moved on to Sporting. He’s got 10 goals and nine assists in 34 Sporting games and whilst not in the England picture, his name is cropping up more readily.
Other talented players who have moved abroad include Jude Bellingham (Borussia Dortmund), Callum Hudson-Odoi (Bayer Leverkusen), Jamie Bynoe-Gittins (Borussia Dortmund), Reece Oxford (Augsburg), Folarin Balogun (Reims), Noni Madueke (PSV), Jarrad Branthwaite (PSV), Angel Gomes (Lille) and plenty more.
English players in Serie A
Many of the players mentioned above are not at an age or level where they should be in the picture for England, but it is no secret that they will have to go above and beyond a Premier League player in order to get picked for England in the near future.
There is an engrained snobbery within English football towards other European leagues. That feeling of ‘well yeah they’re playing well, but it’s in (insert other league here)’.
When it comes to Serie A, there are two players that had a serious claim to being in the England World Cup squad, one even more so than the other.
Fikayo Tomori was the major talking point of the day when Gareth Southgate announced his squad for Qatar. The AC Milan defender has been performing at a very high level ever since, much like Sancho, he made the decision to leave a major Premier League side (Chelsea) and move abroad.
The 24-year-old is in his second season with Milan and whilst his form has dipped very minorly in 2022/23 compared to 2021/22, he is performing better than the likes of Harry Maguire and Conor Coady, and possibly Eric Dier too. All three of them are heading to Qatar.
Tomori is fit, plays every week, and has had two genuinely bad performances in the past year and a half. They both came against Chelsea in the Champions League this season and one of them only lasted 18 minutes when he was unfairly sent off.
If those displays are what made up Southgate’s mind, then it seems Tomori will need to become the best defender in Europe to be an England starter. We can’t see what happens behind the scenes and how Tomori has gelled with the squad when he has been called up in the past, but nothing at Milan has ever suggested he is a problematic character in any way.
The situation with Tammy Abraham is not quite as severe as Tomori for two reasons – one being that there is a lot more competition for places in attack for England, so even if he were selected, he would have seen minimal minutes on the pitch.
The other is that the former Chelsea man has been bang out of form for AS Roma. In the 2021/22 season, he scored 27 times across all competitions. Incidentally, between August 2021 and May 2022, he played in four England games (starting once) and scored two goals and got an assist. That suggests he would need to produce Ballon d’Or figures at Roma to get a starting role for England.
This season, the 25-year-old has only scored four goals in 19 games. That poor form, coupled with Callum Wilson’s incredible form with Newcastle United, meant that he was unlikely to head to Qatar.
What is problematic when it comes to Abraham, is Southgate’s comment after the selection when he said: “Tammy has had a poor run of scoring at the wrong time.
“It is not a case where we are three or four weeks away from the first match, we are now ten days, so form could be more important.”
That’s fine, but it’s at odds with his selection of a player like Harry Maguire who has barely featured for Manchester United this season over Tomori. It would be fairer to just say that he has more faith in Wilson right now and there isn’t room for both.
It should be said, Chris Smalling is a slightly separate case given he has not featured for England since 2017. His recent form is probably worthy of a place in the England squad but a call-up probably wouldn’t be on the cards even if he were in England.
Could England’s World Cup squad discourage others from heading to Serie A?
It certainly seems like the criteria are different for the English players who are in Serie A. Both Tomori and Abraham, whilst occasionally linked with Premier League sides, both seem extremely settled in Italy and are not pursuing a move.
This continual snubbing from Southgate could make them wonder whether a return to the Premier League is what it will take to get back into the England setup when it really matters.
When Sancho was at Dortmund, it was always clear that he was plotting a move back to England, and it is only his poor United form that has stopped him from going to the World Cup.
There is a very real chance that players like Tomori and Abraham will entertain a Serie A departure in the near future to make sure they get to represent their country at major tournaments. By the same token, other talented English players may be put off a permanent move to Italy as they will feel like they are going into international exile.
Serie A is richer for the presence of intelligent, young, English players who have bucked the historic trend and made a serious effort to learn Italian and settle into life in a new country. It would be a real shame to lose that thanks to a Premier League-centric national team setup.