Arsene Wenger is accustomed to fingers pointed his way when this thorny topic returns to the agenda so he was braced when he heard the one about Roy Hodgson and the vanishing English footballers.
Wenger was the first manager to select an entire match-day squad in the Barclays Premier League with none eligible for England but things have changed at Arsenal in the eight years since.
The Gunners will travel to Fulham on Saturday with five England internationals in the squad: Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott, Kieran Gibbs, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Carl Jenkinson. ‘It’s not my fault Aaron Ramsey is Welsh,’ said Wenger, with a shrug, but the prospect of six Brits in the team is still something of a new concept for him.
Fulham boss Martin Jol, meanwhile, could select an entire team without an English player, as he did against Chelsea on Wednesday.
Wigan regularly field an entirely ‘foreign’ team. So, it is no longer only the big clubs and the figures support England manager Hodgson when he says: ‘I go to quite a few games these days and there are no English players.’
Wenger understands the fears, when allied to an unspectacular national team in a year when no Premier League clubs made it into the last eight of the Champions League.
‘When you go to games and there are no English players, you can complain,’ he said, but the Arsenal boss believes the biggest clubs are starting to produce better players inside their academies.
‘I came up against this subject many times,’ added Wenger. ‘You cannot want to be the best league in the world and close the borders, because then you’re not. So you have to find a good mixture. I think the good mixture is to produce the players from your own academies and buy top, top, top class players.
‘The trend follows the economic strength. When I was at Monaco, all of the players went to Italy. It was the league you wanted to be in. Paul Gascoigne and the best English players went to Italy. Now it is England and the price to pay is that you have fewer English players.
‘Maybe Roy Hodgson is right, a few more would be good. But the trend is changing. I have good young English players who play: Gibbs, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jenkinson, Wilshere and Walcott.’
Wenger was also impressed by the performance of Everton’s 19-year-old midfielder Ross Barkley at the Emirates Stadium on Tuesday. ‘I was surprised by him, he is a good player,’ said the Frenchman. ‘Is he English? You see, there’s another one.
Hodgson spoke out earlier this week. ‘We have one of the lowest numbers of homegrown players and that must put us at a major disadvantage to other nations,’ he said. ‘I go to quite a few games these days and there are no English players. One has to be very careful talking about the Premier League and the Englishness of it because two thirds of the players are not English.’
But the last time Hodgson picked a club side was for West Bromwich Albion, against Arsenal on the final day last season. He started with two players qualified to play for England (Billy Jones and Liam Ridgewell). Wenger started with Jenkinson and brought Gibbs and Walcott on.
‘Let’s not forget that in Germany there are five million people playing football regularly and in England it is 350,000,’ said Wenger. ‘That 4.7m makes a lot of difference. Germany is a country where football is in every village. They have more choice.’
Chelsea, under Gianluca Vialli, were the first team to name an entirely foreign team, at Southampton on Boxing Day 1999.
They started with Ed de Goey, Dan Petrescu, Emerson Thome, Franck Leboeuf, Celestine Babayaro, Albert Ferrer, Didier Deschamps, Gus Poyet, Roberto di Matteo, Gabriele Ambrosetti and Tore Andre Flo. English duo Jody Morris and Jon Harley both came on as subs.
It was on Valentine’s Day in 2005 that Wenger named 16 foreign players against Crystal Palace. The side was: Jens Lehman; Lauren, Kolo Toure, Pascal Cygan, Gael Clichy; Roberto Pires, Patrick Vieira, Edu, Jose Reyes; Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry.
Cesc Fabregas, Mathieu Flamini and Robin van Persie came on. Philippe Senderos and Manuel Almunia were unused subs.
The Premier League have introduced restrictions to the 25-man squad lists, loosely aimed at encouraging more home-grown players but this does not differentiate between those born in England and those born abroad who play for other countries and simply move into finishing schools at the English academies.
It has done nothing to reverse the trend. Not yet. The England manager is still unhappy and fingers are still pointed at Wenger.