How Premier League starlets are cutting ties and going to Germany and Portugal

Arsenal youth-team graduates Chris Willock and Kaylen Hinds are just two players who have joined foreign clubs this summer, tempted by regular first-team football and new experiences

‘This was a huge decision for me and my family to make. And not one we made lightly,” wrote Chris Willock. “I’m excited at the opportunity to play for @slbenfica. It’s a new challenge, new culture and new group of players! Looking forward to showing them what I’ve got!”

Less than a month after posting that emotional farewell message on his Instagram account, the forward, 19, who joined Arsenal at the age of five finally made his first senior appearance at the Emirates Stadium in the famous red and white shirt of the Portuguese champions. Replacing Franco Cervi with 17 minutes to go of their pre-season friendly against his former club, the teenager from Waltham Forest, who Arsène Wenger tipped for stardom in 2014 after he caught the eye in another friendly against Boreham Wood, showed glimpses of why the Benfica manager, Rui Vitória, immediately decided to promote him to his first-team squad after watching him train for the first time.

Willock – whose older brother Matty is a member of Manchester United’s Under-23 squad, while his younger sibling Joe, 17, was also singled out by Wenger last week as one for the future – is the latest in an increasing number of young English players looking to further their careers overseas. The highly rated West Ham prospect Reece Oxford moved to Borussia Mönchengladbach on loan for the season in June, joining the former Crystal Palace and England youth midfielder Mandela Egbo, while Willock’s former team-mate Kaylen Hinds followed Andries Jonker to Wolfsburg when the Dutchman left his role as Arsenal’s head of academy.

The Bundesliga has proved to be a popular destination in recent years – a trend started with Dale Jennings and Michael Mancienne in 2011, who joined Bayern Munich and Hamburg respectively. Yet while the latter was a relative success, playing nearly 50 matches for a side who frequently flirted with relegation before he moved to Nottingham Forest, the former Tranmere winger Jennings failed to make the breakthrough at Bayern and is now without a club at the age of 24 after spells at Barnsley and MK Dons.

His experience does not seem to have put off a new generation from trying their luck. Danny Collinge, an 18-year-old defender who has played for several of England’s youth sides, is making steady progress at Stuttgart since making the leap in 2014 while Oliver Burke – the Scotland winger signed by RB Leipzig from Forest last January for £13m – played only a bit-part role in their surprise second-place finish in the Bundesliga last season and has returned to England with West Bromwich Albion.

Leipzig and Borussia Dortmund, who have focused on the recruitment of some of the world’s best emerging stars in recent months, have also been linked with a move for Manchester City’s Jadon Sancho after he was voted the player of the tournament at the European Under-17s Championship in May. A summer that has seen England’s youth sides excel, winning the Under-20 World Cup and the European Under-19s as well as losing on penalties in the final of the Under-17s to Spain is only likely to increase the demand from overseas.

“I don’t think it’s that English players have been reluctant to go abroad but rather the other way around,” says David Mannasseh, the managing director of Stellar Group, who brokered the deal that took Hinds, a striker who has 10 goals in 15 appearances for England at various youth levels, to Wolfsburg for £2m and also arranged the move by Chelsea’s Mason Mount to Vitesse Arnhem.

“That is starting to change now, although it’s still important that the clubs are able to find out whether they are the sort of person who is going to be able to settle in a new country. Kaylen has been having German lessons and is living on his own, which is so important for the whole experience.

“ You need people in these countries to help with the players and having offices around Europe is allowing us to help these boys settle when they’re over there. It’s not so easy – you land in another country and you’ve got to hit the ground running.”

Given that statistics from the CIES Football Observatory show nine of Europe’s top 25 clubs with the youngest average age are based in Germany, it’s no surprise the Bundesliga is becoming a more and more attractive finishing school.

For example, Gladbach’s sporting director, Max Eberl, has set a target of producing a third of all the club’s first-team players within five years, while Germany’s double success at the European Under-21 Championship and Confederations Cup this summer with a side comprised largely of players under the age of 25 shows the approach is paying dividends.

“We looked at the options in England outside the Premier League and the Championship and then we weighed up playing in one of the top leagues in Europe and felt that would open up more doors for Kaylen,” Mannasseh says. “Europe is as competitive now as the Premier League on the pitch and catching up with the financial side.”

By contrast, Liverpool and Tottenham were the only two English sides to make the top 25 sides with the youngest average age last season, with the majority of the rest made up of clubs from France’s Ligue 1.

Other than Jon Bostock, the former Crystal Palace and Tottenham midfielder who resurrected his career in Belgium before moving to Lens in Ligue 2, no English players have made a career in France since David Beckham’s brief loan spell at Paris Saint-Germain in 2013. But with young prospects Kylian Mbappé and Ousmane Dembélé now among the most sought after in Europe and more French players playing Champions League football than any other nation, it may only be a matter of time before England’s young stars decide to cross the Channel in order to further their football education.