The pool of talent available to Fabio Capello fell away alarmingly last season
By Simon Austin and Matt Slater
The number of England-qualified players starting in the Premier League dropped to an all-time low last season, research by BBC Sport has found.
Only 170 of the 498 players who started matches in the top flight in 2007-08 were English - just 34.1% of the total.
It marks a big slide from 2006-07, when 191 (38%) of the starters were English.
"The number is important because that's what I can choose from," said England manager Fabio Capello when asked about BBC Sport's findings on Tuesday.
"But more important is quality - the level of the player. At the moment the total is 34% but the (quality) level is high.
"The work being done in the academies is very important. We probably have to change the system of training for young players.
Capello stresses the importance of quality over quantity
"At Under-21, and younger national teams, we have a lot of good players.
"For the future, I hope next season is not 34% but 40%. It will be better for me and England football."
At first glance, Capello's diplomatic answer would seem to make complete sense. After all, only last week two English clubs played in the Champions League final and 10 of the 22 starters were English.
But the fact remains that his side is preparing for two end-of-season friendlies this week - against the USA on Wednesday and Trinidad and Tobago on Sunday - and not this summer's Euro 2008.
Sepp Blatter, the president of world football's governing body Fifa, is convinced he knows the answer to England's problems: restricting the number of foreign starters each club is allowed to five.
Despite widespread concern his plan is incompatible with European Union employment law (and robust opposition from the Premier League on principle), Blatter is determined to press on with his "six plus five" scheme.
If successful, this move would represent a huge challenge for English clubs. Last season, fewer than one in five starting line-ups would have met Blatter's quota.
West Ham showed the most faith in English talent, Arsenal the least
On average, there were only four players available for England duty in each Premier League starting line-up last season.
Arsenal had the lowest number of English starters, averaging 0.34 per match, while West Ham had the highest number, with 6.61.
The Hammers and Aston Villa (6.42) were the only two clubs in the Premier League to average more than six English starters last term, while the big four of Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool, averaged just 2.64 per game.
These figures compare unfavourably with the situation in Scotland, where there were 6.27 Scotland-qualified players per starting line-up in the Scottish Premier League.
While only 18% of English line-ups met the quota, 56.8% of Scotland's starting XIs would have satisfied Blatter. In fact, six of the 12 SPL teams - Aberdeen, Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Kilmarnock, St Mirren, Motherwell and Rangers - met the "six plus five" rule in every match.
Scotland, of course, also failed to qualify for Euro 2008 but the English numbers are also considerably worse than Europe's other major leagues.
English clubs are more reliant on foreign talent than their European counterparts
Taking the last weekend of the season as a snapshot, the disparity in resources the England manager has at his disposal when compared to his counterparts on the continent becomes quickly apparent.
The final round of fixtures in Italy - the home of the current world champions - saw 7.3 Italians start per Serie A team. In Spain it was 6.9 Spaniards per La Liga side, and in Germany it was 4.9 Germans in each Bundesliga XI.
Those three nations all qualified for Euro 2008 and are once again among the bookmakers' favourites to claim success when the final is played in Vienna on 29 June.
The Premier League, however, rejected any attempt to link England's failings on the international stage with the number of foreign players appearing at domestic level.
We must raise standards, not implement something that would create a broader pool of average players rather than a deeper one of the right level of talent
Premier League statement
"Merely looking at numbers of England players in the Premier League is a blunt and misleading measure as to how well the national team should be doing," a Premier League statement explained.
"After all, in the 70s and 80s the vast majority of players in the top flight were eligible for England yet we routinely struggled to qualify for tournaments, let alone perform in them.
"Our figures show this season nearly 40% of the starting XIs were qualified to play for England, 10 of whom played in the Champions League Final, arguably the highest standard of football in the world.
"There is no shortage of players at the highest level to pick from but we all want to see more Englishmen capable of performing at this level.
"That is why Premier League clubs invest more than £40m a season in youth development, that is why the Premier League, along with the FA and the Football League, are driving through reforms to ensure the quality of coaching and player development is of the highest standard.
"We must raise standards, not implement something that will never happen under European law and would only create a broader pool of average players rather than a deeper one of the right level of talent for Premier League clubs and England."
That Premier League clubs like to scour the globe for playing talent is not news to anybody but what will worry Capello and his bosses at the Football Association, this country's governing body, is that the situation is deteriorating.
The previous lowest number of English starters had been 179 in the 2002-03 season.
There were 207 English starters in the 2000-01 season, according to the "Meltdown" report produced by the Professional Footballers' Association last year.
This figure fell to 199 in 2001-02 and slid to 179 the following season.
There was a small rise in the number of English starters in each of the next four seasons but the heavy fall this season will cause concern at the FA's Soho Square headquarters no matter what Capello says in public.
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