Thursday, 26 March 2015

From the sublime to the ridiculous

What with the recent well publicised and much debated failure of English sides in Europe this season, I thought it was perhaps interesting to look back to the heady days of 2008 when English football was celebrating three teams in the semi-finals of the Champions League for successive years and looking forward to an all Premier League clash in Moscow.

The following piece was written seven years ago (to be found here: in the build-up to the last four of the European Cup when it seemed that Premier League dominance was here to stay, although that was really to be the high watermark at current time of writing. So what has gone wrong since?
It’s interesting to note, and as I referenced in the article which has also been reposted below, that the dominant position of English club football was coming just at the time when a major international tournament was approaching – Euro 2008 – at which England didn’t have an invite to the party. The soul searching that had accompanied that sodden night at Wembley the winter before had been eclipsed somewhat by the machine of the Premier League as it steamrollered over Europe’s finest. The concern that many were highlighting at the time was that English, as in English clubs, success in Europe was in no way really connected to English players or managers. That is something that clearly hasn’t changed, if anything it’s a situation that’s got worse.
With 16 teams left in Europe this season, across the two UEFA competitions, there is just the solitary Englishman, so when people try to look for why English teams are not succeeding in Europe, it’s difficult to get a firm grasp, given that the majority of players playing for these teams are not actually English. It’s not like failure of the English national team, that’s far easier to conceptualise – English players not being good enough. As you will read in the post from 2008, one quote that I found striking at the time when trying to look at the opposite, i.e. why were English teams doing so well in the Champions League – once again with little actual English involvement - was from an Italian journalist called Guido Santevecchi. In his eyes, the foreign players that had come to England had taken on board the classic English, and positively Alan Hansenesque sounding attributes of pace, power and commitment, but also retained their skills and technique, well drilled by tactically astute foreign managers. Given that was a theory back then, what is the theory now?
In can of course be hard in one year to try and draw any wide consensus opinion – it may just be a coincidental series of individual failures on each of the English teams from which there is no wider conclusion to be drawn. However there is a clear negative trend in the experiences of Premier League teams over the past several years. Losses to traditional European powerhouses such as Bayern Munich or Barcelona can be written off but there have been defeats to teams with access to far less resources than the riches of the Premier League.
Has the style of play of the English teams changed dramatically? That’s hard to say. Tactics change over time and different strategies become en vogue but the overall speed and ferocity of the English game remains unchecked and as the overseas players and managers ply their trade over here longer they become more accustomed with its ways, picking up the bad habits. Perhaps then it’s the skillset of the players being brought in to fulfil the requirements of the English game that’s the issue; physical attributes being more valued than skill and technique. So while their passports may not say it, they are essentially ‘English’ at heart. With players being signed from abroad at younger and younger ages, technically counted as ‘home grown’, nationality is less important; they’ve now been indoctrinated into the wrong way to play.
It may just be then, that whereas success in the last decade was down to foreign players and managers taking on the best parts of the English game and unleashing it with their own know how on unsuspecting teams from the continent, failings in European competitions now are as a result of failings in the way English clubs play the game regardless of where a player is actually born and raised. And that is a scary proposition, even stuffed with foreign players English teams are losing out in Europe due to their players being ‘too English’.            
The post below was originally written in 2008 for
Chances are that the final of the Champions League on the 21st May will be a very English Affair. In a city closed off to the western world for much of its recent history, the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow is set to be the scene of an Anglo invasion. Three of the four remaining semi- finalists proudly fly the flag for the Premier League; an English triumph behind the former iron curtain seems almost to be inevitable.
This season, no other league has been able to step up and match the dominance of the sides crossing the English Channel to do battle with their European neighbours. Barcelona may have reached the semi-finals themselves and be the last obstacle standing in the way of an eleventh English triumph in the competition, but Spain’s other challengers all fell by the wayside before the quarter finals. Italy, the other traditionally dominant power in the competition’s history had only AS Roma to represent them in the last eight. In fact last year, the semi-finals had something of a similar look to them, what with Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea all achieving spots in the last four and while AC Milan eventually went onto triumph, the success of Premier league clubs in Europe’s elite club competition has led many to declare that English football is the strongest in the world. But is this newly acquired dominance of the Champions League necessarily such a fantastic thing for the future of English football?
The absorbing and emotionally draining clash between Liverpool and Arsenal, England’s other representative in this seasons’ Champions League, last week garnered many plaudits. Press from all over Europe showered the quality and excitement produced by this encounter with praise and declared the strength and prosperity of the English game. Much beating of chests has taken place in this country, with pundits, the media and fans all happy to show their delight at a turn of events that appears to show the vitality of the Premiership and its position above both La Liga and Serie A when it comes to international bragging rights. Yet whilst so much praise has fallen on the drama that took place at Anfield, the fact remains that over the two legs only four of the players appearing in the 180 minutes are qualified to play for England. Whilst Steven Gerrard struck the decisive penalty and Theo Walcott so nearly won the tie for Arsenal with an intoxicating run to set up Emmanuel Adebayor’s goal, surely one must point out that at the Emirates in the 1st leg, there were more players eligible to play for Spain starting the game than those Fabio Capello could potentially call upon.
So is the great success of the ‘English teams’ great for the ‘English game’? The debate over how much of an influence the lack of English players playing in the Premiership has had on the fortunes of the English national team is nothing new. The influx of foreign players has unquestionably boosted the game in this country and raised collective standards to higher levels, yet whilst Manchester United and Chelsea it could be argued still institute an English core to their teams, it is highly debatable just how ‘English’ these triumphs really are. None of the so called ‘big four’ have English managers. Indeed the majority are not English owned. Yet while one can bang this somewhat nationalistic drum about the lack of English involvement in English success does any of that really matter?
Honestly? Speaking truthfully? I think if you asked the majority at Anfield, Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge last week then you would get the same answer; does any of that matter? Not one bit. The passport may not be English, but the shirt still carries the same badge. The language may be different from that spoken on the terraces, yet the stadium still has an English postcode. The manager may have served his apprenticeship elsewhere yet the identity of the club’s fans does not change, and to many, the fact that so many of the best players, coaches and managers from all over the world chose to come to these shores shows the strength of the English game – this is the country they all want to play in.
And the style remains. Despite the influx of scores of international footballers, the pace of the English game remains unrelenting. It may now be more refined and pragmatic, driven by European hands when it enters foreign climes but the English game retains many of its core elements. Watching the game at Anfield, one could be hardly blamed for believing that the 22 on show were all born and raised in England, such was the pace, directness and almost ‘fool hardy’ nature of the contest. This is what has got observers all over the world believing in the strength of the Premier League teams – the partnering of the classically ‘English’ style of play with the continental technique. For the club sides of Europe facing up to it now, it appears to have become a lethal combination. Indeed as Guido Santevecchi, London correspondent of the Italian daily Corriere della Sera writes;

“In stark contrast, the injection of foreign talent has worked to strengthen English clubs. Charismatic managers from France, Spain and Portugal have done nothing to tone down the natural aggression of the English style. But they have brought greater order and sparkle to the game – more of what we call geometrie. Above all, it seems to me that foreigners in London, Manchester and Liverpool have diluted the famous off-the-pitch excesses of English sides”.
Whilst the nationalities may vary wildly then, the ideology would appear to remain – the identity remains. Whilst the players may not be of English descent, they appear to play in an English way, adding those particular Anglo characteristics to their own individual skills. If these players perform as an extension of the club’s philosophies, ‘becoming one’ with English tactics and styles, then once again, does the place of birth on the passport matter?
When it comes to the future of the English national team, however, those playing at the top with an English passport would seem to matter. It is at international level where the great success of the English clubs, driven forward by great international names poses the problems. England has not qualified for the European Championships this summer. The pain and ramifications of this will become clearer this summer, when the might of English club success in the Champions League will be less obscuring. The reasons for this failure of the national team, when compiled with all the numerous failures before, are open to intense and continued debate. The lack of English players gaining the experience of playing in the Champions League it could be argued is detrimental to the English game. This is the elite club football competition, where the best players in the world compete. If English players are not getting the opportunity to perform on this stage, then the experiences that come with this cannot be replicated.
Once again though, it seems completely fair to ask the question, does any of this matter? For years now the club game has been steadily encroaching on that played at the national level, and it is arguable that with the rise of the Champions League, that the international games has lost a lot of its lustre. Certainly it would appear much more that club rules country, not just in the boardroom but also in the fans mind. It is a sweeping generalisation I know, but it seems that if continued English success in Europe, fuelled by foreign millions, moulded by foreign coaches and won by foreign technique comes at the expense of the national team then the majority of fans will say so be it. Maybe both can co-exist, but the lack of English players playing at the top level of club football does imply a negative impact on the health of the national team. But if this is not a problem for fans, then this issue is simply an irrelevance.
The success of the English club sides this season has shown the strength of the Premier League; English club football the best in the world. The clubs, packed with a large number of the best talent the world has to see and taking on other European teams have almost become national teams in their own. The players may be from different continents and may speak different languages, but they, along with their coaches and owners are achieving success in an English style.
All well and good, as long as fans don’t demand a winning national side as well, for one cannot be greedy and have both. As long as fans are honest this will not be a problem, if they are happy at English success in the Champions League, success built on international names, then the English game would appear to be in full and pristine working order, once again taking on the world. But once the dust has settled in Moscow, and an English side may well have lifted the famous European Cup trophy it will only be 17 days till Switzerland and the Czech Republic kick off in Basle to signal the beginning of Euro 2008. It may just be then, with the lack of Gerrard, Lampard and Rooney et al on show that this is when the true strength of the English game will be far clearer.

No comments:

Post a Comment