Two of the biggest topics being discussed in the UK football press (apart from the Liverpool takeover) over the past week have been England’s miserable performance against Montenegro, and the plague of bad tackles and serious injuries (Bobby Zamora, Hatem Ben Arfa, Anotnio Valencia) in the game recently. What they turn out to be is two sides of the same coin; both are inevitable consequences of the modern English game.
After England’s World Cup performance, the usual pundits came out with the usual proposals. The England players (and indeed players from other teams who play in the Premiership) are tired, they said. Let’s reduce the Premier League to 18 teams, have a winter break, reform or even scrap the League Cup. More long-term, we should be training kids to work on technique not physicality and power, with smaller goals and pitches. Anyone who’s followed the English game in any detail will know that these are not new arguments; we’ve heard this all before, for many, many years. Trevor Brooking’s attempts to reform the game are just the latest rehashings of the same ideas that will inevitably get ignored or half-heartedly implemented.
Why? Because we just don’t like our football to be played in that way. The self-procliamed “greatest league in the world” may not be the greatest (only two Champions League winners in the last decade have been English), but we probably win in terms of entertainment - that is, if you pride entertainment on the pace and physicality. Plenty of foreign players have noted that their most difficult task upon arriving at a Premier League club is adapting to the physical demands of the league - and while some fail miserably, others thrive (Didier Drogba, wash my mouth out, is a prime example of this).
Prizing strength, surging runs, crunching tackles, aerial challenges and “getting stuck in” is not just a marketing tactic that Sky came up with, but is the result of over a century of British football culture, and it’s what the fans demand too; even at the Emirates Stadium, what rouses the organic falafel-eating Ruperts and Montys in the stands out of their Highbury Library slumber* more than anything is a good strong tackle; what angers them most is when the home side overplays it or shirks from having a go at the opposition.
This is not to say skill has no place in the Premier League; indeed the opposite applies - with fast, dashing, pressing physical play all around you and very little time on the ball, it pushes a footballer’s skills to their limits, and indeed brings out some of the very best of their talents; this is a league that has produced players such as Cesc Fabregas, Cristiano Ronaldo, after all. Touch, finesse and quality passing are very much in demand in the Premier League, at least at the top end. At the lower end of the table, it’s more difficult; with a few honourable exceptions, most clubs have realised it’s easier and quicker to improve a player’s strength and stamina than their innate skill and touch, and so this is the option managers with more limited means will tend towards; the likes of Karl Henry and Kevin Davies are examples of the extreme consequences of this policy.
While the English demand for physical play has remained a constant in our history, the strength, stamina and pace of the footballers that carry out these tactics has dramatically increased since the Premier League’s foundation. Money has had two intertwining roles in this: Firstly, with more money, clubs have been able to modernise training methods to specificially improve the aspects of a player’s physique to play the modern game; not to mention better fitness training, diet and physiotherapy. Players can tackle harder and press and harry for longer. Secondly, with the lure of extra money, football becomes more ruthless. Winning is what counts, at all costs. Even a single place in the final league table can mean more prize money, and as a result there are now few meaningless mid-table games.
We still prize a hard-tackling, fast, direct game yet the players we are producing for it are perhaps now too strong for their own good, and operate under a win-at-all-costs philosophy. All the money clubs have spent on improving their physical condition has not been matched with resourced on improving their temperament or their mental understanding of the game; put into that perspective, and it’s no wonder that more players’ legs are getting needlessly broken. Nor is it really surprising that when, with no England players playing outside the Premier League, put up on the international stage the lack of imagination and one-dimensionality of our game gets shown for what it is.
That’s not an original conclusion, I know, but it escapes many critics of the English game that this is exactly what we demand. This is the monster we have created.
Given the culture of English football, a winter break and fewer games won’t make the players any less tired come a summer tournament; a slight reduction in the physical demands of a season will just mean managers can make players work even harder in the matches they do play. If we want a better England side, and a safer Premier League, then we’re going to have to look at ourselves more deeply. Are we willing to sacrifice the style of play that we cherish for a less physical, more cerebral and, dare I say it, more boring style of play, and give up the most entertaining league in the world” (at least by our standards)? We will nod all our heads about the good ideas in Sir Trevor’s report are and ponder the ins and outs of a winter break, but unless we’re willing to change our own outlook on the game then we’re essentially hypocrites in the matter.
* I jest, of course, and as an Arsenal fan myself I reserve the right to self-mock…