The Premier League & English football at its best yet at the heart of every discussion over the future of the game, it’s apparent that it is the root cause of failure in Europe and internationally.
It is the most-watched league in the world. At its best, fast and exciting. At its worst, turgid with the basics of football such as technique, noticeable by their absence – an encapsulation of everything wrong with the English game.
On the European stage, English clubs no longer dominate. Only Chelsea have won a European trophy this decade. None of the Premier League’s top four has managed to find the answer to the questions posed by Bayern Munich, Barcelona or Real Madrid.
How to find those answers and resolve the other problems which plague English football have taxed the minds of the ‘great and good’ for decades. No-one has yet found the solution. The English game is beset by unbridgeable gaps. Youth football is changing, coaches are playing football with very few believes that the stereotypical long ball game is the answer. However, these youngsters are a decade or more from making the difference.
Professional clubs need to address their philosophies at this level. The turnover of players is phenomenal. Six weeks to prove yourself is bizarre and ruthless. Few explain their decisions, there’s not enough perseverance with youngsters; they are simply cast aside.
Do professional clubs need to work with children who are not even teenagers? Should there be an age limit before they can take a player onto their books? Train them by all means but let them play in the same teams as their friends, enjoying football and learning through shared experiences.
With youngster better equipped as people for the academy system, the quality of a player coming through the system should improve. The big clubs want to scout the world and take the best they can find. FIFA has protections in place and banning high-profile transgressors such as Real Madrid and Barcelona sends a powerful message.
The Football Association has tried to control clubs by imposing geographical limits on signing players but it doesn’t help those who live outside these zones. Do the smaller clubs lose out? Yes – financially. It deprives them of future transfer revenues but with money generated by the Premier League, there is a strong case to state those clubs should be subsidising the entire academy system. If transfer fees become less central to the process and more attention can be focussed on developing the talent and abilities of the trainees.
But the academy system is fraught with problems of its own. Premier League managers such as Arsène Wenger and Tony Pulis both voiced concerns that the academies weren’t competitive enough. Restructuring helps to a certain extent but it doesn’t prepare the players for the jump to first team football.
Reserve football fell by the wayside as the number of substitutes to choose from on matchday increased. With eighteen players needed for every game, sustaining a reserve league would need a squad of forty players. Financially that isn’t viable. The only alternative is to introduce Premier League ‘B’ teams along the lines of the Spanish system. It isn’t popular with supporters. Reaction to the English Football League (EFL) inviting those teams into the EFL Trophy was overwhelmingly negative, a point underlined by the EFL decision to run this as a one-season experiment.
At this point, the divergence between the aims of the EFL and Premier League becomes apparent. Both care primarily about their members’ interests and despite being professional leagues in the same country, they often conflict with little desire to help each other, let alone the England team.
The biggest issue for English football is bridging the gap between the domestic game and European football, as well as internationals. Money spent by Premier League clubs, instead of being invested in improving native talent, is spent on signing overseas players. Perceived better value for money is the result of the lack of internal investment with talented English players but most supporters can name any number of signings where that view is questionable. No club is immune from mistakes but looking to Europe is frequently less expensive.
England can only benefit internationally if the natural well of talent is replenished. At the moment, there is a drought and you only have to look at the national team’s results for evidence of that. However, there is a fundamental gap to address. English club football is exciting because of the pace and physical attributes. Those strengths are the very weaknesses which prevent success in Europe and for England.
The Champions League requires technique, control of the ball and English teams concede possession too easily. Domestically, this isn’t a problem with opponents of the same mindset but in Europe, losing the ball means it may not be returned until game restarts after a goal is conceded.
English clubs found a way of marrying the two different styles until Spain began dominating football at every level. Tiki-taka was their undoing; keeping the ball for long periods of time is the antithesis of Premier League football. No English side has found a way to counter the style, to overpower it. And there is no sign that any will.
Now, to the international stage. England are in the wilderness; it’s been twenty years since there was a tournament which made supporters proud and recent performances suggest it will be a long wait for a repeat of Euro 96.
Successive England coaches have failed to find the answer. Capello and Eriksson may have been successful club managers but never in the English game. Understanding the mentality of native players is crucial. Understanding the pressure the clubs put them under with conflicting styles; any good the international coach may do is soon undone in the Premier League.
Until the gaps are bridged, English football is going to struggle to improve beyond its own borders.
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