The Premier League is to blame for England - but not in ‘that’ way 5

There is a certain type of Englishman who, if given the opportunity, will blame foreign people for everything bad happening in his life.  If he loses his job, it’s because of a Polish immigrant, if his wife leaves him, it’s because of a handsome Italian, and if his national football team is eliminated in the early rounds of a World Cup, it’s because his domestic league is ‘full of foreigners’.

We like to scapegoat in this country, and far too frequently that results in the creation of phantom bogeymen at whom we can direct whatever little grievance we’re carrying.  It’s a very tempting way of going through life because, ultimately, it prevents the individual from having to answer harder questions about him or herself.

In football terms - and specifically relating to the composition of the Premier League - that’s also true.  The more we oppose the foreign contingent and the more we dream up schemes to artificially redress the balance, the less energy we have to examine our own insularity and stubbornness.

“If there were seven or eight English players in every Premier League team, the national side would regularly be appearing in World Cup semi-finals”.

No, not necessarily.

The Premier League is a problem, but only because of the culture that exists around it.  The temptation is to believe that it is the be all and end all of everything, the ultimate proving-ground, and the pinnacle of the game, but that is just a fallacy perpetuated by the marketing machine which drives it.

Is it better than Serie A?  Superior to La Liga?  More entertaining than the Bundesliga?  Who really cares - it’s a rich competition that is very entertaining, but it’s representative of quite an outdated, naive form of the game.  That doesn’t matter to spectators - why should it - but it’s relevant when you evaluate the competition from a player education standpoint.

When I watch England play, I don’t necessarily notice under-developed talent. I see banality, of course, but more than anything else it’s apparent how naive some of our footballers are and how one-dimensional they look within the international context.  It’s the little things: an inability to keep the ball, the failure to have any impact on the temperament of a game - the nuances of the sport which seem to exist in almost every other mid-level national team.

There are grass-roots problems in England and that foreign player/restriction of opportunity argument does have some credibility, but maybe we should really be looking at the type of player we breed.  The Premier League is seen as the top of the mountain for homegrown players and, with very few exceptions, English academies are geared towards creating players who can exist within that competition.  Fine, after all that is their raison d’etre and they exist for the benefit of Premier League teams.

The trouble is, though, that the prototypical Premier League footballer is not a very transferable product.  He has single-purpose attributes and his physicality is prioritised far and beyond that of his equivalent in Germany, Spain, or Italy.  Sunderland, for example, may be able to produce a Jordan Henderson and eventually sell him to Liverpool for £20m, but had Malaga created a Henderson then they would never have been fending off interest from Real Madrid, Atletico or even necessarily Valencia.

That doesn’t mean that Jordan Henderson isn’t a good player, just that he’s only a good player within a Premier League environment. He can be very effective against Arsenal, Everton and Tottenham, but put someone like that in a more structured environment - internationally or continentally - and he will look out of place.

It’s like leaning to drive on English roads; there’s no dramatic geography, the weather is relatively stable, and the motoring culture is fairly passive.  Maybe you’re a good driver - but only when those conditions remain equal.  If you’ve never experienced rush-hour in Rome or a Parisienne roundabout, then how developed are your driving skills and how rounded are you as a motorist?  Ultimately, when you hire a car at the airport and head out onto the - other side - of the open road, you will be tentative and unsure of yourself.

But your driving instructor doesn’t mention that or create any scenario which might prepare you for it - he doesn’t need to.  You are being taught to drive on English roads, just as English footballers are cultivated to play English football in English competitions.

Our insular culture is all around is.  We don’t ‘rate’ overseas players until ‘they’ve done it on a wet Tuesday night in Stoke’, we take very little interest in foreign leagues, and the name-recognition with players who exist outside of our little bubble is generally very limited.

And, it’s very important to recognise just how unique our little bubble really is.

Whenever the argument is made that English players would benefit from playing abroad, the natural response is always for someone to point to the German national team and reel off a statistic about what percentage of that side plays in the Bundesliga - or they might make the same point with Spain.  Realistically, it’s not overly relevant; while there are clear and obvious differences between German and Spanish football, both ‘styles’ are closer to the type of game played at international level.  Possession is more important than pace and technical skill is more valuable than athleticism; that doesn’t make either better or worse than the English equivalent, but the adjustment for players moving between the Bundesliga, La Liga, or Serie A is less dramatic than for those transition from the Premier League.

Is it a mystery that Steven Gerrard has never been the force for England that he has always been for Liverpool?  No, the back-and-forth, box-to-box situations in which he used to thrive simply don’t exist outside the Premier League.  Why has Frank Lampard never converted properly into an elite international performer?  Because the fractured attacking situations that he so often took advantage of for Chelsea are only prevalent in England.  Our players can do well at tournaments and they can give good performances, but show me a single one who has been the equal of his club self.

The belief that this issue revolves solely around ‘how much’ our young players play isn’t redundant, but as a perspective it is still too narrow.  Maybe the trade-off with the Premier League is that the very thing that makes it so entertaining is the same commodity that hurts us internationally.  Maybe we are unique in that we need our players to travel further and work harder to learn more about the game.

Maybe we still drive on the left hand-side whilst the rest of the world is on the right.

Follow @premleagueowl

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