England Out again!! And again!!

English Premier League, the most popular football league in the world, takes pride in flaunting the most expensive players from different corners of the world. But has it done any good to English Football? Apoorv Upadhye digs deeper for some answers.

Disappointed English fans
Disappointed English fans
What is the most ironic thing in life? Being one of the earliest inventors of a game, setting up its modern rules and then failing in the same game again and again!

That, in a nutshell, is England for you. It has almost been 50 years since they reached the zenith of football. Way back in 1966 they won their first World Cup – their only triumph till date – under the leadership of Sir Bobby Charlton. Today, the English Premier League, also known as Barclays Premier League, is considered the most popular football league in the world. It is growing in terms of money, but not in human capital and that makes its future look rather bleak.  
This point becomes clearer when you look at its other European counterparts — Spain, Germany and, most recently, Belgium are producing young talented footballers. We all know that Germany won the FIFA World Cup while Spain, the defending champions couldn’t make it even to the Round of 16. However, neither the win nor the loss has put them on their backfeet in terms of nurturing talent. Isco, Koke, Jesé Rodríguez, Álvaro Morata are some of the Spanish youngsters who show promise to bring back the Cup to spain some
Four years ago, Belgium were ranked 57, and now, they are one of the significant contenders for Euro 2016. Given the competition all around, England needs to pull its socks up and find a quick and sure mode of survival. Will the German and Spanish model work? Or will England have a tough task to follow?

World Cup Woes

From the recently concluded World Cup 2014, we saw that England was bundled out by Italy and Uruguay. Unfortunately they got the group of death. Everyone accepted the fact that England were unlucky to get such a tough group and it would be very difficult for them to cross the group stage. But this talented team had the guts to bench high profile players and give chance to the newbies with huge potential like Raheem Sterling, Ross Barkley, Adam Lallana, Jack Wilshere, Jordan Henderson, Luke Shaw and many others.
The first match England played was against the Italians who were known as a good defensive unit relying heavily on counter attacking punches. Though a score line of 2-1 defeat shows a close match, a brilliant performance by Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio had totally bamboozled the England team. None of the English players rose up to the occasion. After the loss they had to face Uruguay (shaken already and charged up by the 1-3 defeat to Costa Rica) with a half-fit Luis Suarez, who rose to fame in EPL scoring the highest number of goals in Europe in 2013-14 and winning the European Golden Shoe. In the match Wayne Rooney missed a couple of sitters but Suarez got two opportunities and banged both the shots at the back of the net to send England out of the World Cup.

Suarez firing a bullet to crush English dreams
Suarez firing a bullet to crush English dreams

The basic necessity for England was to at least qualify for the top 16. They could have done so by even drawing against both the tougher opponents – Italy and Uruguay – provided they were able to clinch a victory against a relatively easier Costa Rica. But that was not to be. Also as nobody believed that they were going to Brazil with one of England’s most impressive teams, it was baffling to listen to the “realists” predicting exit in the quarter-finals. How were they supposed to get even that far?

What’s ailing the English team?

The question as a fallout of the shameful results was : “Is EPL the biggest problem for England football team?” There are strong arguments that EPL prevents nurturing of the local talent and leaves the selectors to choose from only a handful of players.
If we look at building the Golden Generation we observe that the strength of the system lies in its base. Take Germany as an example. The core of Germany’s World Cup 2014 winning squad came through the different age groups playing as a unit. Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer; defenders Benedikt Howedes,Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels; mid-fielders Sami Khedira and Mesut Ozil all started in the 2009 Under-21 European Championship final, in which they annihilated England. All but the injured Khedira were in the starting XI against Argentina.
Compare that with England – only survivor from that 2009 final to make it to the 23-man England squad in World Cup 2014 was James Milner. It is not only about playing as a group together, it is also about opportunities at the age group levels. The likes of Shaw, Lallana, Sterling and Barkley had not played in a major tournament at under-21 level. In contrast, the six players to feature for Germany in that 2009 final all made at least 15 appearances before progressing to the senior side.
Ex-England manager and currently in charge of relegation-threatened Queens Parks Rangers, Harry Redknapp once lamented on the problems at the youth level saying the best youth teams in England are flooded with foreign kids. This is a serious derailment from the ’70s or ’80s where the youth team was full of more local kids and not just English kids. So, definitely, English youth is deprived of opportunity and there is no point cursing the lack of young talented English players.
Even the England analysts appear more patriotic than logical. They tend to judge their player performances based on flashes of excitement. If Sterling or Barkley creates an eye-catching run into space which does not include a lot of skill, that is instantly hailed as a brilliant performance and the player’s value rockets up. That is not how performances should be evaluated. One needs to look at what the player actually does with that space, his decision making in interacting with other players, or how effective the move eventually is to envision a real opportunity.

The next generation
The next generation

If you recall Michael Owen’s brilliant goal in the famous match against Argentina in World Cup 1998 held in France, you will remember how England were praised for their passion and empirical approach to that game. Yet, they lost. In nearly all their World Cup games, England have come out as the second best.
English supporters are by now used to the refrain “Lost the match but won our hearts”. This year the manager blamed ‘luck’ to get drawn in the group of death but did they really analyse the strengths of the underdog team Costa Rica which qualified from the same group? In 2010, they blamed the wrong decision given against them – yes, they were correct – but never accepted that they were awful against Germany.
England does have talent, though not in the same league as Spain and germany, but the problem lies elsewhere.

Is the League System blemished?

If we take the top three leagues in Europe – La Liga, Bundesliga and EPL – we will see a huge amount of alteration. English Premier League is meant to be the building block for young English players so that they can showcase their talent. How many times have we seen articles quoting XYZ is the next Xavi, or the next Messi? Neither media nor the EPL system help the U21 grow to their potential. If we look beyond, we find that during the dominant Spanish era, most of their players came from the ranks of La Masia or La Fábrica and most of them played for Barcelona and Real Madrid. It is usually the same story in Germany, where their players play for Bayern Munich or Borussia Dortmund.

League Players playing in the league
English Premier League 32%
Serie A 47%
Bundesliga 1 and 2 55%
La liga 77%

These statistics clearly demonstrate that less than one-third local players are getting to play in the top tier, way below the expected level. And, the Football Association, couldn’t really care less about these numbers.
Based on the 2013-14 UEFA Champions League records, let us have a look at the number of players in the starting Xl from their country of birth.

Clubs Involved No of Players from the home Country
Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City 8
Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid,Real Socieded 22
Juventus, Milan, Napoli 10
Marseille, Paris Saint Germain 7

Manchester City’s EPL winning 2013-2014 season had only two regular English internationals to feature consistently in the club’s starting XI – goalkeeper Joe Hart and midfielder James Milner. To draw a parallel, in the only successful World Cup campaign of England (1966), the core of the team was formed around players from a single club – West Ham.
The Premier League finds itself in a plight whereby the top teams have very few English players actually competing with the rest of Europe’s elite. Clubs such as Southampton and Everton are perfect for a greenhorn to excel, but sadly these clubs are not in the top bracket in England, forget about Europe. Naturally, these clubs are just too below par in terms of the opportunities and facilities offered. When pitted against the mighty Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, the young English counterparts fade in comparison.

Forward Ho!

EPL is nothing but a money churning machine and the clubs are continually ignoring the challenge to develop English players. They are taking the easy route of foreign exports and it is seriously harming any chance of England becoming a dominant footballing nation. Change is needed and needed fast. It is all but over for the current crop of players but it is not too late for the younger lot.
The gap in class cannot be more apparent from the fact that Tom Cleverly makes it to the World Cup 2014 squad, but a much superior Isco cannot get a sniff in at the Spanish team. Sometimes harsh decisions might be the call of the hour – yes, it might be pretty tough but it has to start from somewhere.
England have the talent and can produce superstars but the transition between being a talented player and becoming a superstar seems a gap too far to bridge. So, whom should England follow? Neither Spain, nor Germany, at this stage. But England can surely take a few leaves out of Belgium’s book in the way they have come out from nowhere to become a contender among the superpowers in the world of football. The next four years will hopefully etch England’s footballing future!


Apoorv Upadhye

About Apoorv Upadhye

Apoorv Upadhye is a follower of English Premier, European Football and La liga and his favourite club is FC Barcelona. You can reach him at apoorvupadhye@gmail.com