So all of the English clubs have progressed to the Quarter Finals of this season’s Champions League and after last season’s all English final, it seems that English football is beginning to dominate European football more and more. From the two matches I was able to watch during this round of fixtures, the reason for this domination became obvious to me, and that is simply that the Spanish and Italian teams simply cannot live with the high tempo, energetic football that English teams play.
I think the case in point for this argument was the match where Liverpool completely and utterly anihilated a Real Madrid side who are in top form in La Liga and will push Barcelona all the way for their domestic title. There is no doubting that Madrid is a team made up of players with exquisite technical ability, the likes of Robben, Sneijder and Gago all have the deftest of touches and a superb eye for a pass. But none of Madrid’s stars could get a grip on the game at Anfield at all, and that was because they could not match the sheer tempo of Liverpool’s play.
Many expected Rafa to fall back to his defensive minded European performances, but from the very start Liverpool came out at a hundred miles an hour. They were in Madrid’s face all night long, and would not let them settle on the ball. Madrid, who are used to a more layed back, patient style of football in La Liga couldn’t handle the sort of pressure that was being applied to them and simply fell apart. I don’t think anyone expected Liverpool to destroy them so rampantly, but at the end of the day, Real Madrid were hit by a hurricane.
It is not just the high tempo closing down and the pressuring that makes English football so dominant right now though. English teams, by necssity, have become very competent at playing very quickly with the ball too. Because most teams in the Premier League utilise the sort of tactics that Liverpool used so effectively against Madrid, players have had to adapt to be able to receive the ball and then use it very economically at the highest of speeds.
This was evident at times in the match between Manchester United and Inter Milan today. Where for the Italians, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Mario Balotelli were quite isolated outlets up top, thanks to good defensive work from United’s formidabble back-line, Berbatov and Rooney were constantly available for Giggs and Scholes and Ronaldo to pick out. They provided a much better outlet for United, despite the fact that they were playing against some highly accomplished defenders, in Walter Samuel and Ivan Cordoba.
The difference was the speed with which united were able to move from defence into attack at times. It wasn’t necessarily counter attacking, it was more that when in possession of the ball, United were then able to inject some life into proceedings all of a sudden. Whether it be with Giggs’ burst of pace or a slide rule ball from Scholes, United were able to deftly pierce Milan’s midfield at a pace that then took the likes of Cambiasso and Stankovic out of the game.
This is possible thanks to the marvellous technical ability possessed by Rooney, Berbatov and Ronaldo. Despite balls coming at them very quickly, they were able to get the ball under control and out of their feet with one touch, and they then immediately had their head up to move the ball on again. This all happened at such speed that Milan’s defence and midfield were left flat-footed, almost at a stand still, which created areas of space for United to exploit.
We have oft regarded the Spanish and Italian leagues as being technically superior to our English leagues, but I feel that in the Premier League’s upper half at least, we are now beginning to catch up and even surpass our rivals on the continent. Although our game was traditionally one of pace and power, it has adjusted thanks to the infux of technically gifted foreigners like Zola and Bergkamp to become a mixture of the two. It is a league played at a million miles an hour but also with incredible tecjnique. Indeed, it is the very pace of the game in England that forces players in the Premier League to be so good technically.
It is this evolution of the British game that is giving our clubs the edge in European competition. The Spanish and Italian clubs are technically very gifted sides, but they cannot perform to their highest standards when they are put under such immediate pressure, they are not used to being given so little time. On the other hand, English players are so used to playing at these high speeds that they enjoy almost a wealth of time and space in some European matches, which allows them to carve open their opposition almost at will, as we saw Liverpool do.
So these are encouraging times for English clubs, and indeed, i think the likes of Everton and Aston Villa are developing along with the ‘big four’. We see the likes of Arteta, Pienaar, Young and Agbonlahor who are all technically gifted players who are capable of playing at top speed. This is why these two clubs are able to challenge for the European spaces and why they have both had reasonable runs in the UEFA Cup in the past two seasons.
English club football then, is on the up, but what does this mean for English football at an international level? Unfortunately, I don’t think that the dominance of our clubs at domestic level will mean that our national team will soon hit similar heights. There are simply too many foreign players in the league and so not enough Enlishmen are getting the chance to develop their full potential. So I don’t think we will see a massive improvement in the near future.
However, I think that ultimately, we will see the benefits of our club footballs evolution. Already England are beginning to produce more young players of high technical ability than we used to. Whereas coaches and scouts of boys football used to favour bigger, stronger players, they have now recognised the need for good technical prowess too, and that is a direct results of the evolution I have discussed above. This means that as a nation, the technical prowess of our footballers is steadily increasing. We’ve already seen the likes of Theo Walcott and Aaron lennon come through, both of who are small, tricky wingers the like of which England hadn’t produced for a while.
I think then, that as time goes on and more and more generations of youngsters who have grown up with the Premier League start to come through the ranks, England’s pool of talent will steadily increase. And as for those that say managers will always prefer the ‘easy’ foreign option, the credit crunch will eventually hit football. Investors are already thinking twice about the money that they can put into clubs, and eventually even the top clubs will become more dependent on their youth academies.
This will give the rising youth talent a chance, and they will then get to improve themselves as the players we currently see are doing. They will have to combine their technical ability with the pace and power that the top level of football in this country demands and eventually we will start to see a more English flavour in our top clubs. This will then start to have a kick on effect to the national side, and sometime in the reasonable future we may be able to seriously challenge for a World Cup.
Because our club sides have shown that when we combine the physical pace and power of the traditional English game with the technicality that has been introduced in the Premiership era, the foreign clubs and players cannot handle it. This will be the same too in the national arena. If we can get a national side that combines these two different facets of football as successfully as Liverpool and Man United have done, then the likes of Spain and Brazil, despite being technically excellent, will struggle against us.
So perhaps my fellow Englishmen, we must continue to be patient. We’ve already had 43 years of hurt and perhaps must suffer a few more years yet, but with each crop of youngsters that make it to the top, I am seeing improvement. The dominance of our clubs in the European arena will only encourage this progress and eventually English football may be able to dominate both domestically and internationally. I look forward to that day with all my heart.