Apologies for the delay in posting to what is supposed to be a weekly blog (although that’s already a pretty loose description to be totally honest). The reason for the delay is that I’ve really gone out on a limb here and, “SHOCK”, done some research and compiling of data and the like.
It is coincidental, but quite handy that my opponents in this battle of wits chose today to voice their ill-informed opinions in two separate newspapers. I present to you – Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher. These guys are both well-respected former players and now tv pundits (at least I think Carragher would be respected if I could figure out his accent). Gary Neville is also heavily involved in the England national team’s coaching set up, and yet neither seems to be able to grasp the reasons why their suggestions are manifestly incorrect.
In case you have missed the point (cos you didn’t click on my links), both men are calling, albeit in slightly different ways, for English footballers to be preferred in the premier league over foreign rivals, either by restricting foreigners or by forcing a quota of Englishmen to be involved in each match. They are saying this because tomorrow, a second string England team take on a first string, but still decidedly average Scottish side. I don’t blame England’s top players for crying off this match, scheduled 4 days before the start of the premier league, and I’ve discussed why that is previously. However, Gary and Jamie have taken the view that it’s “bloody foreigners” who are “tekking thur jawbs”,(to use the hill-billy parlance usually associated with this sort of viewpoint) who are preventing top quality English players from appearing.
So instead, Gary wants every premier league team to field at least 3 English players in every match. Aside from the fact that it is almost certainly illegal under European law (Gary’s response is helpfully “where there’s a will, there’s a way”, which I suppose he also thinks is a valid defence in a murder trial?), more importantly it won’t have the effect he thinks it will.
For a start, let me point out something quite important. As of 13th August 2013, Wikipedia lists 205 English players in the first team squads of the 20 premier league teams. Admittedly, this is less than half of the 578 players registered in total, but even so, you should be able to make a pretty good international squad out of that many players. And if you make the premier league sign, say, another 100 players, why do they think those players will be better than the 205 already there? If anything, you’ll just get 100 players currently in the championship elevated to a level they aren’t capable of competing at.
Secondly, I suspect the teams that he thinks are guilty of not supporting English players are not the biggest culprits. It should come as no surprise to anyone to learn that Arsenal have the fewest English players (4), but I would think that the next two in the list will come as something of a surprise: Fulham (4) and Sunderland (6). Of the Fulham players, Steve Sidwell and Kieran Richardson are fairly regular starters, but David Stockdale (reserve keeper) and Matt Briggs (left back) have spent most of their professional careers on loan at championship clubs. They are a club that would really have to scratch around to comply with Neville’s quota rule, and in order to do so would probably have to employ lower standard players than they currently do. I’m assuming (correctly), that any decision to implement a quota rule like this will further inflate the ‘value’ of good English players, probably to a point where they are out of reach of clubs like Fulham and Sunderland.
Incidentally, you might be interested to know that the club with the most English players in their squad is actually Welsh. Two guesses for you to figure out that it is Cardiff (16). Presumably under Gary’s scheme, they should be required to shift a lot of these players in favour of Welshmen? He fails to mention that issue but it is an interesting point (to me).
I am now going to make a fairly controversial claim. I think it is good (or at least necessary) that the majority of England players are drawn from the top/’biggest’ clubs in England, rather than the unloved mid-table dwellers. It is a much-used stick that the England manager is beaten with “why do you continue to ignore players like Ryan Shawcross in favour of the out-of-form Rio Ferdinand?” he will regularly be asked. I would have thought the answer to this would be obvious (though clearly it isn’t). Ask yourself who the best striker in the premier league is. The answer, almost without argument, has to be Robin van Persie (as of today). Who would you rather take to the World Cup? A defender who, 5 days a week, trains against one of the best strikers in the world, learns from the best coaches in the world and uses the best facilities in the country, or a defender who trains against Peter Crouch every day and plays against RVP twice a year (assuming he isn’t banned that day)? You may or may not think that Shawcross is a better player than Ferdinand, or that he will grow into a better player etc. But until the day that this is recognised by one of a handful of people with influence in the football world, he won’t get the opportunity to develop as such in the right environment.
So that is my hypothesis (somewhat untested) as to why it matters that players play for a “Big Club”. Defining Big Club is tricky – England has a big 4, but there are also clubs like Liverpool and Spurs who have large fanbases, large revenues from ticket sales etc, pay big money for expensive players and contribute players to the national set up (they are just also not very good teams for some reason). Now consider Spain: World champions, double European champions. You would be hard-pressed to convince anyone that they weren’t the best team in the world. They are the top-ranked team in the world, according to FIFa, and have been since 2008, apart from brief interruptions by Brazil and Holland. Now consider the big clubs in Spain. I can’t think of a way to show it mathematically, but everyone knows that there are two: Real Madrid and Barcelona. These two clubs have probably got more money than the rest of la liga put together, and they have the best players, domestic and abroad.
I was actually surprised when I looked up the first team squads of the two Spanish bigwigs. Despite having a reputation for signing “galacticos”, the clubs have 13 and 16 Spanish nationals on their books, more than half of their total number. You could argue that this helps prove G-Nev’s opinion, but I believe it is an effect rather than a cause.
Think of it this way – your club (Real Madrid) has more money, way more money, than your neighbour (Atleti). As a result, you can afford to sign any talented young player that appears in the Greater Madrid area, because you will always outbid your rivals. You then allow these players to train alongside Ronaldo, Zidane et al, and become great players themselves. You do this because you can, but also because you know that fans don’t want to support a team of talented foreign mercenaries – they want people like themselves on the pitch. People they grew up with and who could be them in another life. That is what sells replica shirts with names printed on. If you look at the 11 starting players in the Spain team for the Euro 2012 final (10 of whom play for Real or Barca), you will see that the vast majority have played for those clubs all their life. They weren’t developed in Bilbao, then signed by Barca AFTER becoming great players; they were pre-selected at the age of 12 or so, and gambled on by the big clubs in the hope that they develop to greatness and pay-off. I’m sure many times that number of Spanish kids fell by the wayside in this pursuit as well, but I also don’t suppose Real care that much.
The same is true for Germany, where 7 players in their semi-final played for Bayern Munich, and another 2 are Real Madrid galacticos. Contrast that with the England team which drew 3 players (Gerrard, Glen Johnson and Scott Parker) from clubs not even playing in the champions league for their losing quarter-final. To complete the analysis with the last of Europe’s “big countries”, Italy have 9 starting players at Juventus or Milan (10 now Balotelli has gone to Milan). Not only do these players play at a higher level than a lot of the England team, most of them train together for 9 months a year, not just the 2 week training camps Roy Hodgson is allowed.
So what am I suggesting? To improve the state of England’s international football team, you need to stop worrying about the number of England players. There are already plenty of Englishmen in the premier league. But instead of having your top talent spread across 6 (or more!) teams, the countries that do well (based on our domestic model – clearly Brazilian players follow a different path) have it more concentrated. They have a couple of teams that dominate the transfer markets and retain almost all of the local talent. I’m not actually suggesting you give Chelsea and Manchester United preferential bonuses for their television rights, cos I don’t think it’s fair, but it would almost certainly help with the state of international football. English footballers are already over-valued in the transfer market (ask Andy Carroll), so it would be better to make the best clubs the only ones who can afford them, rather than forcing everyone to waste money buying them up, then letting Jose train them up into world beaters.
Is this actually a solution that we want? The premier league is very competitive between a handful of teams, and even if the big Spanish pair are better than the English teams when they meet in the champions league (generally), the premier league is more watchable because it’s less of a foregone conclusion. The few matches between Barca and Real are the epitome of footballing talent, but they happen a couple of times a year. The top 6 in the premier league play each other 30 times a year, almost every week. I know which I’d rather watch week in, week out.
To conclude, I would actually rather watch a great England team than a great premier league. However, the quality of teams such as Spain are a product of a domestic system that has occurred naturally or otherwise. I don’t see a way to recreate this system without being very shady about it, and alienating a lot of people, and I think we just have to deal with that.