Friday, 20 June 2014

Don’t blame the players. Don’t blame the manager. Blame the Premier League.

I’m not angry. I’m not disappointed, I’m certainly not surprised. To say I was surprised would be to admit that I thought England would get very far in this World Cup. Although I was expecting a quarter-final appearance at least. It looks like we won’t even get out of the group stage.

So, who’s to blame? There has to be someone to blame. There always is. Every tournament we get bundled out of there’s always a fall guy. The player who ballooned his penalty over the bar? Take your pick over the years. The guy who got himself sent off and let the team down. Let his country down.

What about the coach with all that passion, who wore his heart on his sleeve, one of us, but was found out to be tactically naïve? Or the foreign coach who didn’t show enough passion? The cold and detached one. There’s always the wally with the brolly for a laugh.

This time around it has to be Wayne Rooney, surely? Expect he finally got his first World Cup goal so he’s absolved of blame. The defence were weak, but Gary Cahill played well. We should have picked Ashley Cole over Leighton Baines. Baines was horribly exposed down the left against Italy. Let’s blame him.

Steven Gerrard: he slipped at the crucial moment against Chelsea and threw away Liverpool’s chance for glory. Last night he was at fault for both goals. Rejoice! The nation has its fall guy. Our scapegoat. We’re world champions at having a scapegoat.

Except he’s not the one to blame. Nor are the other players. Nor the coach. None of them are.
The glitzy, over-hyped, beast that is the Premier League. That’s what we should be blaming. Not the product itself. And I’m not talking about blaming the foreign players.

On its own it’s a dazzling and intoxicating competition. It attracts supporters from every corner of the globe. The football is high tempo, end to end stuff.

What we rarely ask is whether the quality’s any good. Not whether the games are entertaining, we know they are. Last season was one of the best and most exciting in recent memory.

Matches are played at 100 miles an hour. And therein lies the problem. There’s no time to breathe. Players rarely have time on the ball to look up and think three or four passes ahead. They’re immediately closed down and harried. And they expect this which is why they get rid of it almost instantly.

If you want to see why time and time again England fail miserably at the major tournaments, take a look at the Premier League. England’s style of football mirrors that which takes place week in week out at the likes of St Mary’s to St James’ Park.

Watching England is like being at a Premier League match involving two mediocre sides. It’s frenetic. It’s breathless. It’s scrappy. The defending is non-existent. Players excel at getting stuck in. Not keeping hold of the ball and patiently working it from one end to the other.

The same frailties are exposed in every World Cup and in every European Championship.

England cannot pass the ball. They look uncomfortable in possession. It’s rare to see more than four passes strung together before one goes astray. Against teams that excel at possession football they wear themselves out trying to get hold of the ball, running around like headless chickens.

England’s game is not a patient one. The players lack the technical ability to stroke the ball around for several minutes at a time without panicking that they haven’t scored.

They know possession football isn’t their game so they’re reduced to speculative long range shots. It’s their default setting when things aren’t going their way. There’s little subtlety in their play. England always looked rushed.

Watching them is wholly predictable. These guys can do it the Premier League where everyone else is playing the same sort of game. Against international opposition they come unstuck. England have some very good players, a couple would even come under the world class banner.

After an encouraging performance against Italy (which they still lost) there was some hope that they could pull off the high-tempo stuff and get their passing game going. Last night they couldn’t do either. So they reverted to type.

England’s defence is so porous because defending isn’t a crucial component of winning a Premier League match. None of the teams can defend so the mentality of sides is if we concede a goal we’ll just go racing up the pitch and score two. It doesn’t work like than at a World Cup.

The solution to England’s shortcomings won’t be found in the Premier League. The latter is merely the end product of a culture which values blood and guts and getting stuck in over being technically sound.

It’ll start at the very beginning with the academies. Children taught not to be afraid of keeping hold of the ball. Taught that it’s okay if it takes time to reach the opponents goal, rather than feeling rushed after three passes and hoofing the ball into the penalty area.

All these years we’ve eulogised our Premier League. And we’ve been right to. It really is the best league in the world. If you want to be entertained. Not if you want it to produce a successful England team.

That bit has to be done away from the cameras. It’s a lot less glamorous and it’ll cost a lot less than Man City’s squad.

But if we ever want to see England challenging (let alone winning) for a trophy again this is what needs to be done. Because the suits who run the Premier League won’t be offering the England team a helping hand any time soon.

This comment piece was first published by Speaker's Chair on Friday 20th June 2014.

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