Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Is the Premier League Falling Victim to Its Virtues?

Photo credits: dailymail.co.uk.
Crystal Palace's Ian Wright in the 1990 FA Cup final.
20 years ago English football was surrounded in a cloud of mystery as far as most people in Europe were concerned. Without today's uninterrupted flow of live streamed matches, football had to be witnessed live on most occasions - and following the Heysel Stadium disaster in 1985, English teams became even more alien to continental football lovers.

However, English football managed to retain its appeal. The tales of teams going at it no matter what the score was, packed up stadiums, matches played in broad daylight, fervent supporters that would never turn their backs on their team and brave supporting of managers through thick and thin kept paving the imaginary of the remaining Europeans, particularly the Southern for whom many of those concepts seemed to belong to a whole different universe, let alone sport.

The Premier League was finally introduced in 1992, coinciding almost to perfection with the return of English teams to European competition. The first (not always live) broadcasts of the FA Cup final, for instance, started to surface on continental TV sets and the enchantment would rapidly pick up steam. When England's top tier became a regular fixture in the schedules of most enthusiasts of the sport, it seemed too good to be true. No tale had been exaggerated. Everyone wanted to bear witness to those appealing matches.

Since then, the Premier League managed to grab the spotlight of European football and to bring the best players and managers to English shores, effectively ensuring English clubs remain some of the wealthiest in the world (suffice to say, for instance, that Roma's revenue is below West Ham's, as a term of comparison) However, that glitter has been fading away in recent years.

  • The culture

In fact, over the past few years the marketeers in charge of branding the Premier League have been - ever so subtly - changing the competition's catchphrase from "The best league in the world" to "The most exciting league in the world", capturing a very delicate yet crucial nuance.

Not long after leaving Chelsea, André Villas-Boas (not exactly the most revered presence in English football) made an interesting point by admitting he had not entirely apprehended the nation's reality when he tried to change Chelsea's style from a reactive approach into a more proactive one. Ball retention and patient build-up were not only concepts hard to grasp by supporters, but by players as well.

Photo credits: independent.co.uk.
Roberto Martínez has made the headlines
with Swansea, West Brom and Everton.
The fact is that English football appears to be deeply rooted in broken up matches with extremely high levels of intensity - which for some reason does not lend itself to significant change. It is probably not entirely coincidental that most of the tectonic tactical shifts that have taken place over the past two decades have not hailed from Blighty, despite clubs like Swansea or coaches like Brendan Rogers and Roberto Martínez, both of whom managed the Welsh club.

The gutting duels between José Mourinho's Chelsea and Rafa Benítez's Liverpool from a decade ago were certainly fiercely contested, but they revealed a betrayal of sorts to English football's main tenets. Football is meant to be playing passionately and with your heart on your sleeve, not on tactical boards and in 0-0 matches. After Manchester United's defeat against Barcelona in Rome in 2009 (following which Sir Alex Ferguson admitted himself that he didn't feel like keeping on playing wary football), English football may have taken a step back.

  • The insularity

Great Britain's isolation has simultaneously been one of the country's main trumps and flaws. In football, it has meant that, despite significant breakthroughs, the island's football still finds some common ground with the way it was played several decades ago (Sam Allardyce or Tony Pulis, for instance, keep on making excellent lemonades with some of those methods). England, in particular, has remained something of an oasis (poor pun intended) to the unsuspecting bystander who craves for scoreline uncertainty and intense matches.

Photo credits: telegraph.co.uk.
How long will it take to repeat Chelsea's
2012 Champions League success?
However, that very feature may very well be damaging English teams' prospects in Europe. Leaving the Europa League aside for a moment - since English teams usually consider it nothing but a Thursday night nuisance -, Chelsea's triumph in 2012 was something of an anomaly (not unlike Inter Milan's the year before), in a season that didn't end with the same manager that had started it. Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich have taken over Europe by storm and it appears hard to fathom them letting go in the near future.

The same insularity that allows Arsène Wenger to remain on his job has the effect of allowing to repeat the same mistakes season after season as Arsenal are usually eliminated in the first round after the group stage. Defensive organisation and transition seems to be an afterthought in so many managers of English teams, as if the successive attacking waves would somehow make up for the conceded goals.

Liverpool didn't even manage to pip Basel to qualification from their group and Manchester City's struggles in Europe's main competition have been well documented, regardless of the man in charge. Manchester United still very much look like a work in progress and nowhere near European domination.

If England are to enjoy European success anytime soon, Chelsea seem to be the safer bet - and even the Blues have troubles of their own as an aging John Terry and his sidekick Gary Cahill can sometimes suffer at the hands and feet of swift, mobile forwards. Still, Chelsea look far more composed when they give the ball away, for instance, and immediately proceed to adjust in order to protect the fastest way to their goal.

  • Conclusion

But perhaps the most worrying signs are not the ones that can be perceived in the Champions League, but rather on English pitches week in, week out. In a time where coaches the world over are more and more concerned about how to populate the centre of the pitch correctly and create chances in that particular part of the pitch given its primordial importance, it is baffling to see Manchester City, Arsenal or Liverpool being ripped apart by any team that attacks them through the centre on quick attacking transitions - something that stronger European sides seldom forgive.

In short, the reason why the Premier League remains such an interesting, attractive proposition may well be the very reason why England must rely on José Mourinho and Chelsea if they want to brag about being top dogs again.

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