x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Premier League is to blame for England's struggles

The entertaining yet unwieldy Premier League is not conducive to success at international level and is, in part, to blame for the struggles of the England team.

England fans have watched their side struggle recently.
England fans have watched their side struggle recently.

English football fans need to decide what they want: a successful national team or the most entertaining domestic league in the world. They can't have both.

This was brought into sharp focus last week when England prematurely crashed out of yet another international tournament, this time the European Under 21 Championship.

It was a familiar, miserable story, bearing all the hallmarks of the underachieving national team: a group of expensive, over-hyped, highly paid players depart amid hyperbolic sound bites about winning the tournament, are out-passed by every team they play and spend so long exhaustively attempting to regain possession that they tire and suffer a late yet predictable gut-wrenching blow which is dressed up as heartbreak.

Granted, these exits may be difficult to swallow, but they should come as no surprise to keen students of the English game, as those who are not hypnotised by the Premier League's ability to entertain and are acutely aware that success in the unwieldy league is not a transferable template to the international game.

Andres Villas-Boas, the fresh-faced new manager of Chelsea, had barely unpacked his suitcase in London this week before he delivered this perceptive assertion.

"There is no running away from what is the culture of English football … a fanatic game, a game that generates a lot of passion and a game that runs at a lot of speed," Villas-Boas said.

Note the absence of any mention of skill or technique. Villas-Boas spent enough time scouting opposition for Jose Mourinho to know this is a league where a thundering tackle receives the same level of applause, if not more, than a nutmeg.

Villa-Boas made reference to the league's high-transition count, which is the number of times the ball is given from one team to the other. And therein lies the root of the problem - as long as Premier League play eschews retention of the ball, the national team will continue to flounder in international football, where measured passing and patience are watchwords.

It was exasperating to witness Jordan Henderson waving his arms in frustration at his England U21 teammates against the Czech Republic a week ago. The midfielder was complaining about the lack of passing options. And this was after only eight minutes. It is a familiar pattern for England teams, whose chronic lack of cohesion makes it look like the players have barely met let alone played together before.

Henderson was critisised for his performance in the tournament and looked nothing like a £20 million (Dh117.2m) player just signed by Liverpool from Sunderland. He looked more like the individual who was on loan at Coventry two seasons ago.

Indeed, England fielded three players against the Czechs whose combined transfer fees were £46m, a figure that would have been nearly doubled had Andy Carroll, Liverpool's £35m forward, not been withdrawn.

But, then, the value of English players always looks inflated when they masquerade in a Three Lions shirt.

Even Wayne Rooney is starting to look over-hyped. He has not found the net in an international game in 15 matches and his powers are being sapped by the relentless and energy-draining Premier League. It is no wonder that Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, was adamant Jack Wilshere should be left out of the England U21 party amid fear of burnout.

Wilshere is the great English hope and the antithesis of the players who have emerged off the production line at other clubs. His vision, range of passing and ability to play with his head up are rare commodities among his compatriots.

He is the closest thing England have to the lauded Xavi and Andres Iniesta, and the way Manchester United were spellbound by Barcelona in the Champions League final served to illustrate just how commanding and assured his display was against Barca at the Emirates Stadium in February.

On the subject of Arsenal, they are the best exponents of tika taka football in England yet find themselves kicked from goalpost to goalpost or lambasted for being too intricate. Yet when the national sides fail at major tournaments or to qualify for the World Cup, as they did in 1994 and 2008, the very same people claim the players are no match for their more-rounded international opponents.

The only times England have performed at continental tournaments was in 1966 and 1996, when they were on home soil, and the games had the feel of a domestic matches, and in 1990 – just before the birth of the Premier League – when the late Sir Bobby Robson broke with tradition and boldly switched to, wait for it, a European sweeper system.

Robson has been the only British manager who has successfully transferred his skills abroad with the likes of Porto, Barcelona and PSV Eindhoven. Steve McClaren is the notable exception yet his success at FC Twente and experience at Wolfsburg is still undermined by his experience in charge of the national side.

So much so he recently had to take up an offer with a second-tier English club in order return to his country as a coach.

The problem is the English game is so insular and is virtually run by the Premier League because of the vast money it generates. Their relationship with the English Football Association is, at best, fragmented. The regulative body in English football should take sole charge of the game in England, in much the same way the Football Association assumed responsibility for the Pro League this week, and start looking at the long-term development of the game as opposed to the short-termist approach of clubs who appear to look no further than the outcome of the next match.

Apart from offering plenty of dirhams, how did Al Wasl manage to bring Albert Benaiges, the technical director at Barca, to Dubai? The English FA should have been banging down the door on his Spanish villa for his services to shape the flawed youth system in England. And it's not as if money was a problem, as they paid around a combined £10m per year to Sven-Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello.

Instead they are too busy locked in a power struggle with the all-conquering Premier League.