Sunday 15 March 2009

Can Europe Hold Off the Premier League Juggernaut?

Last week's Champions League results show there is no sign of the Premier League weakening its grip on the latter stages of the competition. The four English clubs all progressed to the next round to ensure that for a second year running, half the clubs remaining at the quarter-final stage are from the Premier League.

Unsurprisingly this has resulted in a high level of national pride being expressed in the strength and quality of English football and the Premier League, but just what are we celebrating? There's no doubt that the Premier League is the strongest and most glamorous of all the major leagues in Europe, where clubs pay the highest wages which attract the biggest and best names in world football. Having watched the Man Utd/Liverpool game over the weekend the game represented everything that's great about the Premier League.

As a product nothing can touch the Premier League, but does the success of our clubs in Europe really suggest that English football is in the ascendancy? Critics around Europe, particularly in Italy claim the Premier League's current dominance is purely a result of money. I don't think you can really argue against this point. We can now import the best players and coaches but in terms of the number of English players actually playing week in week out for the so called 'Big Four' the success can't be said to be based that greatly on English home grown talent, although Steven Gerrard tries his best to defy this argument in his role at Liverpool.

What's interesting looking at the games from last week, particularly Liverpool's win against Madrid was that the Spanish couldn't live with the pace, power and high tempo that Liverpool played with. These have always been attributes of English football that seem to have been successfully adopted by the foreign players in the English game. In contrast to this we still struggle to produce English players with the same level of technical ability, or who go on to improve their technique playing alongside foreign players.

In addition to this, the tactical side of the game that European sides are sometimes better at (I'm thinking particularly the Italians) has not necessarily transferred as successfully to English footballers as we might have hoped. This may explain our failure to seriously challenge at World Cups and European Championships in recent years.

A few years ago I came up with my own theory that the English Premier League has become the 'Wimbledon tennis' of the football world. Like Wimbledon, the Premier League is a great product, a brilliant competition for players and spectators. Big crowds with history, and tradition, but like Wimbledon the strength and popularity of the Premier League is beginning to have little or no relevance in the ability of this country to produce world class home grown talent.

Admittedly I'm perhaps being a little harsh on English football as we can still produce a hell of a lot more better footballers than tennis players, but there are some parallels. Despite the success of English clubs in the Champions League, the fact that so few English players are involved in this success, means that for the time being I will struggle to see this as the beginning of a golden period of English football.

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