Pundits are falling over each other to shout about how wonderful it is – the greatest sporting underdog story of all time. Leicester, a team many backed for relegation back in August, sitting on top of the Premier League. Yet sadly, I’m not sure it is wonderful for English football. I’d suggest that it’s rather an indication of the mess that English football finds itself in. If Leicester do go on to win the title, it won’t indicate that the Premier League is the best league in the world; rather, it will illustrate just how far it has fallen.
It is not just Leicester winning the League that raises alarm bells. Realistically, they could be joined by Tottenham, Arsenal and West Ham in the Champions League places. To put this in perspective, the Spanish equivalent would see Levante, Sevilla, Atletico and Real Sociedad in the top spots, whilst in Germany it would be Stuttgart, Augsburg, Mönchengladbach and Köln. If this happened, then we would almost certainly be talking about the untimely decline of La Liga or the Bundesliga. Indeed, there is no doubt in my mind that English football is on the decline when compared to the other major leagues in Europe. When you look at the players that are lighting up Europe – such as Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Suarez – it is clear that their like can no longer be seen in Manchester, Liverpool or London. Further evidence of this can be seen from Balon d’Or nominations – only four Premier League players made the top 20, and not a single one made the top five.
Furthermore, the league is not just suffering in terms of losing stars: team performance in European competition is on a downward trend too. Prior to the 2011/12 season, English teams won more than 50 per cent of their Champions League games in four out of the previous five seasons. Since then, however, the statistic has reversed. Only in one season have they won more games than not. Many say that the competitive ‘anyone-can-beat-anyone’ nature of the Premier League is what makes it the best, but when competitiveness comes at the expense of the best teams getting worse, surely that cannot be presented as a positive thing. Last season, with four games to go, every team in the Algerian Premier Division could have won the league. Yet whilst this is the epitome of competitiveness, you wouldn’t find many people calling it the best league in the world.
when competitiveness comes at the expense of the best teams getting worse, surely that cannot be presented as a positive thing.
So how can the Premier League arrest this decline and secure stability and success going forward? I believe that the answer is three-fold: a change in the winter schedule; embracing head coaches over managers; and a revolution of English youth coaching.
Foreign coaches have mooted the removal of Christmas fixtures and the introduction of a winter break for years. The medical argument is conclusive. There is a consensus amongst sport scientists that high-performance athletes need at least 72 hours to recover after performing. It is not an issue of fitness or willpower; it is instead a question of what the body is capable of, and the Christmas period pushes players beyond that. The over-fatigue leads to injuries later in the season, which in turn leads to Premier League teams dropping off when other European teams hit their top gear. This is an issue that becomes more important every year.
Secondly, the era of Harry Redknapp-esque wheeler-dealer managers is over. For many years, fans and pundits alike have treated the position of director of football with disdain – a foreign phenomenon that couldn’t possibly work in the UK. The problem is that this view is both wrong and increasingly gives the person purporting it a Nigel Farage-like air. Not only do the best teams in continental Europe now use directors of football and statistical analysis to acquire players, the teams that punch most above their weight in the Premier League do too. Southampton, Tottenham and – dare I say it – Leicester all use similar systems. The Foxes have Jon Rudkin, Director of Football, and Steve Walsh, Head of Recruitment, working over a team of technical scouts that watch games and analyse stats. It is this team that uncovered Ngolo Kante and Riyad Mahrez, two of the best players in the league this season. By moving away from the traditional system of player purchases, we would no longer see Manchester United splurging on past-it ‘galacticos’ like Falcao and Bastian Schweinsteiger; rather, they would search for real value.
Thirdly, there has to be a major change in the way we coach young players in the UK. The success of major leagues is built upon players coached in their countries from a young age. You can see this in all of the big European leagues. Unfortunately, British coaching seems to have stood still over the past 30 years. We are still not far removed from nine-year-olds playing 11-a-side on a massive sodden pitch, with parents and coaches alike shouting instructions at them. England international Eric Dier, who grew up in Portugal, alluded to this when interviewed earlier this season. He said that when he came to England, coaches would shout at “players when they made mistakes and they would literally be talking them through the game”. This is in contrast to Portugal, where players would be allowed to learn from their errors. In the UK, passion is valued higher than technical ability amongst young players, and this shows at the professional level – technical continental teams often simply outplay English teams. English coaches must put more emphasis on technical ability, skill and small-sided teams.
We are still not far removed from nine-year-olds playing 11-a-side on a massive sodden pitch, with parents and coaches alike shouting instructions at Them.
Obviously it’s not possible to cover every nuance in a thousand words or so and these ideas may seem worthily long term by comparison with the fevered excitement of an unprecedented Premier League run in, but they must be incorporated into the English game in order that the Premier League keep pace with La Liga and Bundesliga. Almost every English football fan wants the Premier League back on top, but it’s unlikely to happen with Jamie Vardy as the poster boy.