Not long ago, it appeared English football had reverted back to the dark ages, with no light at the end of the tunnel.
Perhaps such a condemnation was rather premature, considering the Three Lions comfortably qualified for the World Cup in Brazil, albeit in a rather laboured and uninspiring fashion.
But more than simply FIFA rankings and our place at the world’s greatest footballing spectacle at stake, the slow but steady decline of the national team, the unfulfilled potential of our supposed golden generation, epitomised concerns about the manner in which we view, teach and train football in England.
Harry Redknapp summarised the issue perfectly in his column for the Sun in June this year, after an incredibly poor showing from the Young Lions in last summer’s U21 European Championship, arguing; “The overriding problem we all face is that English football must change. And it has to come from the very top of the game. We do not know how to play football. We just boot the ball up the pitch and it gets us nowhere.
“In international football you cannot just hit and hope because you give the ball away. It’s all about possession, retaining the ball, controlling the game. We need coaches who believe in that ideal.”
Extrapolate the current trend further, and you can only see the Three Lions moving backwards as a footballing entity. A view clearly shared by new FA chief Greg Dyke, who a few months ago instigated his own committee to get to the heart of the intrinsic issues the national game currently faces.
But before we receive Dyke’s recommendations around March-time next year, there are already signs that things are changing for the better. The source; the current Premier League campaign.
In a season completely different to any other, where Tottenham broke their transfer record three times in the same window, Manchester United have transformed into uncomfortable mid-tablers and Arsene Wenger spent £42million on a single player, as if someone somewhere in the footballing heavens had hit the reset button and instigated a ground-zero scenario not too dissimilar to the end of Fight club, it’s surprisingly been the football purists that have managed to progress, whilst the hoof-ball enthusiasts have failed to dominate.
The fact Arsene Wenger is now reaping the rewards for over a decade’s worth of stubbornness when it comes to his footballing philosophy is no coincidence. With Mesut Ozil seemingly the final piece of the purist jigsaw falling into place, Arsenal are now topping the Premier League table, and barring Manchester City’s home form are undoubtedly playing the best football in the country right now.
Compare that to Chelsea, a side who Jose Mourinho has transformed from free-thinking experimentalists, often to their own demise at times last season, into a gang of Special-One-fearing robots, and you begin to see my point.
The Blues are currently five points off the league leaders, despite trumping their summer spending by some £20million in the offseason, which I’d argue has something to do with the fact only 60% of their goals this season have come from open play, in comparison to Arsenal’s 83%.
At the same time, Everton and Liverpool have both emerged as dark horses this season. The Reds are currently in second place with 30 points, whilst their local rivals aren’t too far behind in fifth with 28.
Over the last few years, both clubs have sought transformation into aesthetically pleasing sides after suffering from brief identity crises.
Following campaign upon campaign of stagnation, the Anfield outfit turned to Brendan Rodgers, a manager famed for his faith in possession football and bringing through youngsters.
And it’s through that philosophical belief that he’s got the Liverpool house in order, donning the youngest roster in the entire division and insisting upon a style of football that emphasises control of the ball as the key to success.
This season they’ve averaged 55% possession per match and a pass completion ratio of 85%, with the latter statistic only bettered by Arsenal, City and Swansea. Their 57 long balls per match is also the fourth-fewest in the league.
In a similar fashion, Everton’s loss of David Moyes had many at Goodison fearing the worst. But if anything, the appointment of Roberto Martinez has pushed the Toffees even closer towards his predecessor’s ultimate aim of Champions League qualification.
The Spaniard has insisted upon a style of football sharply deviating from the former Everton gaffer’s more traditional and direct approach, that’s seen them claim the fifth-highest possession rate in the league and a pass success rate of 83% this season.
With more emphasis on inventive attack than solid defence, and smooth transitions between 3-4-3 and 4-5-1 formations, the Merseysiders have become incredibly pleasing on the eye. Subsequently, results are improving all the time, best illustrated by four points claimed in their last two Premier League fixtures against Manchester United and Arsenal.
However, what’s most impressive about Everton’s transformation is the fact they were largely considered to be a long ball side, albeit more classy than your average West Ham or Stoke outfit, just a matter of months ago.
Martinez has been able to create an incredibly different, more productive and inventive style of football out of essentially the same group of players, which should serve as a lesson in mind for those Three Lions neysays who argue our entrenched hit-and-hope culture is incapable of change.
If Phil Jagileka and Gareth Barry can be at the heart-beat of a team who outplayed Arsenal at the Emirates last weekend, any home-grown talent can.
Furthermore, at the centre of each club’s successful escapades this year has been a glowing British contingent. At Arsenal, Welshman Aaron Ramsey is leading the scoring charts, with eight goals and five assists in 14 starts. Jack Wilshere, Theo Wacott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Kerian Gibbs too have all contributed; their influence would have been key if they’d managed to stay off the sidelines.
For Everton, Phil Jagielka, Irishman James McCarthy, Gareth Barry, Leighton Baines and Leon Osman have all been vital to the cause, but it’s Ross Barkley – perhaps the greatest technical talent of his generation – who’s been receiving the rave reviews for his impact in the final third.
And at Liverpool, although Luis Suarez has been the star of the show, the efforts of Daniel Sturridge, Steven Gerrard, Glen Johnson, Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling should not go unnoticed.
From the depths of long-ball oblivion, the unpredictability of the current Premier League season has allowed the purist sides, prioritising technical ability and flair over mechanical stability, to shine through, with home-grown talents at the core.
It’s by no means a revolution to England’s footballing woes, but certainly serves as a suggestion we’re finally moving in the right direction. One can only hope that all three clubs maintain their strong form until the end of the season, demonstrating to the more traditionalist managers, including Roy Hodgson, that there is a vital correlation between results and the breed of football you choose to adopt.
Yet there is one sour note to finally end on. Wenger, Rodgers, Martinez; all philosophical dreamers and champagne football enthusiasts, none English. If the modern game is to be transformed, we need home-grown coaches teaching a style of play more common abroad than in the British isles.
Such an overhaul could take generations to fully materialise, but its the shining examples Arsenal, Everton and Liverpool are providing this season that will get the process in motion.