While my contempt for match-day punditry, which appears to involve a selection process from television producers based upon accent and likeability rather than any footballing nous or integrity, usually results in a take-it-or-leave-it approach to whether or not I tune in to build-up coverage of televised games, every Monday night I will turn on Sky Sports an hour early simply to hear the opinions of the weekend’s action from one man – Gary Neville.
He may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is hard to doubt the former Manchester United defender’s ability to hit the nail on the head time and time again when it comes to analysis, with in-depth discussions and a scientific approach of bringing it down to nano-seconds of video coverage to prove his point.
This Monday, the topic of choice was the woes of Newcastle United, having been thrashed 6-0 at home by Liverpool on Saturday, their worst defeat at St. James’ Park since 1925. Neville’s hypothesis on the matter took an interesting turn; while I’d point to Alan Pardew’s incompetence, the assistant to Roy Hodgson saw Newcastle’s reliance upon foreign talent as the underlying flaw in what has been an exceptional poor season from the Premier League’s biggest overachievers last year.
Whereas the English top-flight is renowned for its inclusion of players from all over the world, encompassing and making itself adaptable to various different styles of play and footballing cultures, Gary Neville is concerned that the situation with clubs such as Newcastle, having a rather large French contingent and only four senior Englishmen making ten or more appearances this season, has tipped the balance between foreign and home-grown talent in the wrong direction, and in the process taken away the club’s English identity.
While the argument that the Premier League’s multiculturalism has affected the strength of the England national team has been around for some time and accepted by many, it is perhaps a less considered notion that the consequences of sourcing players from abroad on a large scale is now weakening the top flight itself.
I have some disagreements with Neville over his analysis of Newcastle. The flurry of Ligue 1 talent arriving at the club since their promotion in 2010 to considerably increase the quality of the first team was the major contributing factor in pushing the club to fifth place in the Premier League last season, and furthermore, the talent at Pardew’s disposal appears to be the only dynamic that will work in the Magpies’ favour in their bid to maintain their top-flight status this year.
Having said that, their performance at the weekend smacked of chaos and confusion – the defensive partnership of Steven Taylor and recent signing Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa lacked any understanding between the two, and furthermore, having so many players who are unfamiliar with the Premier League, with five first-team signings coming in from Ligue 1 in January, during the crucial business end of the season is dangerous territory when flirting with the prospect of relegation.
Yet I’d argue that it is rather the speed and hastiness of their acquisitions rather than their nationalities or lack of experience. Queens Park Rangers can be guilty of the same crime, in the same time period, and have furthermore felt a similar, yet more extreme aftermath. The only difference being however that the West Londoners have recruited predominantly from within the Premier League itself, often paying more than Newcastle for their transfers due to their signings already plying their trade in England, with far less reward to show for it.
Similarly, if it is a case of simply having enough English players, there are a number of cases which deviate from the theory. Liverpool’s pursuit of home-grown talent under Sporting Director Damien Comolli and Kenny Dalglish saw them bring Andy Carroll, Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson, and Charlie Adam to Anfield, with all commanding excessive fees and all having varying levels of success, without any living up to the club’s expectations.
It highlights the biggest problem in signing English players in comparison to their foreign counterparts, in that their transfer fees are often escalated beyond proportion due to their nationality. Gary Neville was quizzed on this issue by Ed Chamberlain, with the main crux of his response being that you get what you pay for.
Although it is true in theory that English players are more suitable and have a better understanding of the English game, having been developed in the mould of the Premier League from a tender age, have Liverpool got £20million’s worth of goals and assists out of Stewart Downing, considering the winger recorded none of either during his first season? Furthermore, have they benefited in any way from spending £35million on Andy Carroll? Despite the forward epitomising everything about the British game, the Reds have not created a better sense of their own identity from his presence.
Furthermore, there is only so much you can do with the talent available at the time. The truth is, with the golden generation of English talent having passed by, the array of home-grown players to purchase is sufficiently limited. In the past there has always been a selection of promising youngsters, but with the exceptions of Phil Jones, Jack Wilshere and perhaps Daniel Sturridge, overall there is incredibly little to write home about.
Similarly, the majority of the England national team may ply their trade with the Premier League’s biggest clubs, but the vast majority, such as Gareth Barry, James Milner, Stewart Downing and Scott Parker to name a few, are squad players for their domestic teams, and do not perform integrally vital services, which overall in the Premier League is being left down to foreign players with more flair or greater athleticism.
Whilst Liverpool have squandered and declined as a club, despite having a large enough English clique within the squad, the benefit of foreign influence has been felt my many teams in the top flight. Arsenal’s vintage ‘Invincibles’ team contained just two Englishmen, whilst a more recent and smaller scale example is the recent triumphs of Swansea City. This season, the Welsh club lost its two biggest assets in Scott Sinclair and Joe Allen. But losing the two home-grown talents has allowed for the funding of a Spanish revolution conducted by Michael Laudrup, with former La Liga men Pablo Hernandes, Chico Flores, Jonathan De Guzman and Michu all becoming focal points of the Swans’ starting XI, and being an integral part of the club’s first major trophy win this season.
If anything, the bringing in of players with Spanish flair has created a stronger identity at the Liberty stadium, based around a style of football that spans back to the days of when Roberto Martinez was at the helm. And thus, I come to my main difference with Gary Neville’s point of view.
While he sees English identity as integral to the success of any team plying their football in the Premier League, I believe our top flight’s multiculturalism, vast spectrum of ideologies and influence from all corners of the footballing world has allowed for distinct variation from one team to another, and in the process created separate identities for every club in their own right. From Stoke to Swansea, Spurs to Norwich, and Everton to Arsenal, the Premier League encompasses sparse differences in style, which I believe is not replicated in the top divisions across the continent, which in turn gives the Premiership its uniqueness, and underpins its reputation for being the most exciting and interesting top flight in world football.
Although I understand the pundit’s view point in relation to the woes at St. James’s Park, I believe the flaw is within the club’s execution, rather than its principle. The English footballing identity does not exist how it used to, it is far less prominent, and its characteristics have become far less successful in comparison to the styles of Europe’s elite national teams.
I do not find the Premier League’s multiculturalism an alarming trend, even if it does produce clubs centred around a different particular nationality or major league. Much more concerning is the consensus overall that home-grown talent is simply not cost-effective any more, and why buying foreign is viewed as a far safer investment.