In a footballing world of dazzling clichés and fabled stereotype, there is perhaps one archetypally English train of thought, that even now, retains a certain amount of prominence within the Barclays Premier League.
As a national game, the traits of both pace and power have perhaps always been favoured over a footballer’s other set of technical attributes. Each country has a national footballing identity and it is the unrelenting physicality of the English game that has defined ours. The Tiki-taka bigwigs may be happy to throw a continental sneer our way, but the sight of an Alan Shearer like figure causing aerial carnage is just as enjoyable as any amount of five yard passes. Or maybe not, you decide.
But when does an intrinsic love for the traditional elements of the national game, overshadow footballing logic in today’s Premier League climate? There is, or certainly has been, such an obsession with height and physical size in this country, that some have been led to believe that bigger is better for our nation’s footballers.
But the truth is that what we see in our league today is living proof that while physical attributes are important, the notion that smaller talents can’t exist within this league, is a real urban myth. No one should underestimate the importance of debunking it, either.
When circling together the outstanding playmakers and technicians within the Premier League, it makes for some interesting observations. You could perhaps argue about the merits of even making such a shortlist in itself, but arguments sake, let’s take Shinji Kagawa, Eden Hazard, Juan Mata, David Silva and Santi Cazorla. You can perhaps guess where we’re going with this one. Of course, the common denominator that binds here, is one of height – or a distinct lack of it.
Our fab five are of a rare breed of talent and within Cazorla and Hazard in particular, two of the league’s real stand out performers of the season so far. But who’s the tallest? Coming in at a towering six-foot-seven and half inches is Manchester United’s gifted Japanese midfielder, Shinji Kagawa. His peers all measure in smaller.
Depending on your viewpoint, that may or may not come as a shock, but to many, it won’t represent any real surprise. The real magicians in this league are the men of a smaller stature and with their low centre of gravity, they will always be able to pull off the sort of tricks that their taller teammates will struggle to do. But it’s not just about the tricks and flicks.
Although out of the five, only Mata and Silva have completed at least a full Premier League season, these players are proving more than capable at coping with the fabled rigors of the Premier League. Even if we look at our own English contingent – the fact there are so little of this breed, tells a very telling story in itself – many observers cast a cloud over Tom Cleverley’s ability to deal with the physicality of hulking midfielders and no nonsense centre halves.
But these players have demonstrated that brains are as potent of an asset as brawn is in this league. The ability to negotiate challenges through guile, as much as guts, is as invaluable as the use of a bit of tactical nous to evade ABH-like man marking. You don’t have to be a six-foot plus tower of muscle to excel in the English top flight anymore. So if that’s the case, why do we still hear of academies turning players away due to their height? It’s a stigma that is seemingly just as hard to shake at the top level as it is in the pub.
Physical development is a trait fraught with difficulty during a footballer’s development. Some youth players will look head and shoulders above the rest because they’re early sprouters, where as some simply won’t develop adequately enough to fill their position – a five-foot-five centre half might not make it too far. And of course, even the greatest make mistakes. Inter Milan once turned away a certain Franco Baresi, because of his height. He subsequently went on to become one of the greatest AC Milan defenders to have ever played the game.
Perhaps the fact that none of the aforementioned five players used for our example height hold a British passport, goes some way to giving the weight of this attitude, a bit of serious thought. Attitudes are changing in this country, but there still remains work to be done. It was only two years ago when two of our country’s most prominent footballing figures, Harry Redknapp and Alan Shearer, suggested that they wouldn’t swap any of the England national players for the German ones. Subsequently, a German team consisting mainly of smaller, technical players, went on to destroy Fabio Capello’s men 4-1 in Bloemfontein.
Since then, attitudes in England are undoubtedly changing, but there is still some work to be done before the myth is well and truly debunked. The building of St. Georges Park complex and the redevelopment of coaching philosophies in this country is a quantum leap in the right direction. But it’ll be sacrilegiously underutilized if this culture of shunning the smaller footballer continues to exist. It’s already depressing merely thinking how many potentially great English footballers have slipped through the net already, just because of their height.
Of course, the culture of excess in English football seems to dictate that nothing is done by halves and as important as it is to ensure smaller players aren’t being shunned completely, we shouldn’t start writing the obituary for the pacey and powerful footballer. It’s the lifeblood of our game and we’re very good at producing them. How about just developing a footballer because he has the talent, not because of how tall or small he is?
But until then, let’s sit back and enjoy the maestros at work. David Silva has been dubbed ‘Merlin’ by some up at Eastlands. Living proof that size doesn’t matter within the Barclays Premier League.
Does size matter in the Premier League? Let me know what you think on Twitter: follow @samuel_antrobus and let me know where you stand on the big v small debate.