- England lack the players to compete at major finals
- A great football culture and league does not produce great players
- Steven Gerrard’s status symbolizes the malaise and betrays denial
Once again England turn up at a World Cup – and once again they go out lamenting the state of their game, consoling themselves in the strength of their domestic league, powerful only in terms of finance.
The Premier League is a fantastic competition. English football culture is among the deepest on the planet, but other than the raucous atmospheres and historic backdrops provided by the host country, the Premier League is primarily a multi-cultural championship dominated by foreign talents brought to England by the obscene financial inducements provided by Arab, Russian, and Australian “businessmen” in the shape of the Abu-Dhabi royal family, Roman Abramovich, and Rupert Murdoch.
Due to its compelling nature, people routinely conflate the strength of the Premier League with the strength of English football, but the league does not represent the football nation that hosts it in the way that, say, the Bundesliga does in Germany. Strip out the stellar foreigners and you’re left with Steven Gerrard and the England national team.
Even at the top level in Germany or Italy, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, and Juventus are stuffed full of top-class indigenous talent. Manuel Neuer, Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Maro Reus, Gianluigi Buffon, and Andrea Pirlo serve their clubs with distinction. Compare those clubs with Manchester City, the new English champions, and you’ve got Joe Hart, Head and Shoulders, and little else.
True, Liverpool provided six players for England’s latest defeat to Uruguay last Thursday, but Liverpool haven’t been champions for 24 years and last season’s unexpected second place was, well, unexpected, coming as it did on the back of a modest seventh placed finish the season before. Seventh place is more or less where England’s seam of indigenous talent finds its level. That’s where Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck placed in May.
Whatever the impact foreign players have had on the English game – and it is positive as well as negative – the inescapable truth is that England just doesn’t have the players to compete for a major international title. Every two years we go through the same ritual – and every two years the manager is blamed. Yet, while the tournaments change and the managers change, one constant remains: the players.
To listen to some pundits bemoan the lack of Ashley Cole and John Terry last week was to wonder if anybody had seen how the two Chelsea controversialists – the only two England players to embellish their reputations this month – had approximated Sunday morning park players in Bloemfontein four years ago.
The current England team is blighted by such delusional thinking: that the nation had a golden generation who just needed the right manager to bring their potential to glorious fruition. It’s why Steven Gerrard not only played in midfield – again without distinction – but captained the side, passing on his own contagious fear of failure when providing a pep talk on the perils of defeat to his less experienced team-mates prior to the Uruguay reverse. Picture Ross Barkley or Raheem Sterling having to listen to the voice of failure – though Sterling has, no doubt, had all season to get used to it – and wonder how “inspired” they must have felt.
As it was, Gerrard was anonymous in Sao Paulo, conceding possession for Edinson Cavani’s glorious, flighted cross to home-in on the forehead of Luis Suarez. Then, deep into the second half, there was Captain Fantastic bamboozling his defence by failing to correctly connect with Fernando Muslera’s lofted punt.
Finally, as if to confirm his inadequacy at the highest level, there was Gerrard, with his reputation slipping away like his footing at Anfield, shooting wildly wide with moments remaining to keep the ball alive and England in with a glimmer of an equalizer to rescue a dismal campaign. When his team needed him, his most significant contribution was to terrorize his team-mates with talk of long, miserable summers. At least Wayne Rooney popped up with an assist and a goal.
Hodgson deserves criticism for setting his team up with two holding midfielders and for upsetting the shape of the side from match-to-match, but most of all he deserves umbrage for playing Gerrard. Yet, for a Press which considers Gerrard a world talent, it’s not credible for them to pillory a decent man for a decision that they themselves supported: the elevation of Captain Slip to the status of undroppable inspiration.