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What the EPL is and isn't
by Paul Gardner, August 31st, 2008 5:16PM
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LONDON -- The world's best, top, most important, richest, most attractive, most widely followed league is up and running. The English Premier League may well be all of those things, or maybe just a few of them.

But one claim that it can not make is that it consistently produces the world's best soccer. The caliber of the games varies dizzily between exhilaratingly good and nauseatingly bad.

In fact, the caliber of a single team can show just that huge divergence in the space of a week. Arsenal, for instance. Last week it went down 1-0 at Fulham, which is hardly a team to set anyone quaking in his cleats. By general opinion, Arsenal was uninspired and quite awful. But this Saturday the "real" Arsenal turned up, the Arsenal that is the acknowledged flag-flier in the EPL for playing attractive soccer.

Poor Newcastle -- a typical, average and therefore not particularly interesting, EPL team -- was swept aside by an emphatic 3-0 scoreline, buried by the vastly superior skills of Arsenal, by the intricacy of its passing, by the much higher level of its soccer thinking.

Is it possible that this sudden, seven-day transformation of Arsenal from woeful to wonderful is all due to midfielder Cesc Fabregas -- who did not play against Fulham, but returned to the team against Newcastle? Answer: yes indeed.

Without Fabregas, a true midfield maestro, Arsenal is incapable of playing its inspiring soccer. Which is a huge problem, for the style of an entire team -- you can extend that to the hopes of an entire season -- should not all rest on the skills of a single player.

The Arsenal style needs a highly creative midfield, it needs inventive players alongside Fabregas. Certainly, Arsene Wenger is well aware of that -- but his efforts to supply those players have always seemed to me to be tempered by a caution that bows to the perceived necessities of the EPL to include one or more "ball-winner".

Yet even here, Wenger has not gone the whole hog. He has tried to use Brazilians there -- players like Edu and Gilberto, bustling, strong tackling midfielders, hardly Brazilian-style players at all. But both proved unsatisfactory, contributing little to the "beautiful game," and evidently not players who could reduce their game to the joys of simply getting stuck in.

Mathieu Flamini proved more to Wenger's liking -- plenty of physical play there, but not much sign of artistry. But Flamini has moved on -- so what now for the Arsenal midfield?

The problem for Wenger is that he truly does want to do something different. For virtually every other coach in the EPL the midfield answer is always to load up on the workhorses. That was the answer applied, from the start, by Jose Mourinho when he descended on Chelsea. He ended up with a midfield dominated by Claude Makelele, John Obi Mikel and Michael Essien: goodbye to attractive soccer. Mourinho surely could have brought in Deco (he was the crucial player on Mourinho's European Cup-winning Porto team) but he evidently didn't see Deco as a player for an EPL midfield.

The new Chelsea coach, Felipe Scolari, thinks differently and Deco is now a Chelsea player. This is good news for those who like their soccer skillful rather than merely willful. Maybe Scolari can make Chelsea worth watching at last.

But Wenger has the edge here, as he has been dipping his toe -- even his whole foot -- into the "Beautiful Game" water for some time now. As a partner for Fabregas he has tried Aleksandr Hleb, without great success. Two others have shown promise -- the currently injured Tomas Rosicky, and the Brazilian Denilson -- much more of a creative player than either Edu or Gilberto ever were, but his inexperience is a drawback.

But there is encouraging news, in rumor form anyway, that Wenger is looking to replace Flamini with a much better player, one who can play alongside Fabregas, who can play the same sort of skillful soccer -- a player who will ensure that the absence of Fabregas does not mean the collapse of the Arsenal style. Namely: Xabi Alonso, of Liverpool. An Arsenal midfield of Fabregas, Alonso and the young Denilson would put the emphasis firmly on creativity and artistry. The fourth member would presumably be either Emmanuel Eboue or Diaby -- both more the Rottweiler type supposedly essential for the EPL.

So: a skillful Arsenal, the possibility of a skillful Chelsea, maybe a similar trend at Tottenham, under Juande Ramos.

All three teams under foreign coaches, be it noted. Liverpool -- also with a foreign coach -- might be added to that list. And a fifth team must definitely be included -- Manchester United, with the old-faithful Scot Alex Ferguson running the show. I can't honestly see the ManU midfield as devoted to skillful soccer, at the moment. It may look that way, but that is primarily the result of the dazzling influence of Ronaldo. Take him away, and things can look rather ordinarily British -- Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick, Owen Hargreaves, Paul Scholes. But ManU have always been a bit different, and Ferguson seems, rather late in the day, to be finding Brazilian players attractive. The possibility of midfield artistry is very much alive at United.

Also very much alive -- how would it not be? -- is the polar opposite: the English predilection for roughneck midfielders. Arsenal's scintillating performance against Newcastle was sullied right at the end when Newcastle coach Kevin Keegan chose to introduce the renegade Joey Barton to the game. The barrage of boos was inevitable -- and so was Barton's first contribution, a crunching tackle on Arsenal's Samir Nasri. A totally unnecessary midfield tackle. Nasri retaliated and got himself a yellow.

Only Keegan can tell us why he persists with a dreadful serial offender like Barton, a player who brings nothing but trouble, and who will shortly, no doubt, be receiving a stiff suspension from the English FA.

It is the Barton's of English soccer -- and the coaches who repeatedly excuse their excesses -- who stand in the way of the EPL being able to claim the honor of producing the world's best soccer.

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