Commentary

Thoughts on the Englishness of the English Premier League

LONDON --  The English Premier League certainly displayed its diversity credentials this past weekend. On Saturday we got Chelsea vs. Liverpool -- a top of the table game between two unbeaten teams, both loaded with spirited attacking players.

A game that promised much, and a game that pretty much delivered the goods. Both teams looking to go forward all the time. Admittedly, all that attacking power could only produce two goals -- but what goals -- an inch-perfect finish from Eden Hazard, j-u-u-u-s-t out of the goalkeeper’s reach, and just inside the post, to give Chelsea the lead. Then last-minute dramatics from Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge with a sweetly, smoothly taken shot that almost glowed in the air -- Watch me! Watch me! -- as it sailed perfectly into the net.

A wonderful climax to an outstanding game. Sturridge saved a point for Liverpool -- but he also made another, not quite so comfortable point: he had created arguably the most skillful moment of the game, but he was one of only six English players who played in the game.

Indeed, he had been on the field only three minutes when he scored. Not one of Chelsea’s starters was English. Liverpool had four, plus one Scot. Late in the game (81st) Chelsea brought on Ross Barkley. All very much SOP for the English Premier League, which is not really very English at all. I forgot to mention, both Chelsea and Liverpool have foreign (not English, that is) coaches.

That was Saturday. What we got on Sunday was something completely different. Cardiff vs. Burnley. Two of the league’s least attractive, least successful teams. Yet this was apparently the EPL’s showcase game of the week, with the valued Sunday slot all to itself. Not another EPL game in sight.

Different did I say? Two English coaches -- Neil Warnock for Cardiff (a Welsh team, incidentally), and Sean Dyche for Burnley.

And -- whatever next? -- 11 English starters, 8 with Burnley, 3 with Cardiff. Burnley also included a Welshman, Cardiff had two from the Irish Republic and a Scot.

If not entirely English, this game had a strong claim to make that it was upholding the traditional values of English, or British soccer. And what might they be?

A curious comment made by the TV guys during the Cardiff-Burnley game sheds some light on that. At the 27-minute mark, analyst Jim Beglin (from the Republic of Ireland) suddenly complained that the game was “most certainly lacking in quality.” He listed what seemed to him to be its only positive aspects: “It is physical, it’s combative, there’s plenty of enthusiasm out there ...” when the English play-by-play guy, Jon Champion, butted in with “It’s very British ...”

The game was, unmistakably, dreadful. Champion lamented that we had “yet to see an attempt on target.” As the half closed, he relayed up-to-date stats: “280 passes were logged in the first half, the lowest figure of any Premier League game this season.”

At full time, the Burnley and Cardiff stats for passing were abysmal. Here they are along with the corresponding figures from the Chelsea-Liverpool game:

Team: Passes -- Accuracy %
Burnley: 286 -- 55%
Cardiff: 317 -- 63%
Chelsea: 558 -- 83%
Liverpool: 616 -- 83%

I can add some stats of my own devising to those depressing totals. My way of rating the acceptability of a game -- of assessing its value both as soccer and as entertainment -- is to count the headers, the number of times the ball is headed.

My reasoning is straightforward: soccer should be played with the ball on the ground. Only there can the sport’s signature skills, dribbling and other forms of ball artistry, flow freely.

Bearing that in mind, the following stats should come as no surprise:

Chelsea (54) vs. Liverpool (39): Total headers: 93
Cardiff (126) vs. Burnley (96): Total headers: 212

Caution: This stat has value only as the total for both teams, when the aesthetic judgment “the higher the total the worse the game” can be safely inferred. The sub-totals, for each team, should not be read as meaning the same thing -- i.e. that the higher the number the more that team resorts to aerial play.

More probably, the opposite is true, that a high number shows a team reacting to the persistent aerial play of its opponent. Cardiff’s high of 126 headers includes 28 that I recorded as coming from long balls played by the Burnley goalkeeper, who hit every goal kick or punt long and high, virtually demanding it be headed.

I think it is safe to assume that anything that warrants the label “very British” will include a lot of aerial play. The example I’ve given, of two games, both played in the English Premier League, is telling. The “English” game, featuring two English coaches, and nearly three times as many English players, logs in with over twice as many headers, a huge, off-the-chart difference that cannot be ignored.

Anyway, there is more. The pass-accuracy rate is woeful -- though to be expected if the teams are slamming long balls at each other. And in this Cardiff-Burnley game there was an incident that stood out -- to me, anyway -- as deeply typical of a “very British” approach. In minute 38, Burnley goalkeeper Joe Hart raced forward and leapt into a crowd of players to punch away a cross. In doing so he also slammed hard into one of his own players, Sam Vokes.

The whole reaction to the incident was dismissive -- and British to the core. Beglin immediately jumped in to explain that what Hart had done was just fine: “That’s what keepers are instructed to do, just go through the lot, whoever’s in front of you, doesn’t matter, as long as you get something on the ball, and he did that ...”

Down on the field, Vokes was briefly treated, and as he walked slowly to the sideline, a TV camera picked out Hart and referee Martin Atkinson chatting, both of them enjoying a good laugh. Those two reactions -- Beglin justifying violent, and potentially dangerous, play, and goalkeeper Hart and referee Atkinson finding it all good clean fun, are a sharp look at how the English game is still a prisoner of its Victorian ancestry.

The “English” game of this past weekend in the English Premier League was simply embarrassing. Neither Cardiff nor Burnley did anything to suggest they belong at the same level of play as Chelsea and Liverpool.

And even as I type those words, I know they’re not true. The two games featured five goals -- two very good ones -- from Chelsea and Liverpool -- and two efficient efforts from Burnley. Then there was Cardiff’s goal, which I rate as the best of the lot. A goal from a team that shares last place in the league, a team that had scored only three goals in seven games and not won any of them. A team playing crude survival soccer ... and it comes up with a truly beautiful goal.

All it took was 18 seconds as the ball moved with speed and luxurious certainty along the turf -- no aerial play here -- out on the right flank. From Bruno Ecuele Manga (who’s from Gabon), to the Spaniard Victor Camarasa who dribbled it forward a few yards and then rolled it back perfectly to the feet of Manga who had run forward to the edge of the penalty area. From there Manga pushed the ball across the area. Waiting, but already moving to meet the ball was Josh Murphy ... a firm, controlled swing of his right foot sent the ball spinning into the net, as Joe Hart dived for it. Hart didn’t touch the ball -- no Burnley defender managed to get anywhere near the ball once it started its enchanted Manga-Camarasa-Manga-Murphy adventure. All done at speed, but never hurried. A goal to savor among the dreck of a pretty awful game.

A reminder of just how perverse soccer can be, why it’s never safe to be certain about anything in this teasing sport. Oh, did I tell you? Josh Murphy is English.

4 comments about "Thoughts on the Englishness of the English Premier League".
  1. Richard Broad, October 2, 2018 at 10:17 a.m.

    Sounds a lot like MLS.

  2. beautiful game, October 2, 2018 at 4:29 p.m.

    R.B. you tell it the way it is...efficacy and purpose is last on the MLS coaches notepad. 

  3. frank schoon, October 2, 2018 at 6:04 p.m.

    Read the quote by Chris Armas, in the article: 'MLS Focus: No BWP, No Tyler Adams', he states describing two of his MLS players in the following manner:  <" They can run, they can fight, they have courage, they are good in the air, they can step in front, they can win foot races"> Notice nothing about ball skills, creativity, touch, positioning off the ball, thinking ability, passing dexterity, but only about pure RAW power.  
    He sounds like he's describing 3rd division English soccer.... This is one of the main reasons why US player development hasn't gone anywhere in the past 50 years  , because we have coaches at the highest level who still see soccer on a Neanderthal level. It is that level where players roll up the sleeves, take out the dentures, foam on the mouth, and let the fans smell the BenGay as you run down the field. Our player development  has also been hurt by having too much influence of English coaches,here.
    This is why I find it so important to not have former players who lacked creativity and were simple piano carriers like Chris Armas coaching youth or MLS. And to boot, he's a licensed coach too.
    What the MLS needs are coaches who were creative in their playing days and for youth up to about the age of 16 to not have coaches who were former defenders but instead skillfull creative technicians of the game.

  4. R2 Dad, October 5, 2018 at 12:40 a.m.

    The headed ball metric is telling,but there are SO many licensed coaches (of Brit background or otherwise) who do not see this as a problem. Even on this site there are posters who defend the long ball strategy as effective; athleticism primary, no concept of the value of a good first touch, atribute no value to vision, passing quality or properly weighted passes. IT'S BEEN 25 YEARS since we rejoined the sport. Is there any redemption for these coaches are should they just be blackballed from youth soccer?

    I propose that coaches new to the sport should first start working with U19s. And once they've bestowed their genius on 18 year olds, and figured things out in 5-10 years, should they then be allowed to go near kids under 10.

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