How "English" is the English Premier League? Part II
In Part I of this article series, I set out a rationale that explains the international context of today’s footballing environment as relates to the English Premier league. In this second instalment, we examine the impact of foreign influence across all aspects of the game.
By the early '90s, there was already a sprinkling of foreign players within the English leagues but their impact wasn’t in any way significant at the time.
Twenty non-British players were registered to play in the inaugural season of the Premier league. In the 2009-2010 season, there are 337 registered players from 66 different countries.
Numerous arguments have been put forward suggesting that this monumental growth of foreign players in the EPL of over 1500 percent in 18 years has adversely affected English football.
The case is made that the quality of English football and the progress of English players is hampered by the continued participation of such large numbers of foreign players in the EPL.
There are fundamental flaws in the premise of such arguments. For one, taking this view invites an inherent assumption that English football and the culture around it is better than and is perhaps being tainted by a foreign brand of football. In my view, it’s an assumption that totally tests the boundaries of arrogance and vanity.
Secondly, such arguments miss the fact that the collective influence of foreign players has brought so much more to the premier league as a way of life. The inevitable by-product of this is that English players are in a much better environment to prosper and develop their technical capability because they’re playing alongside quality players, some of whom are the best in the world.
The most noticeable impact that foreign players have brought to the English game is the addition of flair, creativity and technical skill.
The overall quality of the football has significantly improved and for the most part, this exciting mix of world talent has been responsible for making the EPL as successful as it is.
I think it’s fair to say that the EPL wouldn’t be what it is now without the likes of top quality foreign players like Dennis Bergkamp, Eric Cantona, Paulo Di Canio, Jian Franco Zola, Patrick Vieira, Jurgen Klinsmann, Robert Pires, Thierry Henry, Christiano Ronaldo, etc.
This argument in part has morphed into an almost instinctive need by the English football establishment to defend what I would refer to as the endangered species that is the English brand of football. I believe that taking this view is a simplistic cop-out that plants us firmly onto the slippery slope of xenophobic attitudes.
I’ll expand more on how I see the xenophobia manifesting itself in the final instalment of this article tomorrow—but it’s worth just mentioning the notion abound that the growth and development of English players is actually stunted or adversely affected by the increased number of foreign players in the EPL is a falsehood.
The fact of the matter is that if England players are talented, they shouldn’t have a problem rising to the top and being part of the cream of the crop.
It says a lot when many EPL managers are now opting to sign non-English players for the simple reason that English players generally come with an over-inflated price tag that is not a true reflection of their value on the pitch.
A good example to illustrate my point is the comparison between Jolian Lescott, who cost Manchester City £22 million and Thomas Vermaelen, the former Ajax captain and the current Belgian national team captain, who cost Arsenal £10 million.
Another example—Fabien Delph cost Aston Villa £7 million, which is more expensive than what it cost Arsenal to acquire both Cesc Fabregas and Robin Van Persie.
Influence of Foreign Managers
Allow me to use Arsene Wenger as the perfect illustration of the influence of foreign managers in English football.
In a recent UEFA report by Andy Roxburgh, the former England manager and now football commentator for BBC radio Graham Taylor makes a telling observation about Arsene Wenger.
Arsene Wenger has changed the face of English football. When he came in 1996 pretty well everybody was playing 4-4-2 but we were playing a static game and Wenger has to be given great credit for getting the movement of players and the flexibility of teams.
Wenger produced a side that did play 4-4-2 but it was a very flexible 4-4-2. The front four were able to exchange with great movement. This allowed Arsenal’s flair players to play as strikers and midfielders at the same time with anyone of them likely to score.
Former Arsenal players have alluded to their first impressions and reactions to Wenger joining Arsenal in September 1996.
On being informed that they had a new French manager, the almost instinctive reaction in the dressing room was “He’s French, what the hell does he know about English football?”
This initial reaction, coupled with the now infamous headline from the London Evening Standard of ”Arsene Who?” pales into insignificance when you evaluate the sheer impact that Arsene Wenger has had in English football.
I highly recommend that you read a more in-depth article I wrote called "Where Arsenal leads, others will follow." In this article, I capture what I think makes Wenger’s impact and influence to English football both unique and ground breaking.
It isn’t just the fact that Wenger is the second most successful manager in the EPL having won seven major trophies (not counting the Community Shields)—and achieving two doubles in the process.
The tangibility of the trophies somewhat clouds the intangibility of the vision he has brought to the game, the style and brand of football (better known as Wengerball) that Arsenal plays, and the training and development culture that he has instilled at London Colney.
Off the pitch, Wenger has worked well with the Arsenal board to ensure that Arsenal is now recognized as one of the top five most successful football clubs in the world.
The fact that this has been done despite the shackles imposed on Arsenal by the expensive move to Ashburton Grove from Highbury, the fact that he has had to build a squad from within Arsenal’s youth development structure for most part, and the fact that Arsenal remains a very solvent and financially healthy club in this age of economic turmoil makes Wenger’s achievements all the more remarkable.
IN the article on Arsenal’s leadership I referred you to above, big names in the footballing world like Guus Hiddink, Fabio Capello, Rafa Benitez, and even Manchester City Chairman Gary Cook pay great tribute to the impact Wenger has had on the English game.
They do this in their endorsement of Arsenal’s vision and their own desire for others to follow in Arsenal’s footsteps.
Join us tomorrow for the last instalment of this article series. I’ll briefly touch on the influence of the ownership of clubs by foreign individuals.
I’ll also talk about how I see the xenophobia that I’ve previously mentioned manifest itself in the context of the struggle of achieving a balance between the quintessentially English brand of football, and well—football in the 21st century.
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