The English Premier League is widely lauded as one of the most exciting leagues in the world, boasting end-to-end action played at a frenetic pace and filled with bone-crunching challenges and plenty of goals. Over the years a large contingent of non-English players have been drawn to the Premier League driven mainly by the lure of large pay packets, amongst other reasons. This has made it more and more difficult for English players to find a place in some teams, especially for some of the teams challenging for silverware at the top of the table. For example, there was a big fuss kicked up when Arsenal named a squad for a Premier League game that did not include a single Englishman.
To my mind, the English footballer is prized for certain traits or characteristics including courage, passion, desire, work rate and grit. A large number of English supporters and fans tend to value these characteristics above technical skills, vision and guile. When I think of English players I think of names like Steve Bruce, courageous Scott Parker, brave John Terry, Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson, James. Milner and so on and so forth. These footballers all display the traits I mentioned earlier and are truly loved by their respective supporters. It’s not just that they work hard on the pitch, run around and shout a lot – it’s also the fact that they are seen to be making the effort which truly enamours them to their fans.
Scott Parker is a great example of this. It could be the 90th minute of a game that his team is losing 0-5, but that does not stop Parker from flying into tackles and harrying opponents as if the game had just kicked off. Parker will strain every sinew and give every last breath to a dying cause and his reward will be a warm round of applause from the stands. Andy Carroll, during his ill-fated time at Liverpool, was applauded time and time again by his home supporters as he tried valiantly to live up to his £35 million price tag. Although the Liverpool faithful realised early on that he did not possess the technical ability to deliver on the monstrous mill around his neck, they appreciated his efforts as he defended corners in his own penalty area and worked his socks off as a non-scoring striker.
At the other end of the English footballing spectrum lie mainly foreign players and Michael Carrick. Some players are always viewed with suspicion from the time they enter the league and never shake that tag – enter Dimitar Berbatov. I’ve always enjoyed the apparent nonchalance of the Bulgarian forward as well as his excellent technical skills, but he never endeared himself to certain fans and pundits who felt that he never seemed to make enough of an effort when playing. For an English supporter raised on a diet of the appearance of hard work and discipline, Berbatov was always on a hiding to nothing.
Similarly, I feel Michael Carrick will always be viewed with suspicion by Manchester United and England fans alike due to his apparent lack of making an effort when playing. Carrick is one of those players who never really seems to be breathing heavily or in danger of breaking a sweat when he plays. Musa Okwonga describes Carrick as “not obviously brilliant” and I think that is his curse. That’s not his style – he merely breaks up play and moves the ball onwards and to a number of supporters that is just not enough. Where is the passion? The shouting? The gesticulating?
The latest player to seemingly incur the wrath of certain sections of football support is Arsenal’s record signing, Mesut Ozil. I am constantly amused by references to Ozil being “lazy” and a “luxury player” and “not working hard enough“. This seems to be a case of some people not watching football games at all and also buying into lazy commentary by TV commentators. English commentators can be some of the most jingoistic and biased in the profession as they decry why “Ozil seems to be drifting in and out of the game” or “Ozil needs to get involved in the game”. These throwaway comments indicate a lack of tactical awareness as well as being factually incorrect. One of Ozil’s primary attributes is his off-the-ball movement, which constantly pulls defenders out of their positions allowing players like Aaron Ramsey to make runs into the penalty area to score goals. Similar to Carrick, Ozil’s style may be described as languid but that doesn’t mean he is not working hard or showing less desire or passion.
The traditional traits of English footballers are certainly valuable and should continue to be incorporated into a young and promising players, but this should be allied with greater technical ability and awareness. Players such as Wayne Rooney, Jack Wilshere and Ross Barkley show that this template is possible but unfortunately these men are in a minority, whilst the majority still run around like headless chickens.