I watched England U21s’ second half performances against both Portugal and Italy at the ongoing European Championship, and did so with absolute bemusement. Technically marginally more limited, they were tactically much inferior, and were thus eliminated quickly from the tournament by two countries with a sixth of the population.
This gives the lie to the old argument that the Premier League is blocking “English talent” because teams sign too many “foreigners”. On the contrary, the problem (as I have long argued here) is that the “English talent” does not exist in the first place. If it did, those players would be signed.
That does not mean that the Premier League does not cause a problem. The problem is that it offers too many opportunities to local players, not too few – and specifically that those opportunities come loaded with gold before a player has even really proved himself.
Young Raheem Sterling – who qualified for the U21s but opted for the seniors – is a very good case in point. On the back of one decent season with Liverpool, an Englishman of student age who has actually won precisely nothing in the game can now command £100,000 per week. This is utterly obscene, of course – and it inevitably means that he and his ilk will lack hunger. After all, if you can command that much without a single trophy to your name, why bother to get really good? And, of course, if your decision about where you will play is based solely on who pays the most (rather than about which club will care most about your ongoing development both as a professional sportsman and a young man), then you may miss the best option even if you are hungry.
Compare this with, say, Alexis Sanchez. From a poor mining village in Chile, Alexis signed on early with Udinese in Italy knowing that this would give him the opportunity of two loan spells back in the Southern Cone – one in Chile and one in Argentina – during which he could learn the game, not least the tactical and team aspects of it. Upon graduating to Udinese itself, he soon picked up all kinds of individual awards and off he went to Barcelona to win lots of trophies. Not content, however, with a bit-part role, he no doubt took a pay cut to come to Arsenal in a country where he did not speak the language and accept the challenge of leading a second-tier club (by global standards – I admit that as an Arsenal supporter and member!) to success. Even at the start of 2014/15, when Arsenal was playing poorly, Alexis’ determination and hunger were evident – it is highly doubtful you will see the same from any of the current England U21 crop at age 26.
English footballers, arguably like English children, are now spoiled – literally. Offered all the rewards on the basis of raw talent before they have really done anything to earn them, they miss core aspects of the game (such as how to work as a team and how to change things tactically even on the pitch). Sadly, this means embarrassment at the hands of countries like Portugal – smaller, poorer, but hungrier and better – will continue to be the norm.