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The demise of the ‘Big Four’

November 7, 2009 1 comment

The Big Four – a term as eponymous with lazy journalism as it is with the whole overblown (and shockingly insular) best-league-in-the-world nonsense that has saturated our mindset when we think of English club (and national) football. We appear to have lost all perspective and the demarcation of an elite, closed group of what are, admittedly, the most (currently) successful clubs in England, is symptomatic of a nation’s football culture that has been irrevocably changed by its overt-marketisation.

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Promoting the product

Yet this season’s apparent on-pitch frailties are not only exposing the footballing shortcomings of these teams, but also a British (and particularly English) tendency to overhype our own sporting representatives whilst simultaneously dismissing the hopes of unfavoured domestic and almost-all overseas rivals with an arrogance that befits a nation that has yet to fully accept its loss of grandeur.

It seems odd to highlight the fallacious categorisation of the Big Four at a time when only Liverpool appear to be suffering any serious decline, and the remaining triumvirate inhabit the top three positions of the current Premier League table. Yet, all four sides have over-documented problems that have been covered so tediously (Chelsea’s transfer embargo and loss of players to the 2010 African Cup of Nations, Manchester United’s loss of Christiano Ronaldo etc…zzz) that this post will make only the slightest of passing references to them. Basically, this is a somewhat-belated excuse for making predictions for the oncoming football season (and the 2010 World Cup).

British football has been in decline for years, though you really wouldn’t know this from even the most cursory of glances towards the UK media’s coverage. Never the most technically adept, British players are becoming hopelessly outclassed by their international rivals. This applies even to the most basic skills, where British players appear to struggle to complete simple passes and often fail to retain possession, regardless of the degree of pressure applied by the opposing team.

Much has been written regarding the discrepancies between British and European youth football training yet nonetheless these are mainly accurate. UK football culture is blighted with favouring physical strength over technical subtleties, rapid attacking over patient buildup, and, when all else fails, ‘kicking lumps’ out of more proficient players. Rather than learn from our continental cousins, we choose instead to attribute most of the failings of British football to the influx of overseas footballers over the past 15 years or so.

Thinly veiled xenophobia is an undoubted feature of British society, yet appears especially prevalent amongst the football fraternity. Cheating is a foreign disease, gamesmanship the British equivalent. Eduardo was vilified for what was clearly a false attempt to win a penalty, yet Steven Gerrard does little else these days other than clumsily trip himself up in order to gain the same unfair advantages.

The style of football in the Premier League is generally rough and fairly violent, with extensive periods of play where no-one has control over the ball. Should overseas players unfamiliar to this strange style of play fail to adapt fast enough, they are torn apart mercilessly by the UK media and fans for ‘not being good enough’ to grace the glorious games that make up our domestic leagues. Conversely, very few British players ever attempt to play in other countries. Even fewer prove anything other than an abject failure. The much-maligned David Beckham serves as an interesting exception to this rule.

Repeated talk of limiting the number of overseas players in British football teams is quite widely supported by the UK public, on account of the belief that cheap foreign imports are restricting opportunities for our talented youngsters. This is much the same argument as is made by those who wish to protect British industry and the same reality applies. It’s not simply about finances – there is simply less talent in the UK than in other nations. As a nation that once had an extensive empire, this reality has forced most of the UK populace into a state of denial. Unfortunately, we really are just that useless. We’re often unproductive, untalented, and yes, we are expensive too. Globalisation of course has not been a wholly negative force for the UK. We have found niches where we are particularly adept. It’s just that these don’t fit alongside those areas where most people wish we were talented, such as manufacturing and football.

The truth is there is a weak talent base in British football and, looking at the past without rose-tinted spectacles, it was never there. From the footballing lessons taught to England by Uruguay and Hungary, to the overhyped (and usually disastrous) World Cup campaigns of Scotland in 1978, and England…well pretty much anytime, but especially in 2006, British footballing success has been spectacularly thin on the ground. But what of the obvious elephant in the room that is 1966? It was a tournament fundamentally won by a particularly lucky England side playing with home support and some extraordinarily dubious officiating. An anomaly on a par with Denmark winning the European Championships in 1992 or Greece in 2004.

We don’t have the cultural sensibilities of much of Europe or South America. We can’t hope to have the level of facilities or potential capital thrown at the British game as the US could, and our persistent lack of egalitarianism continues to undermine success. However, we shouldn’t expect so much from British football. The Premier League is a fantastically marketed product of huge appeal all over the world. But so are Coca Cola and McDonald’s. Without the more talented overseas players, the Premier League would be little better than the SPL.

Although at a clearly more elevated level than Scottish football, the English game can look North of the border for an insight into what the future of the game will be like. Both nations have been on a persistent downward trajectory (albeit with small blips) over the past few decades, yet Scotland is further along this line than England as of present. They are, however, very similar footballing cultures. Indeed, there has long been a strong Scottish influence within English football and, although the English national team is brilliantly managed by Capello and the brighter talents are in the English game, the general standard of English and Scottish footballers is not too dissimilar and will tend to converge (downward) over the coming years.

So where does this leave us with the Big Four? In recent years the lack of British talent has barely affected these teams, given that they mainly comprise overseas talent, with a smattering of the top British players available. However, the global recession, and the concurrent shifting exchange rates, which have led to a relative devaluation of the Pound against the Euro in particular, have resulted in a UK football market which is of reduced financial appeal. It is noticeable that many of the greatest talents in football ply their trade in Italy and especially Spain. This movement of talented overseas players away from the Premier League has resulted (and will continue to result) in a far greater reliance on domestic players. So Carragher’s brainless thuggery and lack of pace are being brutally exposed, Rooney’s propensity to disappear in a game has become more apparent, and a general lack of diversity in play amongst many British players is increasingly evident. Arsenal and Chelsea remain relatively successful. The former due to Wenger’s foresighted approach in ignoring most British youth and looking all across the globe for his future players, whilst the latter arguably have the pick of the domestic bunch, albeit heavily assisted by some astonishingly gifted overseas players.

Just another example of Carragher's 'defending'

For a blog that tends to hold a degree of scepticism over the apparent importance of economics in explaining most things that matter in the world, the changing nature of British football is pretty much entirely due to the machinations of the global economy and with all that said and done, time for some predictions. The only thing this blog is confident of predicting is that most of these will be wrong, accepting the advantage that making such predictions part way into the season provides!

English Premier League:

1. Chelsea

2. Arsenal

3. Manchester City

4. Manchester United

5. Tottenham Hotspur

6. Aston Villa

7. Liverpool

8. Sunderland

9. West Ham

10. Everton

11. Fulham

12. Wigan

13. Portsmouth

14. Stoke

15. Bolton

16. Blackburn

17. Birmingham

18. Wolverhampton

19. Burnley

20. Hull

Various other European champions:

La Liga: Barcelona, though Real Madrid and Sevilla will be close.

Serie A: Inter Milan (albeit their performances are somewhat underwhelming), AC Milan, Juventus, Fiorentina the next three.

Bundesliga: Werder Bremen, followed by Hamburg, Leverkusen, and Bayern.

SPL: who gives a shit…

World Cup 2010 various predictions:

1. England will not make it out of their group (although this may be revised if they get an exceptionally easy group. Slovakia, Tunisia, and New Zealand for example.)

2. Brazil will make the quarter finals at best.

3. Paraguay, Chile, South Korea, Ukraine (assuming they make it), and the USA will be much better than people expect. All will get through the group stage. At least one of these teams will make the last eight.

4. Spain won’t win it.

5. But Russia might (assuming they qualify).

6. Italy have a real chance and are far better than people assume (as per usual).

7. An African side will make the semi-finals (most probably Ivory Coast).

8. Maradona might just lead Argentina to an incredibly improbable victory, and will most likely then tell the entire world to take it up our collective arse.

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