If England fail at Euro 2012, we’re fairly confident we can predict one of the likely excuses: the hundreds of foreigners who play in the Premier League. Imports have been a favourite English scapegoat for years now. Here is Steven Gerrard speaking before England lost at home to Croatia and failed to qualify for Euro 2008: “I think there is a risk of too many foreign players coming over, which would affect our national team eventually if it’s not already. It is important we keep producing players.”
After all, if our boys can barely even get a game in their own league, how can they hope to mature into internationals? After England’s defeat to Croatia, Sepp Blatter, Alex Ferguson, and UEFA’s president Michel Platini, all made versions of Gerrard’s argument. However, they are all wrong. England’s problem isn’t the foreignness of the Premier League. It’s the fatigue of the Premier League. England would probably do better if fewer English players played in the league, rather than more.
Gerrard et al were effectively blaming imports for the English lack of skills. The reasoning is that our own workers don’t get a chance because they are being displaced by foreign workers. Exactly the same argument is often made in development economics. Why are some countries not very productive? Partly because their inhabitants don’t have enough skills. The best place to learn skills—such as making toothpaste, or teaching math, or playing football—is on the job. To learn how to make toothpaste, you have to actually make it, not just take a class to learn how to make it. But if you are always importing toothpaste, you will never learn.
That is why, for more than half a century, many development economists have called for “import substitution.” Ban or tax certain imports so that the country can learn to make the stuff itself. Import substitution has worked for a few countries. Japan after the war, for instance, managed to teach itself from scratch how to make all sorts of high-quality cars and electrical gadgets.
England’s problem isn’t the foreignness of the Premier League. It’s the fatigue of the Premier League. England would probably do better if fewer English players played in the league, rather than more
The idea of “import substitution” in the Premier League has an emotional appeal to many English fans. Britons often complain about feeling overrun by immigrants, and few spots in the country are more foreign than a Premier League field on match day. Some clubs have wisely dispensed with Englishmen almost altogether. All told, Englishmen accounted for only 37 percent of the minutes played by individual players in the Premier League in the 2007–2008 season before Croatia’s night at Wembley. That proportion does not seem to have budged much since. To some degree, English football no longer exists.
“It is my philosophy to protect the identity of the clubs and country,” Platini has said. “Manchester United against Liverpool should be with players from Manchester and Liverpool, from that region. Robbie Fowler was from Liverpool. He grew up in that city, it was nice, but now you don’t have the English players.”
Imagine for a moment that Platini somehow managed to suspend EU law and force English football clubs to discriminate against players from other EU countries. If that happened, Platini and Gerrard would probably end up disappointed. If inferior English players were handed places in Premier League teams, they would have little incentive to improve. This is a classic problem with import substitution: it protects bad producers. What then tends to happen is that short-term protection becomes long-term protection.
But, in fact, Platini’s entire premise is wrong. If people in football understood numbers better, they would grasp that the problem of the England team is not that there are too few Englishmen playing in the Premier League. To the contrary: there are too many.
You could argue that English players account for “only” about 37 percent of playing time in the Premier League. Or you could argue that they account for a massive 37 percent of playing time, more than any other nationality in what is now the world’s toughest league.
This means that English players get a lot of regular experience in top-level club football. Even if we lump together the world’s three toughest leagues—the Premier League, Spain’s Primera División, and Germany’s Bundesliga – then only Germans, and Spaniards play more tough club football. But certainly English players get far more experience in top-level football than, say, Swedes or Ukrainians do.
The experience of playing against the best foreign players every week has probably helped English internationals to improve. Englishmen have had to get better just to stay in their club teams. They now learn about international football every week.
The Premier League is becoming football’s NBA, the first global league in this sport’s history. So the players earn millions
Indeed, you could argue that in recent years, as the Premier League has got ever stronger, England’s players have been playing too much rather than too little top-class international club football. The Premier League is becoming football’s NBA, the first global league in this sport’s history. So the players earn millions. So the league is all-consuming, particularly if you play for one of the big clubs, as almost all regular English internationals do. The players have to give almost all their energy and concentration in every match. It’s a little easier even in the German or Spanish leagues, where smaller teams like Mainz or Santander cannot afford to buy brilliant foreigners. Barcelona and Real Madrid regularly walk over Spanish opposition in easy matches.
Clearly, an athlete can’t peak in every match. If you are running in the Olympics, you plan your season so that you will peak only at the Olympics, and not before. If you play football for, say, Croatia and for a club in a smaller league (even the Bundesliga), you can husband your energy so as to peak in big international matches—for instance, when you are playing England at Wembley.
By contrast, English players have to try to peak every week for their clubs. In no other country do players face as many demanding games a season. No clubs in any other country play as many European games as the English do. Daniele Tognaccini, chief athletics coach at AC Milan’s “Milan Lab,” probably the most sophisticated medical outfit in football, explains what happens when a player has to play sixty tough games a year: “The performance is not optimal. The risk of injury is very high. We can say the risk of injury during one game, after one week’s training, is 10 percent. If you play after two days, the risk rises by 30 or 40 percent. If you are playing four or five games consecutively without the right recovery, the risk of injury is incredible. The probability of having one lesser performance is very high.”
So when English players play internationally, they start tired, hurt, and without enough focus. Often they cannot raise their game. Harry Redknapp said when he was manager of Portsmouth, “I think England games get in the way of club football for the players now. Club football is so important, the Champions League and everything with it, that England games become a distraction to them.” Moreover, players in the intense Premier League are always getting injured, and their clubs don’t give them time to recover. That may be why half of England’s regulars couldn’t play against Croatia, or why Wayne Rooney played two successive World Cups while half-fit.
When English players play internationally, they start tired, hurt, and without enough focus
In short, if England wanted to do better in international matches, it should export English players to more relaxed leagues, like, for example, Croatia’s.
England’s former manager Sven-Goran Eriksson understood the problem. When one of the authors of this book asked him why England lost in the quarter-finals in the World Cup 2002 and in Euro 2004, he said his players were tired after tough seasons. Was that really the only reason? “I would say so,” Eriksson replied. “If you’re not fit enough…. In Japan, we never scored one goal the second half.” In 2010 in South Africa too, England never scored in the second half.
In fact, England’s scoring pattern in big tournaments is very peculiar. In every World Cup ever played, most goals by most teams were scored in the second halves of matches. That is natural: in the second half players tire, teams start chasing goals, and gaps open up on the field. But England, in its last six big tournaments, scored twenty-five of its thirty-eight goals before halftime. The team’s record in crucial games is even starker: in the matches in which it was eliminated from tournaments, it scored eight of its nine goals before halftime. In other words, England performs like a cheap battery. This is partly because it plays in such an exhausting league, but also because it doesn’t seem to have thought about pacing itself.
Ashley Cole, reflecting on the World Cup of 2006, notices the same phenomenon but cannot explain it: “We had to be honest … and recognise something was amiss in the second halves. We just didn’t know what.” However, some of his smarter teammates did seem to know. Here is Frank Lampard looking back on 2006:
Throughout the tournament we had suffered in the heat. Our second-half performances were invariably below the standard of the first period and at its worst – against Paraguay in Frankfurt – most of us could barely walk, never mind run, in the latter stages of the match.
This echoes Gerrard’s account of the previous tournament: “The truth was that England were knackered at Euro 2004…. A long, hard season took a terrible toll.” It is possible to dismiss all these claims of tiredness as self-serving. But if there is a single culprit for England’s summer failures, we suspect it’s more likely to be fatigue than the foreign influx.
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