With the 2013-2014 Premier League season concluded, the biggest talking point for so many has not been Manchester City’s title win, or even the woeful season of Manchester United, it’s been the continued lauding and praise of Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool side that took the league by storm. Though they narrowly missed out on securing their first league title in over twenty years, the magnificent work done by Rodgers deserves the utmost credit and admiration.
Liverpool played the kind of free-flowing, vibrant and expressive football that so many are eager to witness at the highest level. It was almost as if Rodgers re-introduced the dominant attacking performances of those fantastic Arsenal sides from 2002 and 2004. Why is this so important to take note of? Despite having the immense talent of Luis Suarez at his disposal, and the rising talent of Brazilian youngster Coutinho, Rodgers’ Liverpool is heavily influenced with English roots.
In their starting XI right up till the last day of the league campaign, Liverpool had six English players in the side – Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling, Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson, Glen Johnson and John Flanagan. Between them, a combined 48 goals and 35 assists – Liverpool’s English players were responsible for 47% of the total amount of goals scored, and 55.5% of the total amount of assists earned. Daniel Sturridge was the league’s second leading goal scorer behind Luis Suarez, while Steven Gerrard toped the assists chart. To go into the numbers a little further, Liverpool averaged 55.8% possession over the course of the season (5th in the league), 17.1 shots per match (3rd in the league), a pass accuracy of 84.5% (4th in the league) – all told, by the numbers, Liverpool ended up being rated the best side in the league, edging out Manchester City by .2 overall (full break down here). What do these numbers tell us? That English influence in a league that is dominated by both foreign players and foreign owners can absolutely be achieved, and that is a very good thing for the national team.
To delve into it a little deeper further still, it is interesting to note the following table (Premier League table based off goals by English players) – had the Premier League been judged based off that criteria, Liverpool would have won the league. Clubs such as Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea would have been no where near the top four, and City would have been relegated. Despite Liverpool having spent a fair amount of money over the past few years they still have kept English players in their transfer policy as well as their youth set up, while other big clubs have strayed away. Under Rodgers, Liverpool are doing it right.
I could go on and spout numbers and statistics for the better part of 800 words honestly, but I think you get the point here – Liverpool were as successful as they were this season with a side that is incredibly influenced by English talent. To continue further beyond who is currently in the Anfield side, they still have Andre Wisdom, and the highly touted Jordan Ibe on the horizon. With increasing speculation that Adam Lallana is all but assured to secure his switch from Southampton to Liverpool, you can then add yet another impressive Englishman to Liverpool’s side – incase you have forgotten already, Lallana created more chances in the offensive third this past season than any English player in the league. There is a real chance that Liverpool could have seven English players in their starting XI next season, while still challenging for major honors – this is unheard of in the Premier League over the last decade or so, and full credit must be given to Rodgers.
Rodgers may be Northern Irish, and despite managing only in England and Wales, he is very much a continental manager. Having spent time in Spain studying coaching and training methods and soon after being on Jose Mourinho’s staff at Chelsea in the capacity of head youth coach and then reserve team manager, Rodgers has spent years developing his footballing mind to the point that it has lost almost all sense of British identity. We first saw it at Swansea with some of the eye-catching attacking football they displayed and now we have seen the culmination of his knowledge and experience with Liverpool – Rodgers has broken the mold.
So, what does this all mean for the national team? Simple, England must start to rely on Liverpool and Rodgers the same as other national team set ups rely on certain clubs to continuously feed the pipeline with players that are capable of playing to the standards required at the international level. Take Spain, Germany and the Netherlands as the three primary continental examples. For years now, all three national set ups rely on key clubs in their domestic league to supply the national team with players who play the way that is expected. Germany rely predominantly on Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund (though they are more recent), Spain rely on Real Madrid and Barcelona for the majority of their players, and the Netherlands rely on Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV Eindhoven – and in the case of the Dutch, when their foreign based players are called up, they are all players that have played for the big three domestic clubs during their developmental years. This is how you build a successful national program from club level, starting from the youth systems, to the first team and then to the national team – there is a reason why it is called a pipeline.
It is not correct to say that England have never relied on specific clubs in the past to provide the majority of their players, they absolutely have. They key ingredient that has always been missing however, especially over the last decade or more, is that the FA must appoint a coach who is going to translate the football being played at club level and adopt it into the national team fabric. If we refer back to the link in the third paragraph that cited the statistical break down of the Premier League, it will be noted that the most successful attacking teams in the league were all managed by foreigners – Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Swansea and Southampton all were prevalent in the top-five of multiple offensive categories. All of those clubs have a sizable crop of English players in their ranks, many of whom are still young and when you connect the dots, it must be deduced that the simple solution of employing continental tactics at the national level, the same tactics that English players are playing for their club teams, will no doubt lead to the increased likelihood of success.
It is all well and good to try to bring the footballing that is on offer at club level to the national team, but all that work will be nullified if there is not a coach that is willing to truly change the system for the national team – I for one feel that Roy Hodgson is not that man. He is not a poor coach, but he is indeed a pragmatist in his footballing approach, the same as every other English coach you will come to find. Apart from the national team needing to put it’s faith in the type of football being played at clubs like Liverpool, with their English players being extraordinarily successful in it’s application, the real hill to climb is to realize that either the FA needs to appoint an English manager who is progressive in the same mold that Brendan Rodgers is, or, they need to appoint a continental manager if it means that progression is finally made. England has tried once before, when Swedish manager Sven Goran Eriksson was in charge, but the Swedish approach to the game is too similar to that of the English approach – England need a manager that hails from Spain, Germany or the Netherlands, or things will never change.
With the World Cup mere weeks away, it is yet again another major tournament where the English public and media expect the national team to underwhelm. If and when that should indeed occur, it is high time that serious considering is given to the state of affairs when it comes to the relationship between club football and the national set up, else England will always be living in the shadow of 1966.