Jack Wilshere debate: The problem with English football isn't foreigners, it's lack of foreign tactics

English players, English tactics, English glory?

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Speaking at the grandiosely-titled “Leaders in Football” conference this week Greg Dyke rolled out a few of his favourite lines on the state of English football.  Addressing an audience at Stamford Bridge, the new FA chairman said the biggest challenge facing English football was neither racism, nor homophobia, nor ‘yid’-chanting, but instead a simple shortage of homegrown players. “We have”, he announced, “become a finishing school for foreign talent at the expense of young players.”

It’s a much-loved grumble of Dyke’s, who pushed the same phrase verbatim at a key address last month.  It’s also a piece of wisdom belonging to that tired and bogus old consensus that goes something like this: “These foreigners, coming here, taking our jobs, reaping the benefits and giving nothing back…”

This, naturally, is a view as fatuous as it is banal. A more homogenously English league, it is erroneously presumed, would lead to greater footballing success for the country on the world stage. Now, for those who don't give a fig about international football – and the nation does tend to get its hopes up at regular two year intervals – it should be recognised that the number of English players in the league has little bearing on England’s chances of World Cup glory.

The problem, in truth, is not about a surplus of foreign players in the Premier League but rather a lack of foreign tactics in the English game. Speaking on the subject of what it means to be an English international footballer, Jack Wilshere – Arsenal midfielder and occasional smoker – this week said: “We are English. We tackle hard, are tough on the pitch and are hard to beat”. The irony, of course, is that in summarising English football’s perceived strengths, Wilshere also neatly summarised its inherent weaknesses.  Speaking like a true patriot, Wilshere proclaimed: “You think of England and you think they are brave”.

Now, braveness is all well and good if you’re fighting the Battle of Bannockburn, but it’s a less useful attribute when playing international football. Passing the ball around the pitch with glacial slowness is what has won Spain recent international titles – not “bravery”. In England, strength and willpower are overvalued qualities, while attributes such as technical skill and passing are still dreadfully undervalued.

None of which will matter too much if you don’t care for international football. But it does say something about England’s view of its own exceptionalism on the world sporting stage. While a country like Spain has borrowed and improved on the Dutch principles of “total football”, England’s own national “style” lags stubbornly behind – flatly refusing to take note of winning formulas patented on the Continent.

England, we are for ever reminded, invented football. Regretfully, however, those old Albion values of strength, bravery and superiority have no useful place in the modern game.

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