James Rodriguez is the latest one to arrive.
The Colombian has produced excellent performances so far in this Premier League season, gliding around the field with the ball seemingly fixed to his foot. The star of the 2014 World Cup has barely misplaced a pass, and despite hardly playing for Real Madrid last season, looks incredibly lithe.
When asked if he’s worried about whether James could adapt to the mythical ‘physicality and pace’ of the Premier League, boss Carlo Ancelotti shot back with a wonderfully derisive response: “If I was worried about this, I would’ve signed Usain Bolt and not James.”
The theme continued in his post-game press conference, “He has no problem adapting to the Premier League, because here we are not going to play a different sport,” he stated. “It’s football, the pitch is the same, everywhere.”
Ancelotti’s last line is perhaps the greatest response anyone can give to the fable that playing in the English top flight is some herculean effort that requires a certain masculinity, some superhero-esque levels of physical endurance not all mere mortals possess.
Whilst Richard Keys’ blog posts should be at best viewed as light-hearted entertainment, or as often as the case may be, sheer caricature buffoonery, his recent one about Everton’s signing of James typifies the attitude that surrounds the Premier League.
“I’m not convinced by James Rodriguez. If he was top drawer he wouldn’t be signing for Everton, whoever was in charge,” stated Keys. “I wouldn’t fancy him at Stoke on a wet Tuesday evening in November, but he’ll look great when the Toffees are 2-up at home. For Everton to make an impact, he’s GOT to dominate games. If I was Ancelotti I’d be going after Troy Deeney."
The sad truth is that Keys’ prehistoric views are shared by a vast contingent of Premier League fans, who wholeheartedly buy into the self-perpetuating narrative that the English top flight is some sort of football equivalent to a strong-man contest, where only the biggest survive. The whole ‘Tuesday night in Stoke’ concept could only exist in England; there is no Italian or Spanish equivalent, no ‘bitter night in Bergamo’ nor a ‘hostile night in Bilbao’.
Despite trumpeting itself as ‘The Greatest League in the World™’ from its inception in 1992, Sky and the executives of the Premier League knew this was complete fallacy: Serie A had the world’s best players and greatest teams, whilst La Liga possessed the most technical players. The league needed something to hang its hat on, and so ‘physicality and intensity’ became the buzzwords for advertisers.
And in the formative years of the league, the point was valid to an extent. Only 13 foreign players featured in the opening weekend of the inaugural Premier League season, and despite the shiny new name change, it was ostensibly the old Division One with more bells and whistles. With a lack of technical finesse available in the talent pool, the English game was indeed more physical.
Fast forward 28 years, and how true is it now? According to transfermarkt.com, over 62% of the league is now populated by foreign players, many of whom come from technically superior countries and have bent the league to their will: Gianfranco Zola, Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry, Eric Cantona, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne to name but a few.
Yet that prevailing attitude still exists. Gary Neville recently appeared on Sky Sports and was asked about Chelsea’s signing of Thiago Silva, and this was his opinion: “Again, an unknown, he’s 35 years old, 36 next week, played in the French league now for a number of years. The intensity of the French league is nothing like ours. That’s not to say that Paris Saint-Germain aren’t a great side, they just got to the Champions League final, but you’re talking about the Premier League.”
So if we are to take anything away from Neville’s comments, is that both the Champions League and Ligue 1 are amateur, Sunday league kickabouts, and Thiago Silva, a supremely accomplished centre back, isn’t capable of performing where the big boys play.
That air of self-aggrandising is also held against a certain Lionel Messi. Despite the copious moments of genius, the avalanche of goals, the six Ballon d’Or trophies and the mountain-high stockpile of individual and team awards he’s accumulated, whenever the tedious Messi/Cristiano Ronaldo debate rears its head, many give the nod to the latter because he ‘proved’ himself in England, as if everything Messi’s done in the game is somehow rendered illegitimate and insignificant because he hasn’t (so far at least) taken his talents to British shores.
Fans of the league give currency to the intensity myth by citing the case of Juan Veron at Manchester United in the early ‘00s. Veron arrived from Lazio as one of the best midfielders in the world, and left two years later with his reputation battered and his value significantly diminished, the hypothesis being that Veron struggled with the rigours of the English game.
This is clearly untrue; Veron won the Premier League Player of the Month in his second month in the league. The Argentine’s downfall was due more to tactical and personal issues as opposed to a failure to adapt to the English game. He was simply an unnecessary signing by Sir Alex Ferguson at a time when his midfield was as strong as could be in the European game.
A hammer blow to the myth came when Zlatan Ibrahimovic arrived on English shores. The Swede had for years been ridiculed and dismissed by English pundits and fans as being ‘overrated’ due to the lack of goals against Premier League sides in the Champions League for Juventus, Inter, Barcelona and Milan. In the summer of 2016, Ibrahimovic signed for Man United on a free transfer from PSG at the age of 34.
“Everybody said ‘don’t do it [on moving to England], it’s not good for your career, if you don’t have a good season there, everyone will say everything you did before was useless’,” Ibrahimovic recalled in an interview with the BBC in 2018. “Yeah you did it there, but you didn’t do it here, but that triggered me,” he continued. “Everyone said I was too old, but I made the Premier League look old.”
Ibrahimovic scored 17 times in 28 league games in his single full campaign in the Premier League, and would’ve added more to his tally had it not been for a serious knee injury sustained in the Europa League quarter final against Anderlecht in April 2017. Unfortunate injury aside, he achieved what he’d set out to do: conquer England. Mission accomplished.
The cosmopolitan make-up of the league in both players and coaches in the modern age has meant the near eradication of the traditional, rugged English centre forward and centre back at the highest level. Much like it’s capital city, the Premier League has become as gentrified as the other major European leagues. Yes, the league has its unique characteristics, but at the end of the day, you have to revert back to Ancelotti’s words of wisdom: “it’s football, the pitch is the same, everywhere.”