Danny Murphy’s recent comments on the overuse of physicality in the English game were laudable on many levels. He was honest, and brave- especially when you consider that he still has to play against the teams he condemned.
The most significant aspect of this is an easily overlooked one. With so much negativity surrounding the English national team, critics should spend less time decrying the substandard performances of a substandard team, and more worrying about changing the culture of their game.
Every time there is an incident like the one involving Shawcross and Ramsey last season, and many in the game show sympathy towards the perpetrator and not the victim, they help cement an outdated attitude that it is ok to go in hard and hurt players. Not many would accuse Shawcross of intending to do the damage he did- that would make him a sociopath- but he has a proven track record of causing injury and so he is clearly acting recklessly.
Physicality is something that is important to the Premiership’s image as arguably the most exciting of the world’s football leagues. Rightly so. But in a game played so fast, by big, strong athletes, there has to be more emphasis on the safety of the players. It would serve England well.
Few seem to see the link between the encouragement of brutal play in the Premiership and the perceived underachievement of the English national side. There is plenty of artistic play on show in the league, but it must be said that most of the technical excellence has, in recent years, been provided by the continental players who have flooded it since the mid 1990s. There are less and less English players of the technical calibre of a Glenn Hoddle, a John Barnes, or a Paul Gascoigne, perhaps because the English clubs know they can import class from abroad, and look to their English players to provide grit and hard work.
And when an unpolished gem like Jack Wilshere is unearthed, look at the treatment that is dished out- he has already been the victim of some unnecessarily tough tackling this season, with more undoubtedly to come.
I don’t mean to be too black and white about the debate. It’s not only British players who apply brute force on a football pitch- Nigel De Jong plays like an assassin, and George Boateng has been at it for years, and there are plenty more continental examples. But I do think that aggression is over-emphasised in English footballing culture. Even looking at a Gerrard or a Rooney- they often have the look of a bull in a china shop, and they are regarded as the most skilful of English players.
This aggression, when allied to a reckless nature like that of Karl Henry or Ryan Shawcross, is dangerous and destructive. It can destroy careers. And if it is weeded out of the game, I believe it would be of immense benefit to the English national team, as technical brilliance may finally come to be privileged over the clichés of 110%, putting ‘em under pressure, and kicking the skilful players in the air until their spirit- or their legs- are broken.