I recently returned to the streets of Manchester for the first time since I stopped playing for Manchester United. People had told me about the huge changes that the city had gone through, and for proof of this, I only needed to walk through the Deansgate area, where I was surprised to find a wide range of restaurants with cuisine from all over the world, including Spain. I immediately thought how these gastronomic offerings would have been of great help to me when I was a 22-year-old kid from Barcelona, who was finding it very difficult to adapt to a new culture.
In the middle of the 1990s, I also found myself in a different reality in terms of soccer: the majority of the teams were faithful to the traditional direct play of the British Isles, with few exceptions – such as Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal – who opted for a passing game. Nowadays, that minority has become the majority. To continue claiming that the ball spends more time in the air than on the pitch in the Premier League is to engage in a defunct debate. And the proof of this is the presence of four English finalists in the two biggest European club competitions: Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea. They are all teams that like to have the ball. And they move it around judiciously.
The Premier League’s dominance in Europe is no coincidence. After several seasons in the wilderness in the Old Continent, English soccer has looked in the mirror of Europe and has worked out how to attract foreign talent to the dressing rooms and the benches. Eleven of the 12 goals scored by English teams in the European semifinals came off the boots of foreign players. And the managers of the finalists are high-level coaches who cut their teeth in Spain, Germany and Italy, and who have since been seduced by the attraction of English soccer, the passion of the fans and the protection that they are offered by a culture of respect.
English teams have taken a step forward in terms of their playing, maintaining the traditional physical might that allows them to play each game at 200%, while also subjecting their European rivals to that insufferable up-and-down rhythm that characterizes the Premier League, as we saw given the way Liverpool overcame Barça in Anfield. They have struck on the perfect mix of head and heart. And that dynamic has also spread to the English national team and the lower leagues, which have taken a huge competitive step forward. Solid grassroots work is now bearing fruit.
English soccer has closed the gap in terms of quality that separated it from other big European leagues, at the same time as having opened an insurmountable gap in terms of finance. English teams have made up for the budgetary restrictions that financial “fair play” brought with it thanks to astronomical television contracts and a lower tax burden than that of Spain, things that have given them an advantage when it comes to creating quality squads.
With money in their coffers and the ability to attract high-level players and managers, as well as having improved their game, the Premier League teams have put those of Spain’s La Liga on high alert. English teams are taking giant strides in Europe, but they also find themselves immersed in the paradox of uncertainty that Brexit will bring with it. Will there be quotas of national players? Will it have a negative effect on the financial health of clubs? There is too much uncertainty for a soccer-playing nation that is running the risk of stunting its growth if it turns its back on the continent once more.
English version by Simon Hunter.