The Roker Ramble: Football Over Physicality - Finally

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Like most, over the last few years picking my fantasy football team at the start of the season usually hinged around which of the long established free-scoring midfield heavyweights I was willing to back. For as long as there has been a 'golden generation' largely embarrassing England on the world stage, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard have been tearing through the Premier League with consummate ease fanning the fires of expectation.

Outside their own clubs and their media friends, Gerrard and Lampard have not really enjoyed a great deal of popularity, but their domestic achievements can not be dismissed. For a whole generation they have provided the blueprint and the benchmark for the Premier League midfield player – tall, energetic, mobile goalscorers. 

Over the last year we have seen the influence of both players begin to wane, and a new breed stepping into the breach. But the blueprint has changed. Where once the diminutive yet technically brilliant midfield player was written off as too small to impact the English game, they now find themselves ruling it with players such as Matta, Nasri, Silva, and Modric leading the way.

When Luka Modric arrived in England, it is fair to say that Tottenham knew they had signed a very talented player but didn't really know what to do with him. He was bounced around the Spurs midfield, often doing well in spells, but it wasn't until Harry Redknapp decided to build a team around him that he really began to shine. Tottenham were reshaped tactically with the specific purpose of getting the very best out of the little Croatian in mind, and were rewarded with Champions League football. Such has been Modric's success that this summer, when World Cup winner Marcel Desailly dismissed the player as “too small, too lightweight” to warrant a move to Chelsea, his comments were met with mockery.

But for me, the real star of the new Premier League is David Silva. When the Spaniard first arrived in England he looked like he was going to suffer the same fate as all skillful yet slight Premier League players – being stuck out on a wing, stubbornly shoehorned into a system built for rigidity first and football second. Yet this season has seen him deployed at the very heart of the team and has coincided with City's transformation from cynical defence-minded sticklers to dynamic footballing purists.

Crucial to this change in ideology on these shores must surely be the recent exploits of Barcelona. Continental footballing giants with deep pockets playing open and expansive passing football and dominating their domestic leagues is nothing new, but never before has such a club so dominated the best that the Premier League has to offer playing in such a way. Arrogance has always reigned amidst the most powerful clubs in England, and for Barcelona to inspire such a change in their attitudes is perhaps the greatest testament to their brilliance. The Catalan doctrine of dominating the ball first, not the physical battle, is sweeping through the English game with hugely refreshing effect, with not only the top clubs adopting it but smaller clubs too, such as Swansea and Brighton.

The hope must now be that those young English players who are small in physical stature but possessing massive technical ability will no longer have their lack of size considered an insurmountable obstacle in their quest to play top level football. For as long back as I can remember watching football, as a nation we have purred over the technique of international rivals whilst lamenting our own. But players of similar ability have always been here. I challenge anyone to find a more technically gifted footballer to lace up a pair of boots than Bobby Charlton, Glenn Hoddle, or Paul Scholes. The problem is that actual football talent has become the secondary concern in this country and too many talented players find their paths into football blocked by physical bruisers with a mere fraction of their talent.

It is important to stress here that there is nothing necessarily wrong with physical football. As we saw on Saturday evening at the Britannia Stadium, football versus physicality can make for compelling viewing. But whilst clubs will always do what they feel they must to compete and safeguard their seat at the top table of English football, 'physical' has for too long been the default setting and universal starting point.

It seems that players such as Silva and Modric are proving pivotal in shaping a new era for English football – an era in which there is a role for the little guy. Where Paul Scholes was once the exception, players of his ilk are now becoming the rule. With players such as Jack Wilshere, Tom Cleverley, and Josh McEachran ready to take advantage, it could be English football itself which will be the biggest beneficiaries.

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