The identity of a football club is a hard thing to measure. It is made up of the club’s location, history, playing style and ideology, and other than the history element, the other three factors are fluid. Across the Premier League and more broadly in British football, it feels as though identities are slipping away, and one wonders how much longer there will be anything about British clubs that will truly represents their local fans.
If we go through the league, there are some examples that stand out. For a start, Arsenal, who have changed their identity multiple times. First, the club moved from Woolwich in South London to Highbury, North London in 1913, sparking their intense rivalry with Tottenham Hotspur. Then, they built their marble-halled Highbury history and in the late 1990s transitioned from a stodgy, British, defensive George Graham-led Tony Pulis wet dream to a modern, United Nations of a squad artfully assembled by the professorial monk of footballing dogma that is Arsène Wenger.
Arsenal now sign a certain type of player, play a certain brand of football and go about their business in a certain way. It will be fascinating to see whether, once Wenger has gone, the character of the club changes significantly. It is bound to change to some extent, but perhaps Arsène has been there long enough to establish an identity that will outlast his own employment.
Next, one would have to look at Tottenham. Spurs have flitted in and out of having a footballing identity for decades, from the push and run post-war side to the turgid dross of the late 1990s and everything in between. In their very recent history they went Bri’ish under ‘Arry, foreign under AVB, and now they’ve married the best of both worlds. They have a foreign manager who has put his faith in British youth, and they are reaping the rewards of an excellent academy along with some astute recruitment. There are currently eight academy products in the first team squad, and beneath that lies a seriously impressive pool of talent. Names like Kyle Walker-Peters, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Harry Winks and Marcus Edwards to mention but a few, will be widely known before long.
It is easy to underestimate the way that local and youth players can affect the way a fan-base feels about their club. Whether Tottenham win anything or finish top four this season, the fans haven’t felt this good about their team, or as connected with their club for a very long time. This, too, however, could be temporary. The identity that Pochettino has delivered to Spurs was stumbled upon. Daniel Levy wanted a manager who could shrewdly get the best out of a jumbled assortment of players hastily bought from around the world with the money raised by the sale of Gareth Bale. Pochettino’s answer was to get rid of half of them and trust to youth. Moreover, in 2011 the chairman strongly considered moving Tottenham Hotspur to Stratford, which would have alienated the fan base. All this to say, Tottenham fans shouldn’t take this strong sense of self for granted.
We’ll get to Manchester United shortly, but it seems as though their fans are currently suffering an identity crisis. Used to having teams sprinkled with academy talent, it is hard for them to get excited about Borthwick-Jackson being competent when at 18 and 19, the likes of Beckham and Scholes were showing enough promise to convince Alex Ferguson that Ince and Kanchelskis were surplus to requirements. The delight, the ownership and the pride that United fans felt at the blossoming of the class of ’92 is what Spurs fans are feeling now – perhaps to a lesser extent – as they watch Harry Kane becoming one of Europe’s best strikers and Josh Onomah skinning defenders for fun. While not every club can be Athletic Bilbao, in an era of globalization, obscene wages, gated communities and made-for-TV kick-off times, local players are just about the last thing the fans have to relate to, and clubs will ignore that element at their own peril.
Manchester United’s identity, meanwhile, has slowly ebbed away since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson. There is some debate as to whether Ferguson’s United truly had a unique playing style that Louis Van Gaal has abandoned, but the character and culture of the club has certainly changed in the past few seasons. The unnecessary departure of well-appointed backroom staff and academy graduates like Fletcher and Welbeck, paired with a slap-dash Galactico-seeking transfer policy has left a range of personnel at the club that fans find neither convincing nor relatable. The Ferguson-era never-say-die attitude and relentless winning mentality encapsulated by Clive Tyldesley’s immortal words, “Can Manchester United score? They always score”, during the 1999 Champions League final, has gone completely.
David Moyes was an attempt at maintaining tradition, except that it wasn’t. If the tradition was to select a British manager thought to be talented and worthy of the club and then give him time to build, the choice of Moyes was a token gesture. A cursory nod to history. It was Ed Woodward and the Glazers knowing that they could not reject Sir Alex and Bobby Charlton’s advice the first time around, but that it would be easier the next time.
Woodward meanwhile, is a gofer. He is to the Glazers as Wormtongue to Saruman, splitting his time between maximizing the company’s revenue sources and attempting in vain to manipulate some of the biggest players on the stage of world football. The public manner in which he goes about his business – something that would not have been tolerated under Ferguson – has turned the club into a soap opera, with everyone awaiting the next episode. The One Where Giggs Becomes Caretaker Manager Again For Ten Minutes.
Manchester United as an entity remains monstrous – a corporate behemoth with moneyed fingers in a hundred pies, but on the training ground, on the pitch and in the stands, feelings are fraying. Derek Langley, the head of youth recruitment, has resigned, unhappy. Paul Scholes is chipping off about the team’s style of play more often than a golfer stuck in a bunker and Ryan Giggs’ silence in defence of Van Gaal’s methods is more deafening by the day. The fans chant “attack, attack, attack” not because the United they enjoyed supporting always played 4-4-2 with flying wingers, but because the United they enjoyed supporting took the initiative and conveyed an air of confidence. Louis Van Gaal and his team have all the confidence of a recluse at a speed-dating convention.
Elsewhere, you have to look very hard to find any real footballing identity in the rest of the league. Do Manchester City have one? Do Chelsea? What about Aston Villa, Sunderland, Newcastle, Bournemouth, Norwich, Watford, West Brom, Stoke and West Ham? What principles do they stand for, footballing or otherwise? Is there a raison d’être beyond staying in the Premier League to make more money to stay in the Premier League to make more money?
Leicester are perhaps on the verge of creating an Atletico Madrid-style counter-attacking 4-4-2 character, Everton’s elegant passing and defensive buffoonery is inextricably linked to Roberto Martinez, Crystal Palace currently outrank Boeing in terms of their use of wings, and I suppose Liverpool will be forced into a vaguely geggenpressive team at the behest of their gnashing, lightning bolt of a manager. But all of these identities are temporary. None are based on an inherent philosophy that guides the club.
Further, clubs that have historically maintained some sense of tradition and style appear to be letting it slip. Southampton have been rightly praised for the incredible work done by their academy over the years, and their willingness to use the young talent at their disposal in the first team. Were it their style, they could boast loudly that the world’s most expensive player rose through their system, and somewhat more quietly about Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, Calum Chambers, Matthew Targett and Harrison Reed.
The problem is that this season, Koeman – and to an extent the club who have backed his purchases – seems to have lost faith in youth, beyond James Ward Beckham Prouse. Harrison Reed has barely been seen, while Matthew Targett has been restricted to six league appearances at time of writing.
It would have been reasonable to assume that the departures of Clyne, Schneiderlin, Chambers, Lallana and Lambert etc. would have presented the next generation of youth players with an opportunity to fill the void. Instead, a crop of relatively cheap imports make up the bulk of the squad. Some, like Mane, Tadic and Pelle have been excellent additions, but it is difficult to imagine that there aren’t academy products that could do as good a job if not better than Martin Stekelenburg, Cedric Soares, Gaston Ramirez, Cuco Martina, Florin Gardos or Maya Yoshida. The point here is not an anti-foreign one, but that if the youth players can’t currently get chances over this absolute procession of mediocrity, it feels as though a principle is being abandoned.
Similarly, the last five months have seen Swansea back rapidly away from the values they seemed to hold dear. From Martinez to Sousa to Rodgers to Laudrup and then Monk, each manager maintained and slightly tweaked a slick, 4-3-3, possession-based short-passing game with flying wingers that set the Welsh club aside from the usual promoted canon-fodder. The Rodgers side in its first season in the Premier League genuinely played some of the purest passing football the league had ever seen. It was brave, it was principled, and it worked.
In addition, chairman Huw Jenkinson always had a plan. When one manager went, another arrived, and the style remained. When Garry Monk was sacked in December, no such plan existed. The club floated around for a while haplessly trying to convince Marcelo Bielsa to come aboard, and in the end settled on the caretaker manager, Alan Curtis. Two weeks and two losses later, they’d appointed Francesco Guidolin as head coach.
This is not an inherently bad decision – indeed it might just keep them up – but it is an abandonment of the identity that Swansea had maintained until now. The panicked appointment of Guidolin – known for his preference for a back three and tendency to use various formations – is a departure from the tactical, stylistic and structural stability that Swansea’s recent success was based on.
There is a strong case that the ever increasing television revenue for the Premier League has pushed clubs to eschew any principles they may have had and do whatever it takes to stay in the top flight. More money to spend means less reliance on youth players, and makes it harder for managers to justify not purchasing players. When Crystal Palace – not threatened by relegation and not in the title race – are not willing to give Dwight Gayle or Patrick Bamford a game but are willing to bid 27m euros for Simone Zaza, something is out of whack. It’s not that Zaza isn’t currently a better player, but the difference between them isn’t remotely 27m euros, and the bid is indicative of the league’s prevailing realpolitik attitude.
So, to football’s identity in Britain as a whole. There is a reason fans call BBC Radio 5Live every weekend and complain to Robbie Savage that their team is rubbish, even if they’ve won. There is a reason West Ham fans cling to “the West Ham way” even though it hasn’t existed in decades, why Spurs fans will always welcome a brilliantly gifted but defensively absent midfielder like Ginola or Van der Vaart, why Manchester United fans will never be satisfied with Louis Van Gaal’s tepid football and why Newcastle fans adored Kevin Keegan’s team even if it was massively tactically naïve. Entertainment.
The British game was borne of the industrial age. Teams sprouted out of factories, mines, unions and working men’s clubs. The audiences came from the same backgrounds, and after a week’s intense, sometimes back-breaking and often menial labour, what fans wanted was to be entertained. It’s why British football fans have a higher tolerance for defeat than those in other countries, or fans of other sports. It’s why style is often prioritized over results. It’s why Chelsea’s recent years of success will never be held in particularly high regard by the neutral observer.
Most pundits have it wrong. English fans haven’t come to care about their clubs more than the English national team because the national team doesn’t win tournaments. They’ve become progressively more disillusioned with England post Euro-96 because for twenty years, there has been no discernible national style of play. People want to feel represented by their country’s football. To generalize, if tiki-taka hints at the rhythm of the Spanish, if catenaccio told us something about the win-at-all-costs nature of the Italians and joga bonito about the Brazilian love of flair and skill, what did a flat 4-4-2 with Scholes on the left tell us about the English? What did the endless dysfunction between Lampard and Gerrard represent? Tony Blair and Gordon Brown?
The problem England have had is marrying the so-called traditional British game with actually winning anything. 4-4-2, flying wingers, strike partnerships and hitting the big man were all a lot of fun, but they proved insufficient in the Champions League and on the international stage. After a few years of getting battered, Sir Alex Ferguson started to realize that to progress in the Champions League he’d have to fill up the midfield. Arsène Wenger came to the same conclusion, using a 4-4-2 domestically but a 4-5-1 in Europe until 4-3-3 and its variants became de rigueur in the Premier League through osmosis and the influence of foreign coaches. Once again, the point here is not that the foreign influence was or is at all negative, but that it has confused clubs and the national team alike. Neither have found a way to enjoy the benefits of a supremely multicultural league while maintaining a strong and functional identity.
The ferocious appetite to be entertained has only increased as ticket prices have risen. As working people spend an ever higher proportion of their salary on going to watch 22 men kick a ball around a field, it is easy to understand feeling entitled to excitement. Football is escapism, but it often leaves its audience angrier or sadder than they were when it started, and always poorer. To return the game’s therapeutic qualities to the people that need it the most, clubs and the FA must surely work harder to maintain an identity and represent local people. Without it, as they have with the England team, local fans will lose their love, and their care, at which point England’s top flight really will be just a subscription television drama, narrated by Gary Lineker.