The Premier League: the world’s best…. finishing school?

When I think about player development and where each player can learn what they need to become great players, I usually assign different issues to different leagues. In Spain you develop your skills, Italy focuses your tactical mind, and England builds up your strength. While Spain and Italy can teach you both skills and tactical nous, England seems to be the only place, in Europe at least, where a player can finish off their development by developing their strength to fend off the physical element of the game. It is, in short, the perfect finishing school.

Watching players come and go from the Premier League over the last few years, they all wax lyrical about how intense and physical the league is, and you hear managers talk about how the players need a period of time to settle in and get used to it all (although you don’t hear that as much in these days of everything needing to happen now; the accepted logic even a few years ago was that a player from a new country would need about six months to settle in, get used to his team mates and the nature of the league). One thing that’s not really been commented on, is how the players change their bodies to adapt to the league.

If you look at before and after pictures of some of the best players in the world who have played on these shores, the difference in their physiques is striking. The latest to undergo the transformation is Mesut Ozil, who as recently as a month ago spoke about how he used his injury-enforced time off over the winter to push himself in the gym to build up muscle and remove the “push-over” tag he has been labelled with. While you still wouldn’t call him a beefcake, the amount of muscle he’s put on is noticeable.

Looking slightly further back, the difference between Cristiano Ronaldo who left Sporting Lisbon and the one who joined Real Madrid is remarkable. The same goes with Gareth Bale, comparing the player who Harry Redknapp almost sold to Birmingham to the most expensive player in the world. The talent of both players and Ozil was never in question, it was simply their ability to stand up to the most physical league in the world. Ronaldo transformed from the one-trick-pony to World Player of the Year, without obviously changing his game.

When you look at the players who “flopped” – your Gervinho’s, Jose Reyes’, Albert Luque’s – have largely been because they weren’t able to pack on the muscle necessary to withstand strong challenges. The talent is undoubtedly there, which some have gone on to show better than others, but their failure in this country is rarely due to tactical indiscipline or not being good enough; it’s because they are unable to show what they are capable of because they get pushed over before they even get the ball. Incidentally, it’s why I think Messi might struggle if he were to make the move here; he doesn’t get the treatment he would in the Premier League, and he famously needed growth hormones to get himself to the size he is today. We’d break him before he got the chance to build himself up.

Those players who don’t need the six-month bedding in period and who seem to adapt straight away are usually those who already have significant muscle built up – think Alexis Sanchez, Diego Costa and Didier Drogba – they are all already strong enough to take whatever the league offers them.

All of which feeds to the central point – it’s been accepted that the Premier League is the developer of stars, not the buyer, mainly because we finish the players’ development by challenging them to withstand physical challenges that just don’t occur in other leagues. If you can develop your strength to fend Drogba, withstand Vincent Kompany’s shoulder barge, or survive a kicking from the Neville brothers, then the stage is set for you to take your game elsewhere and challenge to become one of the best in the world.

There are obvious exceptions to the rule, but when you consider how players like Hazard or Vidic enhanced their reputations here, it’s not because they became more skilled or more tactically aware – the Premier League’s tactical knowledge on the whole is laughable – but because they became more physical. It’s rare that a player who doesn’t pack on the muscle is able to sustain a long and successful Premier League career. Those who are able to take on the challenge and develop the muscle required are usually then able to move to other countries, either to develop other parts to their game – as Gareth Bale has done with his move to Madrid focussing his tactical awareness – or to cement their place as the best in the world by enforcing their newfound physicality on leagues that are caught off guard because they don’t focus on that side.

You rarely see a fully formed World’s Best Player come into this league, take it by storm and enhance their reputation (just ask Shevchenko), but what happens regularly is players on the cusp of greatness come to the world’s best finishing school, develop the physical aspect of their game and become great players, then go abroad and become the greatest players in the world.

By Raj Devandran – Arsenal fan – @Muqabala17