The mines are closed. The steelworks are on their knees. British manufacturing is dying. Despite this potentially bleak outlook, there is one cottage industry that is booming, with conveyor belts churning out products like there is no tomorrow. If you’re after a distinctly mediocre central midfielder, the UK is the place to be.
These broadly unexceptional figures are everywhere you look, especially when it comes to the Premier League’s mid-table middle class. In fact, apart from speed merchant wingers who would struggle to cross a road let alone a ball, and industrious strikers incapable of actually scoring goals, these types of players are the only ones that British clubs seem to produce with any regularity. Top flight teams are frequently criticised, perhaps slightly unfairly, for not developing academy players or giving them a pathway into the first team – they do create players, but the only ones who make it seem to be shite.
You need only look at a few examples of the current crop to spot the shared attributes of this footballing archetype. Glenn Whelan. Craig Gardner. Mark Noble. Dean Marney. All graduates of Premier League academies with hundreds of first team games and a handful of goals each. It’s not just career trajectories that they share – they’re physically and characteristically similar too: they’re a packet of Ready Salted crisps in a pair of Diadora boots, an anthropomorphic Rich Tea biscuit, ‘dadbod’ personified. They’re the sort of bloke who drinks Carling out of choice and wears bootcut jeans – the footballing equivalent to a Weetabix that’s been left to soak in the milk for too long.
They are remarkably unremarkable; being neither great goalscorers or chance creators nor contributing hugely to defensive efforts, they don’t fit into the comfortable attacking/ defensive dichotomy so it’s sometimes difficult to pinpoint precisely what they provide. Generally devoid of pace, occasionally ponderous in possession, and pathologically incapable of passing the ball more than five yards, when you notice these players it tends to be for being thoroughly one dimensional.
But is that dimension useful? Despite being completely anodyne, the bland midfielder somehow manages to be quite a divisive player. Apoplectic old men in the stands berate them for slowing down play and not passing the ball forwards, while football hipsters are at pains to point out how they facilitate transitions through phases of the pitch with simple distribution. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. They’re probably a necessity, especially for teams not competing at an elite level, but one that is unenjoyable and frustrating to watch at times.
These sorts of players have always been around but are particularly pervasive among the current batch of average teams. You can find the blue print for the modern iteration of this type of player in Gareth Barry. Barry is the urtext for sideways passing and lumbering movement in the holding midfield tradition.
It seems worth noting that Gareth Barry didn’t start out this way. He broke through into the first team as a central defender and a left back, earning plaudits, before ending up in midfield. This shift was the product of coaching, a byproduct of the fetishistic obsession with retaining possession – a player who had previously stood out for other qualities had his edges sanded off to fulfill a more basic function.
It’s a process we’ve seen repeated with Tom Cleverley. Once feverishly heralded as a Paul Scholes heir, he failed to impress or exert his influence in an advanced role in a top 6 side and he slipped back into comfortable mediocrity, going from stimulating to stultifying. It’s easy to see the same happening to Jordan Henderson, although his dynamism might prevent him from following in Barry’s footsteps.
The sustained success of Sergio Busquets shows that there is space for an enabling midfielder in top level football, but the equivalents from the British Isles are ersatz versions of the Catalan. Busquets acts as the fulcrum of his team with intelligent movement and appreciation of space as well as quick, fluid passing. Compare that to his laborious Premier League counterparts, who lack the speed of mind and feet that make him so impressive. This is the state of British football in a nutshell: a pale imitation of a vastly superior product.
In a Sky Sports interview, Glenn Whelan described his job as: “… a disciplined role. It’s not a case of being told I can’t [go forward] but I’m probably better off being defensive than I am attacking so I’ll stick to that”. There’s something quite admirable about someone appreciating their limitations and acknowledging that they’re simply a cog in a more glamorous machine. While they may have significant roles as communicators or leaders in the dressing room, on the pitch they’re often tedious and frequently frustrating to watch. The role they fulfill is clearly an intrinsic part of modern football but it’s a shame that the only type of players that Premier League clubs can regularly produce are these reliable but risk averse midfielders who rarely rise above mediocrity.