There was a lot of hurt English pride in the reporting of FIFA's Team of 2012, which was released yesterday. Not a single English-based player was included. No Van Persie, no Silva, no Kompany, no Yaya Toure. No Rooney or Gerrard either.
The Premier League - which likes to think of itself as leading the global game - looked rather secondary in the opinion of its footballing peers, who reckoned the best XI players in the world all ply their trade in Spain.
Such a blank has happened before. In 2010 there were eight representatives of the Spanish League, three from Italy and none from England. But this year, the critics in the English press reckoned the selection was most perverse, given who had won the Champions League last May. How come the names of Drogba, Mata, Cole and Lampard were all so conspicuous by their absence from the World XI? What exactly did they have to do to gain appropriate recognition?
One paper was so incensed by the snub, it insisted that a match be organised between a La Liga select XI and one from the Premier League. Settle once and for all, was its argument, which has the right to call itself the best league in the world.
Actually, there is no need to go to such lengths. If you want a bellwether for the current condition of the Premier League, its strength in depth, its technical agility, the ability of its members to thrive in a variety of circumstances, then there is a much simpler two-word test we can apply: Bradford City. And right now, when you do so, the Premier League looks anything but world-beating.
Last night, for the third time this season, Phil Parkinson’s team triumphed over a Premier League club in the Capital One Cup. After dismissing Wigan and Arsenal from the competition, in the first leg of the semi-final Aston Villa were given a sound seeing-to, sent home to Birmingham trailing a 3-1 deficit. And watching the game, you did not sense that you were observing a representative from the world’s foremost football league. Villa – as had Wigan and Arsenal – looked distinctly ordinary in Bradford’s presence.
This, incidentally, is not a side tearing up trees even in the fourth tier of English football. They currently stand eighth in the division. In their last three matches in League Two, Bradford have lost away at Barnet, drawn away at Morecambe and lost at home to Rochdale. Which means, if you extend the logic insisted on by the paper which wanted to stage a play-off between the Premier League and La Liga, Barnet are currently better than Arsenal.
Well, we all know they aren’t really. But if we are to seek wider significance in those defeats against Bradford, what they have done is expose a real flaw that runs through Premier League clubs this season, a failing which argues against any claim to be the world’s greatest footballing competition: they appear to have forgotten how to defend.
Take a look again at Bradford’s third goal last night to see quite how fragile Premier League backlines have become. City’s young Irish centre back Carl McHugh met a corner from Gary Jones with a header of unstoppable power.
It was a great strike, but he should never have been allowed anywhere near the ball. His determination had carried him past a pitiful, statuesque Villa backline. Despite being about four inches shorter than Christian Benteke – and ceding about four stone in muscle – McHugh faced absolutely no resistance from the Villa man who was meant to be marking him.
When required to do his defensive duty, Benteke – the player Alan Shearer recently dubbed the most complete centre forward in the Premier League – resembled the invisible man.
Indeed all three Bradford goals came from the same source: Jones corners. Parkinson had worked out an eminently sensible game plan for the game against Wigan, which he continued through the Arsenal tie to last night’s game. Knowing his side could not match their illustrious opponents for skill or technique, he planned to defend deep, contain and then attack at set pieces.
Last night the set pieces utterly undid Villa. They were hopeless at them. Every time City got a corner or free-kick you thought they could score. There could not have been more havoc unleashed in Villa lines had Lionel Messi dribbled at them. Yet defending corners and free-kicks should be the absolute bread and butter for Premier League players. Somehow, though, week after week, they fail to carry out the minimal expectation of their trade.
And thus it was that last night a team which cost £7,500 in total, or roughly the first team squad’s monthly bill for car valeting at Villa’s training ground, easily out-flanked their supposed superiors by the simple expedient of chucking the ball in the mixer.
In fact, Bradford’s performances have been very reminiscent of another cup run of recent memory. A tactical plan of containment allied to aggression at set pieces, wasn’t that how Chelsea won the Champions League last season?
So by the logic of the reaction to FIFA's World XI, when the team of the season is voted for by English pressmen in May, shouldn’t it include the names Jones, McHugh, and Wells as leading representative of Bradford’s triumphant, Premier League-busting Capital One Cup team? Don’t hold your breath.