This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.
In his latest book, The Secret Footballer claims that Premier League managers pigeonhole players into specific positions on the field based on their ethnicity.
"Managers in the modern game just do not trust black players in certain roles," he writes, "and the tempo-controlling midfielder, the most important position in the game relative to how the team plays, is the role in which black players are trusted the least."
Looking at last weekend's Premier League starting line-ups (January 23/24), he seems to be right. Choosing one tempo-controller from each team left me with 17 white European players (see list and charts below), the ethnically Turkish Mesut Ozil, and just two black players: Alex Song and Yaya Toure (both of whom are in the starting line-up as much for their physicality and tackling as for their ability to control the game). As black players made up 35% of starters, you would expect that they would represent more than just 10% of its tempo-controlling players.
So why don't managers trust black players in this position? According to The Secret Footballer (TSF): "Dictating the tempo of the game requires absolute concentration, 100% of the time. There's nothing to say black players can't do this, but there's no question that today – and this has been the case since time immemorial – black players are not recognised in football for that skill."
Black centre-halves are also victims of this prejudice, according to TSF, who alleges that a manager still working in the game told him that he would never play two black centre-halves together as they had 'tunnel vision' and that 'you always need a white one to make sure the other one doesn't go wandering off'. TSF adds that most managers would agree if they were to answer honestly.
Last weekend's line-ups seem to back him up, at least to some extent. While 31% of centre-halves were black, roughly the number you would expect, just two clubs played two black centre-backs together. One of these, Liverpool, only did so because first-choice starter Martin Skrtel was injured and Kolo Toure replaced him. Only Aston Villa have a first-choice defence consisting of two black centre-backs. (In fact, Villa fielded a back four made up entirely of black players against West Brom).
Although TSF doesn't mention it, the other position where concentration is most prized is goalkeeper, where black players are also distinctly lacking. Of the 20 'keepers in last weekend's Premier League games, 18 were white Europeans, one was the mixed-race American Tim Howard, and the other was the mixed-race Brazilian Heurelho Gomes.
On the other hand, TSF says that managers do regard black players as quick, strong and athletic – the ideal attributes for playing on the wing. Again, the evidence supports him on this, as exactly half of last weekend's wingers were black.
This is not just a problem for football though: the same racial stereotypes can be seen in other sports and across society. Research into Rugby League has shown that black players are pushed out to the wings because of their perceived speed, or outside-back and second row positions because of their perceived strength. The more tempo-controlling or creative positions are predominately filled with white players.
Arguably, this prejudice is not too harmful. Black players are discriminated against as playmakers but discriminated in favour of on the wings. That will not be a consolation to the next batch of black playmakers to come through the academies, however. The risk is that they are converted into wingers, a position they may not be naturally suited for and may not be as successful in, but where they will be easier to sell to Premier League managers. If this is the case, the losers won't just be the players concerned but English football as a whole
Note: The players chosen as tempo-controllers were: Hoolahan, Henderson, Cabaye, Eriksen, Drinkwater, Affelay, Herrera, Cattermole, Watson, Shelvey, Fletcher, Westwood, Barry, Sigurðsson, Fabregas, Clasie, Arter, Ozil, Song, and Yaya Toure.