Since the advent of the sport in the 1800s, England and football have been intrinsically linked. This bond started with schoolboys on muddy fields, with the objective to get the ball from one end of the field to the other by any means necessary — no rules, no limit on numbers, only brute force.
Football has now evolved into an organized game; manicured, well-lined pitches, tidy uniforms, and 11 players on each side. Kicking the opponent was outlawed and shinguards were installed should a stray boot make contact with the tibia.
Yet through this pasteurization, the primal roots of the game have remained in Great Britain. The formalization of Brexit has only embellished this sentiment — the idea of Britain vs. the world (or at least Europe), and the superiority of the British way of playing the sport.
On the pitch, these archaic and effective tactics have been termed as "Brexit Ball." Some of the telltale signs of Brexit Ball are as follows:
- a low-block 4-4-2
- route one football
- hard-tackling, physical play
- a disdain for possession
- a penchant for scoring on set pieces
- an inordinate number of buzz cuts
- majority of players from the British Isles
Over the years many teams have taken these tactics to heart: the "Crazy Gang" of Wimbledon FC in the 1980s and 90s and Bolton of the 2000s. More recently, Burnley, West Brom, and Cardiff City have employed these tenants, often to great success in difficult circumstances.
But what if these three current sides combined, then added the best Brexit Ballers from across England to create the ultimate Brexit Ball side? Well, you'd get a side that would never lose a tackle or a header and might be impossible to beat. Here is the result:
Brexit Ballers XI
Manager: Sean Dyche (Burnley)
It's unclear whether Dyche actually invented the 4-4-2, but the consensus is that he was there when the X's and O's hit the chalkboard on that fateful day. For the past decade, the Burnley man has been the best in the business at maximizing the performances of his team despite having minimal talent to work with. Dyche's sides are always a pain in the butt to play, and he wouldn't have it any other way.
Assistant Manager: Sam Allardyce
Inside the shell of the stereotypical British manager is one of the most astute footballing minds of the modern era. He's a relegation specialist that gets the best out of what he is given, but he was also one of the first managers to use statistical analysis.
His longball style exacerbated the stereotypes of the simple-minded Englishman — something he fought his entire career to disprove.
Set Piece Coach: Rory Delap
His long throws put fear into his opponents caused some to call for rules changes in the sport (namely Arsene Wenger). He spent six seasons at cold and rainy Stoke City, making him an ideal set-piece man.
Goalkeeper: Nick Pope (Burnley)
All three England goalkeepers: Nick Pope, Sam Johnstone, and Jordan Pickford were under consideration here. Pickford is a bit dramatic with his dives, which eliminates him, leaving the steely-eyed Johnstone and lanky Pope. Both players have haircuts that you could set your watch to and both toiled in the lower reaches of English football before reaching the Premier League, with Pope even spending multiple spells with non-league sides.
Pope is a slightly better keeper and has more experience with a Brexit Ball side, putting him slightly ahead of Sam Johnstone.
Right Back (Captain): Seamus Coleman (Everton)
The Irishman joined Everton from Sligo Rovers for just £60,000 back in 2009 and has since become the face of the blue half of Merseyside. Coleman captains Everton and the Republic of Ireland with the solemn demeanor of a consummate pro; a no-nonsense player who was built to lead and bleeds the colors of his side. He's a captain's captain, plain and simple.
Center Back: Shane Duffy (Brighton and Hove Albion)
In terms of low-block defenders, Shane Duffy is right up there with the best in England. A resilient player with a propensity for blocking shots, Duffy is also one of the world's best in the air. He's scored three times in his last six appearances for the Republic of Ireland — all with his head. When Duffy goes up for a set piece, it's not a question of whether he'll win the header, it's a question of whether the ball will end up in the back of the net.
Center Back: Nat Phillips (Liverpool)
Within the space of six months, Nat Phillips went from an anonymous academy player to a Liverpool hero, starting 15 matches during the second half of the 2020-21 campaign and rescuing a Champions League berth when the club's first-team center backs were all injured.
Along with fellow backline neophyte Rhys Williams, the duo ended the season with identical cuts above their left eyes — a symbol of their commitment to their club.
Playing time has been less plentiful this season for the former Bolton academy player, but he had a dazzling performance against AC Milan in the Champions League, pulling off a clean neat Cruyff turn before later suffering a broken cheekbone.
With a buzz cut and stout tackling, Phillips is built more for Burnley rather than Liverpool, making his surprising success that much more enjoyable.
Absolutely sublime from Nat Phillips at the San Siro pic.twitter.com/v8zRApu58k— Liverpool FC (@LFC) December 9, 2021
Left Back: Luke Shaw (Manchester United)
For much of his career, Luke Shaw has been a typical Manchester United signing: a talented player with injury struggles who is unfairly criticized despite being more than serviceable. Then during the great lockdown of 2020, Luke Shaw decided to shave his head. In the months since buzz cut Shaw has experienced what only can be described as a career turnaround.
He had the best season of his Man Utd tenure in 20-21, then had a phenomenal showing at Euro 2020, posting three assists and scoring in the final against Italy. Buzz cut Luke Shaw is just a different player.
Right Midfielder: Stuart Dallas (Leeds United)
Over a season-and-a-half of Premiership football for Leeds, Stuart Dallas has started a match at eight different positions. And while he has just one EPL start at left mid, it's the most frequented position of his footballing career.
The fact that he plays for Marcelo Bielsa pretty much gives away his playing style, but perhaps his FIFA Player Specialty describes him best: Engine.
On a Leeds team that ran harder than any other side in the Premier League last year, the Northern Ireland international was the leader in distance covered. Put him anywhere and you'll get 90 high-intensity minutes every week for the entire season.
— Jonny Cooper (@JRCooper26) May 25, 2021
Center Midfielder: Mark Noble (West Ham)
When Mark Noble made his Premier League debut back in 2005, Arsenal stilled played at Highbury, Sam Allardyce's Bolton was contending for a European spot, and Ronaldinho was creating the most iconic YouTube video of all time. Since then, Noble has made 464 league appearances for the Hammers. Yet across this decade-plus of Premier League football, any footballing expert would be hard-drawn to describe the Englishman's skillset.
According to his WhoScored? page, Mark Noble's only strength is "Concentration." He averages a goal every eight games — with nearly 60 percent of them from the penalty spot — and he only registers an assist once in every 10 contests. He has never won a trophy with West Ham and his best individual honor was being named to the 11/12 EFL Championship team of the year. His FBref Scouting Report shows that he completes passes ... and not much else.
Yet Noble has spent 12 seasons as an EPL starter, rarely missing a match and even more rarely being noticed on the pitch. Sure, I couldn't tell you his strengths, but I don't think anyone could pick out his weaknesses either. He's a guy, a guy you want on your team because he doesn't put a foot wrong.
Center Midfielder (Penalty Taker): James Milner (Liverpool)
Now 35 years old, it appears that James Milner's legs might finally be starting to leave him this year. But for a player who was THE most consistent player in the EPL for the last 15 years, I think we can forgive a down season. During this period, Milner has been the ultimate plug-and-play man, starting matches at every position except center back and goalkeeper. He never questioned where he played, and his managers never had to question the effort Milner would put in.
The Englishman has been around for so long that while he was 24 he won PFA Young Player of the Year in 2009-10, he was already in his eighth professional season. As a young player, he gave off the perception of a battle-tested veteran, and now in his mid-thirties, Milner still has the energy and exuberance of a player just breaking into the first team.
Left Midfielder: John McGinn (Aston Villa)
On one end of the Brexit Ballers spectrum are Seamus Coleman and James Milner, the quiet types that go about their business. On the other end are players like John McGinn. The Scotsman is a mini-Vardy, a boisterous ball of energy with a flare for the spectacular. McGinn brings creativity and technical quality to a side flush with straightforward players.
Strikers: Chris Wood (Burnley), Jamie Vardy (Leicester City)
In terms of personality and playing style, Vardy and Wood are opposites. But they share one trait in common: scoring goals — 122 of them over the past four full seasons, to be exact. Both strikers have reached double-digit goal totals in each of these four seasons as well.
Together, this duo would make a dream striker partnership. Wood would quietly win a bunch of headers and systematically score a poacher's goal every third game. Meanwhile, Vardy would run around scoring worldies and take care of all the "Chat Shit, Get Banged" business. 30+ goals between them is a guarantee.
Goalkeeper: Sam Johnstone (West Bromwich Albion)
Keepers are generally no-nonsense type players, providing us with a pool of largely indistinguishable candidates. Johnstone's buzz cut and the fact that he plays for long-ball side West Brom give him a slight edge on the rest of the competition.
Right Back: Darnell Furlong (West Bromwich Albion)
A generally solid but unspectacular player, Furlong's inclusion in this side is a testament is his prowess with the long throw-in — the perfect gimmick for a back-up fullback.
Center Back: Sean Morrison (Cardiff City)
More on Cardiff City in a minute, but let's take a moment to appreciate center back Sean Morrison, who has averaged more than four goals per season during his eight years with the Bluebirds. Remarkably, 31 of his 33 goals have come via set pieces (per WhoScored?). Morrison's center back partner — the 6 feet 5 inches Aden Flint — was also a possibility here.
Center Back: Lewis Dunk (Brighton and Hove Albion)
Much like Seamus Coleman, Dunk is a proper captain, a one-club player who has spent his entire senior career with one club. He's the type of player you'll always find standing on the goal line during a goalmouth scramble, ready to do whatever it takes to keep the ball out of the net. His EPL record-tying four own goals in 2017-18 speak to these efforts and make him a great veteran presence on the bench.
Center Midfielder: Scott Brown (Aberdeen)
For 15 years, nobody has embodied the strange world of the Scottish Premiership better than Scott Brown, a hard-tackling, shit-talking center midfielder who was more likely to pick up a yellow card than a goal (three times more likely, that is). He's a winner — nine league titles in a row demonstrate that — and his passion and leadership make him a perfect fit for this squad.
Center Midfielder: Ben Pearson (Bournemouth)
Ben Pearson is the enforcer. The English midfielder possesses 92 aggression in FIFA and had a three-season run with Preston North End where he accumulated 48 cards in 96 league matches. During this period he missed a whopping 23 games due to card suspensions.
Have a tricky player on the opposing side that needs a swift kick in the ankle? Pearson is your man (not that we condone that type of thing.)
Left Midfielder: James McClean (Wigan Athletic)
A classic one-dimensional player, McClean has carved out a long career at the Premier League and international level by being very good at that one dimension: work rate. The Irishman will run up and down that left wing like his life depends on it, occasionally slowing slightly to put in a crunching tackle or whip in a cross (which usually travels well over the far post.)
Right Midfielder: Marc Albrighton (Leicester City)
If some catastrophe occurs and one of our wingers (and their infinite stamina) has to leave the game, Albrighton is a very serviceable option off the bench. He's a guy that will get you two goals and six assists every year, whipping in dangerous crosses from either wing while still tracking back on defense.
Striker: Kieffer Moore (Cardiff City)
If your life depended on it and you needed one current player to win a header, who would you choose? If you say anyone other than Kieffer Moore you might as well start saying your goodbyes. The 6 feet 5 inches tall behemoth has dominated English (and Welsh) Airways in a way that Peter Crouch could only dream of.
Last season the Cardiff striker contested an astounding 17.7 aerial duels per match — five more than Crouchy at his peak — and he was a big reason behind Cardiff's league-leading 26 set-piece goals. The Welshman scored seven set-piece goals himself and 20 goals overall, not bad for a striker who started his career for Paignton Saints in the South Devon League Division Two (14th tier (!) of English soccer). Now he plays for one of the ultimate Brexit Ball sides.
Striker: Daryl Dike (West Bromwich Albion)
Last week I wrote that Daryl took to the EFL Championship last season like "a Minnesota ice-fisherman takes to a frozen lake," as perhaps no player has ever been a better fit for the English second-tier. While on loan at Barnsley, the American scored nine times in 19 matches, taking the Tykes to within 180 minutes of just their second Premier League season ever.
Now he has teamed up again with Valérien Ismaël — his old boss at Barnsley — after making a permanent move to West Brom at the start of the winter transfer window. At 6 feet 2 two inches and 220 pounds, Dike has the size and strength of an American football player and the finishing touch of a Premier League striker, making him a nightmare for any defender.
Striker: Adebayo Akinfenwa (Wycombe Wanderers)
There might not be a lot of technical quality on this bench, but I'll guarantee you one thing: you won't want to see any of these strikers in the last 15 minutes of a match. Akinfenwa is a case study for what would happen if you took a decent lower-league footballer and put him on a 15-year powerlifting program.
The Englishman has been the strongest man in FIFA an incredible 12 seasons in a row, and except for a nine-month foray in the EFL Championship in 2020-21, Akinfenwa has spent all of those years in League One and League Two.
Across 1,282 league minutes last year, Akinfenwa contested 402 aerial duels — about one every three minutes. Extrapolate that to a full match, and the Englishman averaged 28.2 aerial duels per 90 minutes. Phenomenal stuff.
Striker: Andy Carroll (Reading)
There's no way around it: Andy Carroll is not good anymore, nor has he been decent since probably about 2017. That being said; when you think of mediocre English football, no player embodies that conglomerate more than Andy Carroll.
Between 2017 and 2021, the former Liverpool man went two-and-a-half seasons (42 matches and 1,345 minutes) without scoring a league goal. His inclusion in this squad is a tribute to all the ordinary footballers that came before him who became massively overrated because they were English.