Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The forgotten attribute of the greats

11 November 2012 - Bristol City 0 Charlton Athletic 2

At one point during this dismal performance, unimpressive loanee left-back Matthew Briggs dashed over towards Charlton’s right-winger as the away side threatened to break.  Seconds before Briggs made contact, he very clearly remembered that he’d already been booked, and that a mistimed challenge would reduce City to ten men whilst already 1-0 down.  Unable to check his momentum, and not trusting himself to execute a perfect challenge, Briggs sailed on past his opponent.  This allowed Charlton a 2v3 break which fortunately they didn’t take advantage of.

I wasn’t annoyed by the lack of skill or technique at that moment – Briggs’ attempted ball down the wing which swung out of play under no pressure whatsoever had removed any illusions I had about his ability.  But it was the stupidity of it that got to me.  It was plain that the concepts “I have been booked” and “if that happens again I will be sent off” took a long time to come together in the young player’s mind.   For this reason, he chose the wrong course of action, and for this reason Charlton were able to create a goalscoring opportunity.

Briggs is 21, so will have been receiving formal training in football for 12 years or so.  Distribution, tackling ability – he’ll have been coached in those aspects for most of that time.  That they’re still so limited, or that he’s so little confidence in them, says to me that they aren’t going to get much better.  But it was his inability to think straight that let him down as much as anything, and I wonder when he was last coached in that.
One suspects he hasn’t, that his academic education has been on the back-burner since he was first taken on by a centre of excellence.  The parts of his brain that control athleticism will have been developed since then, the rest neglected by a British football coaching system that’s suspicious of intellect.

If he’d been brought through the ranks at Ajax, for instance, one suspects that he’d not only be a different player, but a different man.  Look at the players Ajax have brought through – van Basten, Rijkaard, Davids, Bergkamp, Seedorf, most of all Johan Cruyff.  What unites them?  Their technique, yes, their faith in it, absolutely – but also their intelligence, both footballing and otherwise.  (We’ll ignore Patrick Kluivert here.  No record is 100%)

Cruyff.  Greater than any British player there’s ever been.  Keep yer George Best – or at least come back when he’s installed his own system at two of the greatest clubs in Europe, and won the European Cup as a manager as well as a player.  The mind that did that is the mind that developed and finessed total football as a player, too.  You don’t score his most famous goal through technique only.  You do so by having the wit to imagine the angle.

This isn’t to say that what the pundits like to call “football intelligence” doesn’t exist – this fantastic interview with Wayne Rooney (by David Winner, whose book Brilliant Orange covers a lot of this ground far better than I’m capable of) is worth a read for the way it confounds a lot of prejudices about the intellectual ability of a player clearly not exposed to much book-learnin’.  One prejudice discussed in the article is held by Alan Shearer, to whom inevitably we must return.    It takes great mental ability, quite possibly the unique way of seeing the world possessed by geniuses, to play like Rooney.  But I do wonder whether he would be even more the player with the mental self-discipline to refrain the from needless kicks on opponents which have led to his absence from some pretty major England games in the past.  Given the coddled life he’s led, and the way that everything that’s seemed meaningful to him must have come pretty easily, too, it’s not difficult to understand why he’s so prone to frustration.  Being challenged academically by something he’s not inherently good at would surely have been good discipline for the younger Rooney and I’m convinced he’d be a better player if he’d been given that training, too.  He’d certainly have two more England caps and might have taken Jamie Carragher’s penalty against Portugal all those tournaments ago.

Cruyff, of course, has had his flare-ups too, but they’ve been borne more out of the intellectual arrogance of a man who knows he’s right, and has wanted to shape clubs his way and his way only.  When that leads to La Masia and the success of Barcelona it’s a triumph.  When it leads to fallings-out with figures like Sandro Rosell and Louis van Gaal, it’s perhaps less helpful.  Nevertheless, the demonstration is clear – Cruyff the intellectual is central to Cruyff the footballing God.  It’s not hard to see, either, why the brain that planned the new Barcelona could also conceptualise ‘Total Football’.  Compare this, or the adaptation of Xavi and Iniesta’s smart Spain to a striker-free formation to win the last European Championships, with Micah Richards being flummoxed at a change from 4-5-1 to 3-5-2.  No wonder Mancini, another dugout thinker, was frustrated with his player’s attitude.  But that comes with managing English players, and is probably why Arsene Wenger left the likes of Englishmen Bould, Dixon and Adams in place to do the heading and tackling, but gave Ajax old boy Dennis Bergkamp the most important role in his team – its brain.

Who hasn’t been impressed with the articulate, insightful punditry of Leonardo, Gianluca Vialli, or Clarence Seedorf (yep, Ajax again) during international tournaments, particularly compared with the self-satisfied complacency of the BBC crew in particular.  Our boys’ narrow horizons – passion is good, zonal marking is bad, foreigners invented diving – are thrown into sharp relief every couple of years by ex-players who can talk intelligently about the game in a language other than their own, and dress pretty damn sharply to boot.  It’s a regular demonstration, hidden in plain sight, of everything that we’re not doing and every reason why we should.

(Martin O’Neill isn’t British, but it would be stretching a point to call him a foreign ex-player.  But his famous digression during punditry into the life and times of screenwriter William Goldman, followed by his great unfinished line to an unimpressed Shearer, “perhaps if you spent more time watching films and less...”, encapsulates every bit of this cultural difference.  Why would Shearer want to talk about films?  Why would he want to go outside the world of football to make his point?  The touchline of the pitch is the touchline of his mind.)

Leonardo, Vialli, Seedorf, Bergkamp, Cruyff, O’Neill even, all have something else in common – they played a great deal of their career abroad.  British players seem terrified to do this and I think in part that’s because they aren’t intellectually equipped to do so.  Not in the sense that they’d struggle with the language, but because the conception of football is totally different to the one that they’ve been taught from a very early age is the only one possible.  The way to see the world.  Travel broadening the  mind is all very well and good, but you have to consider that to be inherently a good thing.

That’s why, whatever one thinks of Joey Barton’s somewhat tedious “cleverest boy in the bottom form” social media schtick, he gets a qualified round of applause for his decision to pursue his career in Ligue 1.  Qualified because we’ll never know how much the 12-game ban affected his decision, but still – chapeau to that man.  If he thinks his football – no, his general – education is unfinished at 31, and wants to pursue new things, we can only stand impressed at his decision.

I nearly started to sum up by saying “if only we had a few more people like Joey Barton”.  But I don’t want to say things I can’t take back.  Let’s just say it would be nice to have informed, articulate, worldly commentary on our game coming from English ex-players once in a while.  Because I do think that when the coaching system neglects the part of the brain in which there’s most room for expansion, the player and the person both suffer.  I think that enough great teams have been intellectual triumphs to demonstrate that it’s a genuinely important thing, not an optional extra.  I think speed of thought is trainable just as much as speed of foot is.  And I don’t think it’s a bolt-on.  I think it’s a club’s duty to their player, particularly because those that don’t win a big contract at 18 are going to find themselves in a position where they could do with a brain on their shoulders.

One thing, one thing only, gives me hope that something might happen in this direction. Last week, Roy Hodgson used the word “polyvalent” to describe Leon Osman.  He’s in charge of our best now, and in charge of the St George’s Park complex that will foster the next generation.  He reads long American novels.  He’s a polyglot.  He spent most of his career overseas.  He calls Everton midfielders “polyvalent”.  And he’s the boss.

Once more with feeling: thank God it wasn’t Redknapp.  Won’t somebody, please, think of the children.


  1. I remember Martin O'Neill on the BBC studio panel for the 2006 World Cup, explaining Italy's offside line with reference to the ancient Romans, in particular the triumvirate of Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus.

    It earned him the mockery of the others, Alan Hansen in particular being reduced to tears of mirth at the very idea that it might be useful and interesting to learn things, but I was impressed even if they weren't.

    I've thought of him as one of us ever since.

    1. Excellent.

      This is why ITV's pundits were so much better than the BBC's this summer - no O'Neill, OK, but Strachan is as much of a free-associator. Then there's Vieira and Martinez for the continental sophistication. Now that Dixon's joined them they're only an unfortunate injury to Adrian Chiles away from having the best panel in absolutely years.