So a second win in two days. 48 hours which had felt like the pivot on which the entire season would turn. One game live on TV, one game played in front of our first home sell-out in years. At the most crucial possible point in the season, when the stakes were at their highest, after one win in 13 games, we did this.
Ask ten City fans and you might well get ten answers; I’m going with Derek McInnes’ use of the squad. We’ve known for a long time that the squad is too big, overloaded in certain areas and causing decent, expensive, players to be left out every week. Over this weekend, McInnes triumphantly converted this deficiency into a major plus, rotating, resting, involving a total of 17 players. The 17th of them to appear, Yannick Bolasie, had to wait until the 82nd minute of the second game for his chance and scored within a minute.
It was a masterpiece of squad use. Not simply because it meant that over that weekend the right players were picked at the right time for the right game – although of course that was important as well. What selecting such a good proportion of the squad for such crucial games does is make it clear to every player that they’re involved in the fight. They’ve got a stake in the team’s fate. It’s not a question of a defined starting 11 and then such players as the manager deigns to bring in when one of the superstars is missing. Everyone has responsibility. Everyone has a part to play. And staying up, if we do so, will be a team effort.
It’s easy to win as a team; the other side of the adage, losing as a team, is harder, and recovering from defeats is very often what sets champions apart from contenders. The fact is however that it’s impossible to lose in any other way – OK, Sylvian Distin might have conceded possession to Luis Suarez in this weekend’s Cup semi-final astonishingly cheaply, but that incident alone didn’t cost Everton the game. They lost it because of their timidity and overall poor play, allowing Liverpool to put pressure on defenders in the top third until the breakthrough came. That Distin was culpable for the specific breakthrough was immaterial; the team was culpable for the fact that there was a breakthrough at all.
This all goes back to my argument that you can’t pick out a single incident in a game and say “that’s where we lost” apart from in very unusual circumstances. The weakest team on the day nearly always loses. It’s very rare for a superior team with a superior team ethic but a single weak link to lose, just as a single superstar can’t win anything alone. This, by the way, is why it’s madness to use winning a World Cup as any sort of yardstick to measure Lionel Messi against the other greats of football history. Not just because such a calculation elevates Kleberson above Cruyff, but because this isn’t tennis or the 100 metres. Teams win things. Maradona was part of a fine group in 1986 – Ruggeri, Valdano, Burruchaga and all – and it’s a trite, but no less accurate, observation that Pele’s 1970 Brazil side was one of the greatest in football history. When somebody can turn the impressive raw Argentinean materials into a cohesive unit, perhaps Messi will win the World Cup, but that won’t change how wonderful he is. His contribution as part of one of the greatest units in history, Barcelona, has already amply demonstrated that.
It’s interesting that the Championship currently contains the antithesis of all this in the form of Doncaster. A place where as every cameo’ing star, once a Premier League player now a newly-minted journeyman, comes in, a hard-working stalwart of Donnie’s successful Championship past drops out. Where’s the motivation to play well if you can be chucked out of the team as soon as Willie McKay’s phone rings? And what stake do players there only to put themselves in the shop window have in Doncaster’s survival?
I guess “very little” must be the answer to both of those questions because Doncaster went down without the smallest cry. There’s a cliché about the size of the fight in the dog being more important than the size of the dog in the fight, and while it’s easy to sneer at simplistic, unquantifiable measures of performance like “passion”, “desire” and “wanting it” there’s no denying the importance of determination and morale in a battle at either end of the table. Doncaster had their heart ripped out; McInnes got his transfusions right and ours continues beating.