In my relatively short time on this galactic Mitre size 5 we call planet earth, I've seen some truly great football teams. Some of them were exciting, some of them were pragmatic, some of them were a healthy combination of both, but they all had their standout players.
While it's now trendy to sit and analyse the nuances of a team as a whole these days, deconstructing everything from passing percentages to habits in transitional play, somewhere down the line the entire legacy of squad becomes personified in a few key individuals. There's normally a goalscorer in there, possibly a heroic defender or a mercurial winger, but in recent times the man who's really come to define our successful sides has been the steely, sleeves-rolled-up, defensive midfielder.
It's hard to think of Manchester United's success in recent years without picturing a snarling Roy Keane booting an opponent into the first row of the crowd, tactfully clearing the ball in the process; or Patrick Vieira striding towards his own goal and wrapping those anaconda legs around anyone who dared dally with the ball in Arsenal's half. Claude Makelele had an entire role named after him.
For all we go on about the “beautiful” game, we're all quietly aware that there's a grittier side to things. For every twinkle-toed young South American who fancies his chances of waltzing through a defence, there needs to be a player capable of stopping him. Whether we're willing to admit it or not, a screaming sliding tackle across a patch of wet grass will get twice the roar from the crowd that a deft pirouette and a step-over ever will. To win the match, you must first win the ball.
But in recent times, especially this season, possession has become the new prevention.
The top teams in the Premier League now seek to control threat, rather than take the ball off their opponents. They look to shepherd teams into unthreatening areas, and wait for a chance to nip in and intercept a stray pass. It's like watching a crack SAS team attempt to storm an embassy with a big book of persuasive phrases, while lobbing iTunes vouchers through the window with “please can we have those hostages back?” written on in crayon.
Some would say it's playing the game “the right way”, and it's undeniably making games more open. A Chelsea side with aforementiomed Claude Makelele in it once went an entire Premier League season conceding only 15 goals, Manchester United are currently top of the table having shipped 16... and we haven't even put the Christmas tree up yet.
A defensive fragility would be easy to blame on an audibly creaking Rio Ferdinand or which ever work experience kid they've partnered with him lately, but when you're deepest midfield player is Michael Carrick, is it really any surprise when Aston Villa score from an unmarked runner on the edge of the box, or open you up with a simple dummy in the middle of the park?
Michael Carrick is a terrific student of the game and vital to his team's attacking threat, but when he finds himself in a position of destructive necessity he's the footballing equivalent of trying to blow your nose on a cloud of steam.
It's not just him though. Look at Mikel Arteta at Arsenal. The departure of Alex Song and arrival of Santi Cazorla has pushed him into the deepest darkest reaches of Arsenal's midfield. He's been quietly effective at harassing opponents and shutting off space, but when pick-pocketed by Bryan Ruiz in his own box, displayed all the physical superiority of a large coat in trying to win it back. Mikel at Chelsea presumably enjoys the “whooosh” noise players make when they go past him, and I've read poetry more physical than Joe Allen.
Players like this used to be protected by a creature who was considerably lower down the evolutionary line but frighteningly further up the food chain, but now they're on their own in the most unforgiving of habitats. In a season where West Brom and West Ham are all exceeding expectations, it's worth noting that while Arteta and Carrick are the league's leaders for average number of passes per game, Mark Noble and Claudio Jacob hold that same honour for successful tackles.
None of the aforementioned players could hold a candle to a Keane or a Vieira. The old order is rapidly fading as the winds of change blow through English football.
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