Today’s guest post is by Muppet
If it’s not the price tag, what is it?
Bang average. Taxi. Turning circle of an oil tanker. Clown. Barn Door.
Certain blogs pull no punches in their assessment of players. To be fair, it can go the other way:
Legend. Genius. Unplayable.
So what distinguishes a clown from a legend? Is it a matter of fan opinion? Is it fact? Can we measure it?
I tend to defer to the man, or woman, on the terraces, who has stood there for a long time, often in the cold. They can know their footballers. It’s hard to argue against those with an eye. Ask them exactly what it is about that footballer, and you’ll get answers like, well – “He’s class” or “Top, top class”.
But what exactly does that mean?
I thought about this the other day, and wondered how it was that Wenger persisted with Ramsey for so long? Wondered how Song could now be in a Barcelona shirt, when most on a certain blog thought he was destined for the championship. Wondered how it is that a manager is able to distinguish between a talented young player who will make it to the top, and one that will not.
So there must be some criteria, right ? I’m talking about at the top level. And let me point out I don’t have any top level experience. I’m a middle aged, overweight amateur – a has been. Actually, a never was. Tennis player that is. My best years well and truly behind me. My football experience was a couple of short years in the Sunday league, in goal. Makes me well qualified to discuss all this? No. But I can speculate, like we all do. I can even do a bit of research.
We all kind of know the attributes that make a good footballer. Got to be fit, right? Be a good athlete? Got to be well co-ordinated, have strength. Have good technique. Have vision. Have mental strength. Well, I’m beginning to sound like Wenger. As this is the stuff that he trots out in his press conferences – “Mental Strength”. We’ve heard it on a subliminal level for years. But what does it all actually mean? Fitness? I’m fit – me, I do circuits once or twice a week, and err, play some amateur tennis, so that includes me, right? And, err, technique. Well, I can kick a ball, and do kicky-uppy? Can’t you? And mental strength, well, I’m strong.
Ok, so let’s get serious here now. I thought it would be interesting to try and explore what we mean by good athlete? What do we mean by good vision? What do we mean by good technique? And what other attributes do top players need? And remember, we are talking about attributes often needed in combination.
FITNESS & ATHLETICISM
Sorry to bring in stats, but I read somewhere that on average, in 1970, a footballer would run 4 kilometers a game. In 2014 this has gone up to around 10k to 12k on average. Top level players have extraordinary levels of fitness. Some are extraordinary athletes to start with.
In fact, certain managers prefer athletes in their side now, which is probably why the term “luxury player” has evolved over time. Examples of this, in the 1986 World Cup, Hoddle was decreed a luxury player by Beckenbauer, one who would weaken England. Pundits believe Mata was sold by Mourinho because of his lack of athleticism, resulting in failure to track back and cover the game as well as Oscar and Willian.
The converse of this is the phrase “water carrier.” Of course, not all players are either water carriers or luxury players. However, it helps if athleticism and stamina is part of your armory. The modern day midfielder runs around 12k to 14k in a game, often capable of lung-busting runs. Basically, we are talking middle distance runners kicking a ball. Ramsey was the school boys champion in Wales at 800m. I don’t know his time, but I suspect it was around 2 minutes, maybe sub 2 minutes. Can you do the 800 in 2 minutes? I managed about 2 minutes 30, almost throwing up over the line as I came in last, when I was 14.
Modern day full backs have to be quick, possess copious amounts of stamina for bombing up and down the touchline, supporting attacks. The converse is true for wingers who have to do defensive duties. They too, run between 8k to 12k in a game.
Strikers? Some measurements have been taken of the fastest players in world football. The top 10 apparently come in between 31 kph to 35 kph. This approximates to around 11.6 to 10.2 seconds over 100m. Of course, you don’t need to do the 100 that fast if you have other attributes, like strength and hold up play, a la Giroud, and finishing of course. But strikers also need a fair amount of stamina to be the 1st line of defence and press the opposition. Difficult to do. Modern day football demands it. A player can quickly be dubbed “lazy” if they don’t do this, and we know one quite well.
It is sometimes deceptive exactly how skillful top professionals are. I used to practice with a ball in my back garden. That thing they do, easily, keeping the ball up on either foot, then flicking it behind their head – child’s play for them, for me – impossible. But this is meat and drink for a top footballer.
The skill that really can differentiate a top player is how they receive the ball, i.e. their first touch. At Sunday league level, the morning after a heavy session in the pub and Indian, players have eons of time to receive the ball, pick out a leisurely pass to their lumbering and still-over-the-limit teammates. Premiership level, no chance. You have a millisecond, and within then, you have to have already computed what you are doing with the ball. Once, at the end of the season, I played in midfield, and the second or so that I dawdled on the ball was adequate time for the opposition to come and take it off of me.
Some of the greats are capable of slowing down time, breaking down what they do with the ball like in a freeze frame. They say a fly is able to see us coming because time appears to them to be slowed down by several magnitudes. This is how it is with Fabregas or Hoddle. Watch how they maximise what little time and space they have, bringing the ball down or laying it off, and picking the right option.
So first touch is an innate skill. Others too are probably more inherited than manufactured. The ability to shoot, passing accuracy, the art of defending i.e. anticipation. Take a look at this YouTube video. Some say it’s fake. I’m not so sure:
Aligned to skills, is technique. As this is an Arsenal blog, I have to mention that Wenger favours players with technique. In fact, it’s a pre-requisite. In an interview about coaching, in this link Wenger mentions technique:
Wenger states that it’s very important to teach technique to under 14 year olds. This is because if you are over 14, and you don’t have technique, it is harder to learn it in later years.
I think it’s fair to assume that top footballers must have worked very hard to achieve good technique, with countless hours of practice. Unless it is in their DNA. There are freaks like Rooney who come into this category.
Aligned with skills, most players need good vision. At the very top level, the ability to pick out a pass or read the game separates greatness from a run-of-the-mill top footballer. Mesut Özil encapsulates this exactly. He reads the game and can find his man with uncanny accuracy, resulting in assists that go off the chart. Some critics look at Özil and don’t see this as extraordinary, probably because he makes it look so easy. He also makes intelligent runs, dragging players out of their positions, then creating opportunities for unmarked players.
It was said of Fabregas that he picked the right pass whatever the situation. This is the hallmark of a great player. It is said that if you froze a game and then got a coach to pick out the best option for the team, Fabregas would pick the same option every time. It must be stated that this is an extremely rare ability. To do this requires a mental map, in real time, of exactly where all the players are on the field now, and anticipating where they are going to be by the time you have executed a pass. Some say that top level players can track the movements of 6 or 7 of their teammates and know where they are.
This attribute is not just needed in an attacking sense, but also to spot danger. Watch how Mertesacker and Koscienly have been patrolling the defensive line like a pair of sharks this season. Being in the right place at the right time is vital. Tony Adams was able to read the game and so possessed this attribute in abundance.
As all Gooners know, this is one of Wenger’s favourite terms.
What does it mean exactly? It seems to be a catch all for the competitive qualities necessary to win and succeed. I would surmise that you could have 2 young players of equal ability, but one has gone on to be a bigger success, because of having “Mental Strength”. This has probably happened on numerous occasions. The one that succeeded turned out to be more ruthless, more dedicated, more focused. They also say that what separates those at the top with talent, is those that are prepared to work harder with their talent to succeed.
There can be no doubt that this alone is a key attribute. A recent newspaper report estimated that out of 9,000 apprenticeships in football academies in the UK, only a handful progress to make the grade:
Assuming then that you do become a Premiership footballer, and you are one of those handful, if we extrapolate that further, only a handful will go on and become top top class, say an Özil or a Wilshere. This means, obviously, that top class footballers are rare, which is why they are in demand, paid exorbitant amounts of money and idolized to a fanatical degree.
So is the price tag correct?
It seems to me that it’s not the price tag that should be the primary measure of how good a footballer is. The modern day Twitter armchair talent spotter gets excited by a couple of things – seeing a player in a YouTube clip, combined with a massively inflated valuation by a hopeful agent. But it seems to me that football clubs, of which we are one, would be acting with folly if they didn’t do their research and pay due-diligence. Amazingly, some clubs have bought players on the basis of just video evidence. And we know also, that some have paid hugely inflated transfer fees, way over the odds. So it seems to me that the science of evaluating a player, and estimating their worth, must be best practiced by the experts.
One of my favourites is Arsene Wenger.
You can find Muppet’s price tag on Twitter @MuppetGooner