A guest post from @foreverheady
One of the comments that irritated Arsenal supporters after the four goal romp against Newcastle last Saturday was the one made by Richard Keys about Santi Cazorla not showing their 21 Year Old Goalkeeper, Jak Alnwick any respect when he chipped in his Panenka penalty. The idea was put about that this was in some way bullying, and, because The Arsenal was involved, attracted more than its fair share of interest. It got me thinking, and reminded of a time when I was much younger, and similarly treated by an older and much respected pro. Different sport, but essentially the same.
Sussex were going well in the Championship and travelled to Coventry to play Warwickshire at the Courtaulds ground: winning the toss and batting first, runs came easily, courtesy of a Gehan Mendis century , and it was not until late afternoon that I went in to bat. Bob Willis was the bowler, and I was excited (and slightly apprehensive) to face such a Test star. I took my guard, looked round the field and settled into my stance to wait for his long, long run-up, that I had seen so many times before on the TV. Except he hadn’t walked back to his mark, but instead bowled immediately – almost from a standing start. I wasn’t ready at all, although technically I was, and didn’t have the experience or confidence to pull away. The ball clattered into the stumps before I knew it, and I trudged off, out for a Golden Duck, to the sniggers and derision of the Warwickshire team. I had been properly done, and felt humiliated and wretched. Bullied? Maybe, although it was perfectly within the rules. Taught a lesson? Yes, certainly, and also made aware that at that level no quarter is asked for or given. And that is the point about Santi’s penalty. He knew that the keeper was likely to dive too soon, and he also knew that if Alnwick was serious about being a first team player in the Premiership then he deserved the respect of being taken as an equal – and not as a young greenhorn for whom allowances should be made. But perhaps more importantly, Santi knew he was going to score, and I expect the keeper did too – and it is that type of one on one confrontation when sport ceases to be just about physical skill and becomes something far more psychological.
Much was made the following afternoon of David de Gea’s contribution to Manchester United’s ultimately facile dismissal of Liverpool, and it is certainly true that his early save from Sterling allowed Rooney the chance to score only moments later. As the plaudits rained down on de Gea, my Twitter timeline was full of indignation, claiming that he only made these saves because the ball was kicked straight at him, much as had been the case when he frustrated so many Arsenal efforts a few weeks before. But that slightly misses the point, and although Gary Neville talked about the excellence of his positioning, that is only half the story too. De Gea made the saves because he was mentally stronger than the attacker – he had won the psychological battle if you like – and that is why so many of the shots were weak and safely struck at the middle of the goal. I have seen decent first-class bowlers bowl absolute rubbish at top batsmen for the same reason: they momentarily become like rabbits in the headlights and freeze at just the moment that they need to be instinctive and fluid. Sterling’s weak effort in the second half when he had a far more obvious one on one with the keeper seems proof of that, and I suspect it will be a long time before he, or indeed anyone else, will go past De Gea when they have time to think about it. It will take a stronger player to do it, and I shall be interested to see who it is, although I’d wager it will be one of the world’s greats. Aguero or Alexis maybe, seeing as we won’t see United in stronger competition for a while.
Those one on one moments are most obviously in focus when it is striker v keeper, but in truth those little battles happen all over the pitch, and being better or stronger than your immediate counterpart is so important to the overall result of the game. But there are some players who are so much better that they impact a whole game just by their presence alone. It is not just their outrageous skill that does it, although that is obviously important, it is more their force of will. They take games by the scruff of the neck and bully it into submission. Suarez won games for Liverpool last season, just as Bale had done for Tottenham the year before, that they had no right to win, and you could literally see defenders quake when those two were anywhere near. George Best and Giggs did it in their pomp, and at times Rooney has it about him too. Ronaldo and Messi do it on a regular basis, and it is always exciting to see them go up a gear and do something extraordinary, although often their presence alone means that they frequently get away with not having to do very much, so readily do the opposition wave the white flag. Thierry Henry was one such, and as people celebrate his retirement and use the excuse to spend happy hours replaying golden moments, I hope they will also remember his mental strength as well as his vast talent. Time alone will tell whether we will ever have one to match him, but although he is not yet a personal favourite of mine, I have a sneaky feeling that Alexis might be the one to assume his mantle of sublime game-changer, and a player whom even the greatest keepers respect and fear.