A guest post from Tim ( @foreverheady )
“If you think you have more than one Derby horse in your yard, you haven’t got a Derby horse.” So went the advice given by an eminent trainer sometime last century and you can see the logic. To win the most prestigious prize in racing you needed something exceptional, and the chances of having two exceptional colts at the same time were not only unlikely, but also suggested that neither possessed the true hallmark of a great champion, that restless inner fire that dominates all opposition. Times have changed a bit of course in the racing game, with expensive bloodlines the preserve of only a few owners, and top quality congregated in a handful of yards. The global expansion of racing has played its part as well, and with operations like Godolphin or Ballydoyle now seeking to compete on a variety of fronts a proper squad of equine talent is needed each year for a season to have any chance of being deemed a success. Winning the Derby is no longer the only mark of greatness. Nevertheless, the search for a real superstar that not only dominates his own generation but those before and after remains compelling – and, of course, extends far beyond racing and is true of all competitive sports. It is certainly true of football, and much fun can be had comparing the games greats: Pele or Best, Cruyff or Maradonna, Messi or Ronaldo? They are all different, but what each seems to have in common is the ability to dominate and stand head and shoulders above not only their own team mates, but also the opposition. Single-handedly they change the course of games, tournaments and seasons: we recognise them when we see them, not just because of their sublime skills, but also because of the aura of greatness that surrounds them – their own personal force fields, if you like.
I often find myself thinking of the Derby horse idea when I hear people debating the ideal Arsenal starting XI. Should Giroud or Walcott start up front – or should it be Welbeck? Where might Ramsey and Wilshere play – and where does that leave Cazorla and Oxlade if Ozil and Alexis also need to be shoe-horned into a midfield that needs at its base Coquelin or Arteta or Chambers. Should we play Gibbs or Monreal, Debuchy or Gibbs? They can’t all play, but does the fact it is so hard to say with certainty what the best team is mean that the reality is that while the players are plenty good enough, not many, if any, are really great? And does that also mean that unless the manager can pull off a masterstroke this summer and sign a world-class superstar, we are destined to spend a season competing well and playing nicely – but not quite winning a trophy.
Well possibly, but if it applies to The Arsenal, it applies to many other teams too. Partly because despite a number of very competitive teams,there are only two serious prizes in English Football (although I have noticed in recent years the very top clubs seem to be claiming the League Cup as a valuable achievement as well) and of course the Champions League for the top four – and partly because there aren’t that many real game changing superstars floating about waiting to be signed. In fact, there is an argument that says any club that is too reliant on just one galactic player is actually quite vulnerable, even if they do occasionally produce extraordinary results. I can only think of two in recent years – Bale and Suarez – who have individually made a significant difference, and it is telling that once they left both Liverpool and Tottenham slumped. The chances are that had they encountered injury their clubs would not have been easily able to sustain whatever challenge they were spearheading – and rival teams would have been very aware of that. The performances of Messi for Argentina and Ronaldo for Portugal have at times been less than spectacular, which also suggests that well-organised teams full of very good players are capable of nullifying the threat posed by ordinary teams that possess only one real star.
But what happens when you add a brilliant player, a genuine worldy, to a team full of really good players? Surely that is the ideal scenario, and I am sure it is what all managers aspire to. City would love to sign Pogba, Chelsea Bale, United Cavani, and I have little doubt they are trying their hardest to do just that, just as Arsenal will also be doing their best to find another Alexis, if such a thing exists. But even this approach comes with its own health warning, because the balance of a sports team is a delicate thing and the only predictable thing about human nature is its changeability. I don’t know this for sure, but it appears that the arrival of Bale at Real Madrid has caused problems that now seem so obvious with the benefit of hindsight. Ronaldo has seemingly not enjoyed the prospect of playing second fiddle, and Bale has found it hard going from a situation where everyone was trying to pass to him to a state where it has almost seemed as if the players were finding reasons not to do so. You could argue a similar situation has occurred at United recently, where again it appears to an onlooker that Rooney is only happy when he is the undisputed star attraction. Ferguson perhaps knew this, and side-lined him in favour of Van Persie, but left the new manager, David Moyes in the impossible situation where he either had to sell Rooney or integrate him: since Ferguson retired Rooney has outlastedMoyes, Van Persie, Falcao and Di Maria, and it will be interesting to see how the coming season pans out at Old Trafford. My instinct says not well.
Arsene Wenger has been around top, top players for a long time now, and I would argue that no one in the game has a better understanding of the surprisingly brittle egos of world class and epoch defining superstars. I think this is why he has developed the notion of team-play to such an extent, and why he so admired the style of the Barcelona of old– and indeed, the way they are playing now, albeit in a slightly more direct and pacey way. It does not mean he is not looking for superstars (despite what the media would have us believe) for he has signed or made enough of those over his career, but it does mean he is very aware of finding the right player. A player who will augment the team and help develop the talents already at The Emirates, as well as providing breath-taking moments of unique brilliance. And he also knows that he needs a squad that will compete on a number of fronts over a succession of seasons, rather than looking for a one-season wonder who might provide an instant hit for sponsors and fans but who could upset the balance of a painstakingly assembled team – a team who showed towards the end of last season just what they were capable of, if remaining free from unusual and unprecedented patterns of injury.
So tempting though it is for me to secretly hope that Bale might harbour a desire to return to a better part of North London, or that Messi might feel his career incomplete without a spell in England, I know that these things won’t happen – and that it is probably best if they don’t. I am all for the pursuit of excellence and admire long-term planning, but unlike a Derby Winner, it is not as if you can breed future superstars from the girded loins of a Mertesacker.