Modern Football’s Soloist Playing in an Orchestra

The debate on Paul Pogba’s tactical liberation highlights a problem modern football is facing: Teams are starting to look like soloists playing in an orchestra.
Modern Football's Soloists playing in an Orchestra - Paul Pogba
Modern Football’s Soloist (Cristiano Ronaldo pictured) playing in an Orchestra. Illustration by Charbak Dipta.

I don’t read or write much poetry, but I have no doubts that it warrants a pedestal of its own in literature and art, a realm prose might never achieve. It must take enormous ability to master either, but it is the aesthetics of poetry’s very structure that tilts the balance towards it.

You hear poetry in the rhythms, in the accentuated words and swift pauses, in deftly placed alliterations, always asking you to invest more than just the time. You see poetry in shapes and curves, in long sentences and complex emotional threads neatly wrapped around each other in perfect symmetry. When you reach the end of a well-written poem, it feels like a parting glance at a piece of art.

As humans, we are preconditioned to appreciate art. It triggers spiked activity in our anterior temporal lobe (the part of the brain responsible for handling logical reasoning) as well as the posterior cingulate cortex (responsible for thoughts and emotions).

Public figure extraordinaire and Portuguese chiaroscuro aficionado Jose Mourinho recently remarked, “There are lots of poets in football, but poets, they don’t win many trophies”. It came after a European final victory against the team that gave birth to Cruyff, van Basten, and Bergkamp, the apostles of art in modern football.

Johan Cruyff against Liverpool.

A few months from that joyous evening, he was again in his natural habitat, fronting up to questions about Paul Pogba’s positional dilemma like only he can. In his admittedly jovial question for Paul Scholes and David Beckham, he subtly brought out an issue that’s been plaguing post-modern football for some time now.

Paul Pogba can claim to be unique in most ways. He’s got an ability with the ball very, very few are ever fortunate to witness, never mind possess. What makes the fan in me afraid is the other attribute that is slowly spreading across teams and players like an epidemic. Attack-minded players do not like defending when their opponents have the ball. Everybody wants to be “freed up”, uninterested in conjecture over their right to liberation on the pitch in modern football.

During the Carabao Cup final, Arsenal fan #1 Gary Neville went to the lengths of calling some players disgraceful, on air no less, for ambling around the pitch in a cup final. One of them was Mesut Ozil, a player of such outworldly attacking talent and vision, that Cristiano Ronaldo was upset when the German moved from Madrid. During his stay at Arsenal, Ozil hasn’t exactly warmed up to the concept of constantly hustling for the ball, a non-negotiable with the monster truck derby version of English football.

Like mankind celebrating art in its rawest form, football has always celebrated those with extraordinary ability more than those who hold a team together. A teenage Wayne Rooney would fire up neurons everytime he went on his trademark marauding runs. It would find space on the front and back pages of national dailies too. Hargreaves’ neat interception and quick release of the forward pass into Rooney’s stride would be lucky to survive as an afterthought in the highlight reel of the mind. Unlike Paul Pogba, men like Owen Hargreaves and Michael Carrick may not have written the best poetry, but they consistently churned out prose of the highest quality.

The disparity in appreciation for such players must influence youngsters getting into the sport. Attention and fame are the most intoxicating of fragrances, and defensive players don’t often get the best deals. It’s thus understandable why footballers of Ozil’s ilk would prefer to stay on the attacking side of the pitch. After all, they’ve grown up bathing in adulation and applause from coaches and parents for their superior ball-skills; the exaggerated importance of attacking players is drilled into their young brains. It is then that players at those age-levels convince themselves that the only pathway to progress lies in racking up the numbers, and that tracking back may not give them the same possibilities as staying ahead of the defensive line and waiting for the counter-attack.

Oftentimes, it is down to the senior coaches and managers at big clubs to make them unlearn some aspects of youth football and re-learn in the context of professional sport. Modern football’s greatest collective of poets, Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, was built on the foundations of pressing opponents with a nerve-wracking intensity and wrestling the ball back within a maximum of six seconds after losing it.

A glance at all the great eye-catching teams of post-War football corroborates this. The Magyars from the ’50s leading up to Heynckes’ Bayern were borderline blood-thirsty for the ball every time they lost it. In the first three-quarters of the Bayern’s glorious 2012-13 season, Toni Kroos won more tackles in the opposition half than Boateng had to deal with in his own. All these teams won because they collectively couldn’t bear the sight of the opposition team circulating passes.

In a lot of ways, football teams function like an orchestra. The best ones combine seamlessly, collectively managing all the highs and lows, crescendos and decrescendos in perfect synchronicity and to maximum effect. The soprano saxophonists and second violinists are usually given runs and frilly lines, but only to fill up spaces where they will fit. Every single note is part of a grand jigsaw.

Players like Dirk Kuyt and Thomas Mueller are a credit to football’s idea of such collective efforts. Danny Welbeck’s efforts completely neutralised Xabi Alonso in Sir Alex Ferguson’s last Champions League match and Roberto Firmino’s tenacity on the first line of defense is key to enabling Salah’s and Mane’s fortitude in attack.

You need to have a hold of the language to be able to write good poems. Turns of phrase and clever similes can hardly work if your basic grammar is out of order. For now, far too many of the modern football ecosystem, fans included, have their head set on the flashlights and glitter. Our love for art will never die, or even fade, but what use is a painter, if he doesn’t want to understand the correlation between colors and emotions?

By expecting and demanding a painter to only paint and not understand what it means to compose, the audience is normalising a growing culture of unidimensionality. It is there that coaches face their biggest challenge, and it is in getting socially powerful, millionaire footballers to play for the shirt where some managers pave their way to success.

Now look at Manchester City play and tell me you’re surprised they’re on the cusp of winning the league.

Sarthak Dev

Computer engineer, pianist and writer; not necessarily in that order. Can kill for a good football story.