Once upon a time in the Middle Ages, the Italian town of Siena was under threat from a foreign enemy. The town looked doomed until a condottiere arrived to save them. It was impossible to repay what the mercenary had done, he had saved the lives of the families of the town and protected their freedom – no number of coins or presents would be enough. Initially, they thought of making him lord of the city, but that wasn’t enough either. Eventually they called a meeting to discuss the issue, where someone finally came up with an answer: “let’s kill him and worship him as our patron saint.” The idea was well-received, so they went through with it.
It may seem like an insane story – it is – but this situation happened to more than just this one condottiere. Their main problem was that, although they had previously won big battles for their employers, they were replaceable, and what’s more they could be replaced by someone younger and cheaper who had the potential to be better than them. The condottieri needed to become indispensable to their employers, but as they grew older their physical powers would wane, making them less effective in battle – they needed to become the best at something else to ensure their employers stayed dependent on them.
These principles are easily applicable to football. Managers are always being encouraged to blood youth into their teams, and with an emphasis on physicality in the sport, age becomes a much bigger factor than in most careers. Thus the key to a long career is flexibility – it’s all very well and good being on top of your game when your body is running full steam, but, when that yard of pace is gone, you need to change your game, even perhaps completely reinventing your role.
As Charles Darwin said: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change. ”
The most glaring examples would be two of Fergie’s Fledglings: Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs. You could point to Scholes’ monk-esque lifestyle – him revealing his own idea of an ideal day as “train in the morning, pick up my children from school, play with them, have tea, put them to bed and then watch a bit of TV” in a rare interview before Euro 2004 – but a few years ago you could be forgiven for thinking his professionalism couldn’t save him from being replaced with his legs becoming increasingly heavy. Fast forward to this season and he was already being touted for the PFA Player of the Year award after a handful of games. It was an overreaction but the sentiment was deserved – Scholes established his reputation as an attacking box-to-box midfielder, only to reestablish himself as one of the best deep-lying playmakers around when he couldn’t handle the running anymore. He still can’t tackle mind, but with good positioning and Darren Fletcher or Anderson, like Roy Keane before them, alongside him it doesn’t matter – take him out of the team and there’s no other player that offers the range of passing that Scholes does.
It obviously isn’t his strength that has kept Scholes going, but you could argue that his intelligence and flexibility are one and the same. There’s certainly good arguments in favour of this – it does take a high level of footballing intelligence to be able to adapt as described, and there’s also a case to be pleaded about the intelligence of his lifestyle: had Giggs carried on along the same path as Lee Sharpe, for example, it is unlikely he would still be playing at the level he is today, if at all.
However, there is the case of Andrea Pirlo. He was originally a trequartista, compared to Roberto Baggio, during a time when there were plenty to go round. Having been lured from Brescia by Internazionale coach Mircea Lucescu, he found himself frozen out of the first team and was shipped back on loan to learn from Baggio. But coach Carlo Mazzone had different ideas, deploying him in a withdrawn role in front of the back four.
“I told him to play in front of the defenders,” recalls Mazzone. “Because he had vision. ‘But I like goals,’ he told me, unconvinced. ‘You score four or five a year,’ I replied. ‘Play in this position and you’ll score even more. Let’s try it for two weeks. You’ll be a base playmaker.’ I told him to play two games without asking questions. Afterwards he told me: ‘I feel very comfortable here. I get the ball all the time.’ He found out how it worked. If I’d told him I was going to play him as a libero ahead of the defenders, he’d have run away terrified. Calling him a base playmaker convinced him.”
After just ten games for Brescia, Pirlo was snapped up by Inter’s arch-rivals Milan and used in this same deep-lying position where he has proven himself to be among the best in the world, earning the nicknames of “the metronome” and “the architect” for the way he dictates play. With him out injured except for a few minutes against Slovakia, Italy embarrassingly crashed out of the 2010 World Cup – Riccardo Montolivo is a good player, but he isn’t in the same class as Pirlo. Despite his unquestionable intelligence, he had struggled to impose himself in a trequartista role (although he was given few chances) yet when he was moved back to play as a regista, his teams became dependent on him.
Not everyone is cut out for this adaptation though. Michael Owen, for example, injuries aside, has struggled to adapt to a football environment now unkind to poachers that offer little other than goals. Under Kevin Keegan at Newcastle, Owen was shifted to a deeper position to play as a more creative forward and found some semblance of form, but for the most part he simply hasn’t been very good over the last few years. Although he’s tried to be flexible, Owen just doesn’t have the ability to play these roles as effectively as others, and, with his specialist area unvalued, no one is dependent on him, having been replaced by the younger more all-round Javier Hernandez at Manchester United.
Owen was a victim of football’s evolution – and frequent injuries of course – so you could argue he is a somewhat special case, but Jermain Defoe has survived and he is a similar style of player to Owen (although he has worked hard to improve his link-up play over the last few years, but then again so has Owen). Why has he done so much better then? Pace, most likely. To reference the Darwin quote from earlier, Owen was among the “strongest” a decade ago, he isn’t now. Defoe’s pace could be covering up the deficiencies in his game, and, once his physical gifts have gone, the remainder of his career could be short-lived. So where does that leave a velocista like Theo Walcott? It could be argued that Walcott has already shown he can be flexible by switching from a striker to a wing position, however, wherever he plays, his game is completely based around his energy and speed. Take that away from him and what exactly does Walcott have? Well in approximately ten years we’ll find out.
Not that it is exclusively a dependence on physical abilities that are the main problem for every player. Although he has the technical ability to play pretty much anywhere, Steven Gerrard is something of a liability if not played behind the striker or possibly out wide. He doesn’t have the positional sense to play in the centre of midfield, especially when he so readily allows the opposition to make runs behind him, and when in possession, his biggest problem is that he’s always looking to make something happen, regardless of whether it’s appropriate or not. There’s a case to be made that Gerrard possibly had a better decision-making ability earlier on in his career, rash tackles aside, than he does now.
When the team is set up correctly, he’s among the best in the world; anything else, and it’s easy to resent him. The idea of Gerrard slowing down is a worrying thought for Liverpool fans – as a very direct player, his power and energy is a large part of what makes him the player he is. Take that away and you’re left with a very different player, one that Liverpool might only be dependent on because, as “Captain Fantastic”, the narrative says he is. Gerrard’s got the skillset to make the same transformation as Scholes, but there’s huge question marks over whether he has the brain to do so.
All the players mentioned are good players, however some are just ill-suited to playing as well as Scholes and Giggs have well into their thirties unless they change things, and quickly.