ABILITY VS AESTHETICS: FOOTBALL’S AGE-OLD DEBATE
If you were raised by the streets in Brazil that made “City of God” an instant classic or instead, chose to educate yourself by scouring through comments on footballers’ pictures on Instagram, you must have come across the term, ‘craque’. In 2014, Manuel Pellegrini lamented the lack of not bringing in “a craque” in the summer as City’s title defence looked like Nicolas Otamendi’s attempts at defending all season. The less said, the better. However, this does point to the South American origins of the term which translates to ‘the ace’ and is meant to describe a gamechanger. And with the way the term is used, it’s more likely used when a Neymar breezes past defenders like training cones than when a Marquinhos intercepts a pass.
Before you jump to any conclusions, this isn’t meant to be the tired thinkpiece about how awards are popularity contests to celebrate the flashy forwards and defenders get the treatment of a middle child. Instead, think of it as a conversation, one-sided admittedly where we discuss why we’re borderline obsessed with the so-called craque. I mean for context’s sake, Pellegrini needed to be much more innovative, from both a selection and a tactical standpoint rather than a superstar through the door to regain the league title. Pep Guardiola on the other hand managed to convert Fabian Delph to the side’s starting left-back in what went on to become the Premier League’s most successful season of all time.
Are we blinded by the aesthetics behind the game that mask true ability? Less is more sometimes and as do we fail to see that?
Let’s take an example. Earlier this season, the Grealish-Mount debate had taken over the timelines of just about every football fan on the Internet. The pent-up anger amongst England fans towards Gareth Southgate was evident as the Villa skipper’s call-up to the national team was a painfully long wait and to make matters worse, Grealish initially warmed the bench. Instead, the gaffer favored a certain Mason Mount out wide.
Baffling decision? Sure, considering Grealish has undoubtedly been one of the standout players in the Premier League out on the left flank. Also, Mount has operated as a No.8 this campaign which highlighted Southgate’s tactical inadequacies once again. But what’s even more baffling is the incessant questions thrown at the Chelsea man, every step of the way with a certain narrative of mediocrity that flooded the conversations about the 22-year old.
Let’s get something out of the way- Mason Mount is an incredible young player. To bag 7 goals and 5 assists in his first season in the English top-flight, playing in a Chelsea side where all eyes were on the Cobham graduates to rescue the club’s transfer ban-ridden campaign proved he was ready for the big leagues. And it’s beyond just the goal and assist numbers when it comes to the young buck.
His seemingly endless workrate, the ability to pick up a variety of spaces and keep the side ticking, driving the Blues forward is what leaves no room for complaints.
After the West London club’s spending spree that ushered in a wave of the most sought-after attackers in the world in Havertz, Werner and Ziyech, Mount remains Chelsea’s best player. Be it under Lampard or Tuchel, the bloke remains a manager’s dream with the number of boxes he ticks.
What he lacks is possessing the natural flair of a Grealish who has the ball glued to his feet and can beat a row of defenders with his eyes closed and slot it into the top bins. Mount is more likely to stick the ball into the top corner after winning the ball from midfield, playing a swift one-two and doing the rest. It’s not always sexy but it’s effective.
You can’t blame any observer for falling in love with how effortlessly gifted Birmingham’s finest is. But there’s no room for agendas, especially because the pair have shown there is scope amongst them to co-exist. Be it in England’s win against Ireland or Iceland, for Grealish’s sublime dribbling, you had Mount’s industry. Balance ensued, something the Three Lions aren’t accustomed to.
Jack Grealish: “I love Mason, it’s a bit annoying actually as he gets a bit of stick for it, I’ve always been close with Mase, I don’t even think we are fighting for the same spot.”
Well said. Hope Gareth watches this. 🤔
— Footy Accumulators (@FootyAccums) November 13, 2020
In an era where the days of the classic No. 10 are extinct, where the likes of Mesut Özil would like to waltz among mosh pits, Mason Mount represents the present and the future. The No. 10 2.0 if you will, albeit not being very catchy.
And if elegance really is the issue, roll back the clip of a young Mount doing his best Cristiano Ronaldo impression with a knuckleball executed to perfection. A real chef’s kiss moment. Or just knowing that he’s created the 3rd highest chances in the league this season, whatever floats your boat.
What’s obvious enough to slap you in the face with it is an unfortunate barometer of who gets their deserved applause in football. Understanding how aesthetics translate in different footballing cultures is a conversation worth having. The aforementioned sentiment rings true if you’ve been fed misdirected notions of the sanctity of English football. Unfortunately, “hard graft” equates to “playing for the badge” and shows a player isn’t “bottling it” when it matters most. Of course, the repeated use of the double quotes is meant to be as unsubtle in its sarcasm as this notion itself.
Mesut Özil might just be one of the most criticized footballers of all time. Frivolous grounds such as his natural languid body language were used against the German to throw pelters at him. Yaya Touré wasn’t any different but he would yawn his way past an entire team to stick the ball past the ‘keeper and call it a day. Yaya was unstoppable at his all-conquering best and this isn’t meant to slate him but to simply ask where the same questions were for the Ivorian, considering body language was the ground for questioning?
The World Cup winner’s logic-defying passing and supreme off-the-ball intelligence were what you’d pay to watch him produce. Instead, the English press nailed Özil for failing to track back which simply wasn’t in the classy No.10’s arsenal. Rio Ferdinand summed it up perfectly on Copa 90’s ‘FIFA and CHILL’ in 2016.
“That’s why Carrick’s probably not been in most people’s squads (in the build-up to Euro 2016) because he doesn’t look like he works hard enough. That’s it. He doesn’t “look like” he works hard enough. He’s in a position that stops the ball getting past so he ain’t got to run. Özil, he doesn’t work hard enough but man’s putting in more assists than anyone!”
In Spain on the other hand, Tata Martino’s attempts at making Neymar, Messi and Sanchez the faces of his counter-attacking philosophy were met with a unanimous roll of the eyes by culés. As Ernesto Valverde later realized despite initially stating it himself- “Barcelona’s style of play is sacred.”
You can see the aesthetics versus ability dilemma play out at Liverpool at the moment. First things first, it’s one that Jürgen Klopp has disproven time and again when his vision for a midfield blueprint came to life. The likes of Gini Wijnaldum, Jordan Henderson and Fabinho have always got their flowers but their workmanlike approach has also been looked down upon by certain football purists.
Is that possibly a syndrome of being lovestruck at Silva and De Bruyne running the show for City and considering the Reds’ midfield unspectacular to watch in comparison or just the latter? Say what you want but in terms of the industry, speed in transition and ball progression it offers, it’s second to none. To add to this, the fact that a Henderson can occupy the space on the right-flank while Trent Alexander-Arnold can tuck inside to whip in his immaculate crosses is an added benefit of such a malleable set of midfielders.
Going back to the dilemma Liverpool are in the midst of at the moment involves one of the modern generation’s most celebrated midfielders, Thiago. The lad’s ridiculous and if you’ve had the luxury of kicking back and watching him do his thing over the years, you know he oozes finesse. However, ever since he’s joined the Reds, things haven’t quite worked out as everyone had expected for the seasoned midfielder.
Of course, Liverpool are in the midst of a cursed injury crisis that has destabilized the middle of the park with the likes of Fabinho and Henderson having to deputize in defence. While this does downgrade Liverpool in midfield, one has to acknowledge the fact that Thiago has possibly been the weakest link. With moments of brilliance standing out, few and far between, Thiago’s been disappointing as of yet, be it as a No.6 or a No.8, two roles where he has been at the peak of his powers as opposed to this idea that he was supposed to be Liverpool’s saviour as a No.10.
When he plays as the deepest in a midfield trident, his tackling has been an abomination to say the least and despite looking much more comfortable further forward, his decision-making is surprisingly naive. Against Leicester for instance, his attempts to swivel with the ball at his feet outside the box led Ndidi to shut things down, crunch into a challenge and sweep the ball off the Spaniard in a dangerous area. And this isn’t an isolated incident as well.
While the incessant criticism around him slowing the team down aren’t on the money, one has to acknowledge the fact that Thiago does take his sweet time on the ball and way too many touches when Liverpool’s USP lies in their merciless front 3 and getting the ball to them in an instant should be the way to go.
Look, Thiago is a phenomenon and with time and the end of the Reds’ battle with injuries, he may be back to his virtuosic best. However, belittling the likes of James Milner and Curtis Jones by accusing them of being the reason why the treble winner has been unable to operate at the standards he has set stinks of lazy elitism.
Milner’s energy and drive is second to none in that Liverpool roster of midfielders and Jones is the crown jewel in the club’s excellent conveyer belt of young talents.
The fact of the matter is- we watch football so we can play out the goals in the parks with our mates. We love the beautiful game because we get to see things on the pitch we’ve never seen before. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But what is wrong to me is to put some of the game’s finest exponents in a box for not being ballers when there’s other barometers that decide games and how a player can take over the game.