Some Puzzles Take Time

Some Puzzles Take Time
November 15, 2008 Paul Tomkins

[Piece submitted to on 13.11.08, but had yet to appear on site so published here. Since posting here it has now appeared on the official site.]

Take a look at this imaginary Premiership XI: Jasskelainen, Agger, Vidic, Evra, Pires, Ronaldo, Lampard, Mascherano Bergkamp, Henry and Adebayor. On the bench there is Riera, Drogba, Flamini, Tevez and Hleb.

I’ll admit it’s not the most balanced side the Premiership has ever seen, but why have I selected these particular players? What’s their connection?

Some might suspect that it’s my best-ever Premiership XI from this millennium, loosely assembled into something resembling a defence, midfield and attack. But of course, if that was the case, it’d include Gerrard and Carragher, and one or two others.

It is actually a team comprised of players who were seriously doubted for between four months and two years after being bought by Premiership clubs, with all but one imported from overseas.

Not a bad collection, eh?

In fairness, Agger is probably the only player that doesn’t belong in the list. However, he only played four games in his first six months at the club, and the usually reliable FourFourTwo magazine, rather bizarrely, labelled him a flop in the summer of 2006.

Cristiano Ronaldo was never really viewed as a total waste of space, but for two seasons the consensus was that he was all fancy stepovers and no end product. Younger when he arrived than most of the others on the list, he had time on his side. But so many people had doubts that he’d ever mature into the player we now see.

Most of those listed have been contenders for, or have won, Footballer of the Year awards. Yet all were seriously questioned. I don’t mean for a couple of games, I mean for months and years.

Some were downright mocked, becoming joke figures. I recall the Easter of 2001, when Robert Pires was still regarded as far too lightweight and lily-livered to cope with English football; but finally he began to show signs of being a success.

For almost two years Adebayor struck mostly laughter into the hearts of opposition fans, rather than the fear he now does. Aliaksandr Hleb’s first two years at Arsenal can best be described as virtually anonymous. Mascherano and Tevez looked like serious mistakes for West Ham. Drogba was far from prolific when he first arrived at Chelsea, while Frank Lampard earned the long-since outdated moniker ‘Fat’. Riera barely made a mark at Man City.

It may be worth printing out or bookmarking this page, to remind yourselves, should you be of the ‘doubting’ persuasion, any time a new signing starts with a whimper and not a bang.

Let me be clear: because a player struggles in his first months in English football or at a new club, it does not mean I am suggesting he’ll turn into a roaring success simply because the aforementioned luminaries have. That’s illogical. Plenty of players have started poorly and continued poorly because, frankly, they were just not good enough, or they didn’t get the luck they deserved.

But you have to understand this golden rule: if players as good as Bergkamp, Henry, Lampard, Vidic, Ronaldo and Pires can look like anaemically pale imitations of their later selves when faced with a culture shock, then you cannot write off anyone. Certainly not when you’re talking about full internationals, or players proven in top leagues prior to their arrival.

Some players take time to get what I describe as their ‘Premiership lungs’. In England you don’t get a breather. Not only do you get less time on the ball before a fearsome tackle flies in, you get less chance to draw breath before you are involved again. The pace rarely dies off. That leads to mental and physical fatigue, which leads to mistakes. And as the pace and intensity of a real, must-win Premiership encounter cannot be replicated, players have to learn by doing. There’s no shortcut.

Like a toddler learning to walk, they may fall over. That’s life. But it doesn’t mean they won’t get it right in the end.

The examples of dozens of players who hit the ground running – like toddlers who walk more quickly than others – cannot be thrown back in this argument. Any example, good or bad, just goes to show that anything can happen when any player moves to any given club; and that, in time, their situation can change, for better or worse. Nothing is set in stone. A few weeks ago, after 18 disappointing months, Darren Bent was ‘rubbish’, a massive £16m flop. Now he’s a Spurs’ idol.

As a contrast to the initial team I outlined, look at this Liverpool XI: Dudek, Josemi, Hysen, Vignal, Gonzalez, Biscan, Sissoko, Berger, Diouf, Clough and Rosenthal.

Each one of these started his career at Anfield in incredibly fine fettle. Dudek had an amazing first season; Gonzalez scored on his Champions League and Premiership debuts; Diouf and Clough bagged braces in their first home starts; Biscan bossed the midfield against Manchester United and Arsenal in his first few weeks at the club; Berger burst on the scene with four stunning goals in eight days; and Ronny Rosenthal was the rocket that propelled the Reds over the line in the 1990 title chase, with seven vital goals in his first eight games.

And yet of all these names, only Berger, Sissoko and Dudek offered more than the briefest flash in the pan, and even then, they were never as impressive as they looked at the start of their Liverpool careers. These were good players, but the abiding memory is of how their effectiveness never quite matched those early months or years.

Perhaps Igor Biscan is the most interesting example in that XI. I was present for his debut as a sub against Ipswich in late 2000, and instantly the crowd was chanting ‘Eeeegoorrr!’

But then, within a month or two, he turned into Stan Laurel, complete with sleep-ruffled haircut and dozy expression. I recall starting to loathe him; looking back, a totally irrational response, but one that, paradoxically, is natural given the perverse moods of a fan with passions running high. I’d decided that he was never going to be good enough. Like an idiot, I argued against anything good anyone had to say about him.

However, a couple of years later I suddenly found myself having a radical volte-face, and became a fan of his after he took his place in the Reds’ defence. He wasn’t perfect, but he was quick, good in the air, and could bring the ball out of defence with style.

He appeared to give his all, and I felt he was important because, for me, as great as they were at defending the box, the pairing of Hyypia and Henchoz found themselves dropping too deep to help the side build constructively from the back. But with Biscan I had gone too far to the other extreme, and it was an abandoned experiment as mistakes crept into his game and his confidence waned.

Then Rafa Benítez pitched up, and while Igor didn’t turn into the Croatian Ruud Gullit we’d been promised back in 2000, he had three or four outstanding games in the heart of the midfield in 2004/05. Deportivo La Coruna away, and Bayer Leverkusen at home, were games won thanks to his fantastic contributions, as he strode past players and played incisive passes. He was one of the heroes en route to Istanbul. Igor was back!

So, which was the true Biscan? All, and yet possibly none. Ultimately, he wasn’t quite consistent enough, and as such, I didn’t mourn his departure too much, especially with Gerrard, Hamman, Alonso and Sissoko as the central options. But it showed that the right circumstances, at the right time, and in the right role, a player can appear 100 times better than he might have in the past.

It is hard to deny that Arsene Wenger knows more than anyone about bringing players to England, and he says they must be allowed at least a year to adapt. Every fan has the right to his or her opinion, but in life (and increasingly so due to the changing media) there is so much unqualified guff masquerading as opinion.

For example, I understand the basics of physics, and I know gravity when I see it. However, I don’t go around offering definitive opinions on quantum physics or dark matter because it’s like Greek to me. If an expert in that world – a physicist – says something is so, I’d tend to trust him more than a D-grade GCSE student who happens to be shouting louder.

It is the complexities – the things we can’t see that the experts can – that differentiate us from them. And it takes time to appreciate the enormity of what we don’t know.

I am now embarrassed by the ignorance of my teenage years, and much of my 20s, and yet that is when I thought I knew it all. Now I’m longer in the tooth, and wiser as a result, I see things far less as black or white, great or rubbish.

I appreciate certain universal truths about football, but I also refuse to act like I know better than the men currently at the very top of their profession, who are in touch with the real situation, and know every last detail about things that we, as people not based at Melwood or in the dressing room at Anfield, are not privy to. Opinions are fine, but they need to be couched in an acknowledgement of our own limits.

Experts also sometimes get it wrong, and we shouldn’t passively accept everything that is said. But I’d much rather trust Benítez’s opinions on a player than Larry Loudmouth’s. After all, Rafa has proven that if a player doesn’t quite cut it, he will drop and/or sell him. This man does not make decisions based on sentiment.

So if he perseveres with someone, he has his reasons – and he also has my trust.

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