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Wednesday, December 7, 2022

When the Solution Is the Problem

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Not once, in two decades, had David Beckham heard the moment. He had witnessed it at the time, of course. More than that, in fact: He had summoned it and created it and lived it. He had, presumably, watched the moment more than once in the intervening years, too. But it was not until a couple weeks ago that he sat down and listened to it.

The moment he did was — obviously — captured for posterity, a social media post as meta as they come: a man recording his own reaction to a recording of himself.

As Beckham listens, he has a look of fierce concentration on his face, mixed with just a little genuine concern, as if he really does not know how it all ends. The audio plays in the background, an echo of his past: the last couple minutes of the BBC radio commentary of England’s meeting with Greece on the road to the 2002 World Cup.

Twenty years later, the game ranks among England’s most iconic. Sven-Goran Eriksson’s team, the still-gleaming golden generation, needs a point from its final match, at Old Trafford, to qualify. But — drama! — Greece takes a first-half lead. Teddy Sheringham, by then a veteran, ties the score in the second half, only for the Greeks to retake the lead. The clock ticks. The crowd frets.

And then, more than two minutes into injury time, England wins a free kick. The ball sits in that liminal zone: just close enough to goal for a shot to be worthwhile, but too far out for it to be the obvious play. Beckham stands over it, his head shaven and his shorts billowing.

He glances up, and then back down at the ball, only one thing on his mind. Pulses raise. He rushes toward it, his arm acting as a counterweight as he whips his right foot around the ball. It arcs and streams toward the corner of the goal. Antonios Nikopolidis, the Greece goalkeeper, flies hopelessly toward it. Old Trafford inhales, and erupts.

David Beckham against Greece in 2001.Credit…Darren Staples/Reuters

In the popular imagination, that game represents Beckham’s finest moment in an England jersey, the ultimate atonement for his sins three years earlier, when he was vilified after his country’s early exit from the World Cup in France. It was not just the last-minute goal, salvation at the death, but the performance that preceded it. Beckham was, nominally, playing on the right wing but he was not hidebound by such simple things as formations or instructions.

Instead, he was everywhere: breaking up play, instigating attacks, setting the tempo, dictating the rhythm. He played as if he was trying to live up to some Platonic ideal of an English captain: refusing to be cowed, unwilling to countenance a lost cause, the Charge of the Light Brigade and the Blitz Spirit distilled into a diamond ear-stud and a pair of Predators.

Scott Murray, the author and journalist, once suggested that the most significant player in the history of English soccer was a fictional one: Roy Race, the blue-eyed, blond-haired star of a series of long-running comic books.

Each of his adventures followed a similar trajectory: Race’s team, Melchester Rovers, would be struggling in a game — because of malevolent opponents or a helicopter crash or terrorists or whatever — until Race, the unassuming but impossibly gifted hero, produced some devastating run or some booming shot to deliver victory, at the last, from the maw of defeat.

Murray’s thesis was that Race imprinted on young readers’ minds the idea that soccer was, at heart, an individual sport, its outcome decided not by system or style or even collective competence but by individual will. The sport was, in effect, an embodiment of Carlyle’s Great Man theory of history: what happened was not subject to a miasma of colliding forces, but shaped by the mind and body of single, outstanding individuals.

Race’s legacy, then, means England has always had a particular weakness for players who seem to grab games by the scruff of the neck, to bend events to their liking: Bryan Robson, Manchester United’s Captain Marvel of the 1980s, or Steven Gerrard, Liverpool’s Captain Fantastic 20 years later.

Steve Gerrard in Liverpool: countless memories, multiple murals, no Premier League titles.Credit…Phil Noble/Reuters

That Gerrard, in particular, shone brightest when folded into a system that accentuated his abilities is never really mentioned. Nor is the fact that what may have been the lowest moment of Gerrard’s career — Liverpool’s defeat by Chelsea in 2014, effectively costing the team, and its icon, a Premier League title — was a direct result of his belief in heroes.

Gerrard, that day, offered a glimpse of what happens when Roy Race exists in flesh and blood, rather than on the page: an endless round of hopeful, hopeless shots, each one more desperate than the last. Liverpool, so brutally effective that season, was suddenly blunted by its own captain’s conviction that salvation was a one-man job.

Beckham’s performance against Greece stands in contrast to that, an example of the potency of the Raceian approach. His decisive intervention at the last moment, that picture-postcard free kick, seemed plucked straight out of the Melchester back catalog. Here was England’s soccer history being shaped, live on television, by a Great Man.

There is, though, an alternative reading of that game, one that at least one elite manager privately endorses. Beckham’s positional indiscipline fundamentally undermined England’s balance. By abdicating his specific role, Beckham undermined his own team. He played well that day, but as a function of that, the rest of the side did not — and could not.

It is a hypothetical, of course, but it is entirely possible that England might not have needed Beckham to score a last-minute free kick to rescue a point if he had not felt so compelled to be the captain, to be the hero. He may, in fact, have simply delivered England from a problem of his own making.

That example is worth contemplating when assessing Beckham’s immediate — and current — successor as Manchester United’s No. 7.

That Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the greatest players ever is not in question. That he has, since returning to England, scored a raft of crucial goals for Manchester United is indisputable. He scored the late goal that beat Villarreal in a Champions League group stage match. He scored the late goal that beat Atalanta in another one. Just this week, he repeated the trick against the latter, his 90th-minute strike salvaging a point for United in Bergamo, Italy.

Ronaldo has, then, been cast as the solution to United’s problems, a plaster that covers his team’s many flaws. And that interpretation is, by pretty much any measure, correct.

But it does not necessarily contradict the idea that Ronaldo’s presence diminishes other aspects of United’s play as the side heads into Saturday’s Manchester derby. As a former teammate at Juventus, Giorgio Chiellini, has said, when you have Ronaldo on your team it is impossible “not to play to him.”

Cristiano Ronaldo keeps scoring goals. But is that all Manchester United needs?Credit…Paul Ellis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

That means reshaping the attack to suit Ronaldo’s needs. It means not being able to press from the front, which means not being able to play a high defensive line, which means allowing your opponent more space in which to play and, most likely, more chances to score.

United might not need to score quite so many late goals if it could play another system effectively. It might be the case that Ronaldo is solving problems that are, to some extent, a consequence of his presence, or at least the fact that his coach, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, has not yet hit upon a system that masks his flaws while highlighting his strengths.

It is, of course, a measure of Ronaldo’s talent that he can still deliver his little miracles so reliably, just as it was a testament to Beckham’s brilliance that his free kick swept beyond Nikopolidis, and carried England to the World Cup. There was a wry smile as Beckham heard the last of the commentary, 20 years on, just the hint of a twinkle in his eye.

What was not mentioned was what happened next: England made it to the quarterfinals, only to be beaten by a Brazil team stocked by impossibly talented individuals — Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and the rest — but coached by Luiz Felipe Scolari, the ultimate pragmatist, a manager who always put the system first. Only in comic books are games won by individuals. In real life, sometimes the solution and the problem are one and the same.

The Only Place to Be

Antonio Conte delivered just what Tottenham wanted in his debut: a win.Credit…Julian Finney/Getty Images

For two years, maybe a little more, Tottenham Hotspur has made nothing but poor choices. Firing Mauricio Pochettino, the coach who had not only established the club as a regular presence in the Champions League but who had taken a team constructed at a fraction of the cost of some of Europe’s heavy-hitters all the way to the final, was a poor choice.

Still, every club makes mistakes. A smart replacement might have at least mitigated the damage. Instead, Tottenham appointed José Mourinho, that recidivist fire-starter, compounding the error.

Firing Mourinho, back in the spring, could have been the point at which Spurs restored course, throwing a veil over a failed experiment and shifting back into the light. Except that the club dispensed with him in the week of a cup final — one that it lost — without the faintest idea of who might replace him.

In the end, Spurs appointed Nuno Espírito Santo. He was, by most estimates, the sixth choice for the job, and he lasted only a little more than three months. This week, Spurs replaced him with Antonio Conte, a serial winner of championships with Juventus, Chelsea and Inter Milan, and without question the finest out-of-work coach in the world.

There is something slightly off-kilter about this, as if it runs vaguely against some sort of natural law. Tottenham has done almost nothing right for two years. It has fallen at a rate that should not, really, be possible in a game as stratified as elite soccer, going from a Champions League final to the Europa Conference League — like the Europa League, but without the veneer of purpose — and the no-man’s land of the Premier League’s midtable. And yet, in Conte, Tottenham has not a punishment but a reward. It has failed so much it gets to win.

And yet the appointment, in a sense, was inevitable. Spurs might not, on the surface, look extremely appealing to a coach of Conte’s caliber, but consider the alternatives. The jobs at Paris St.-Germain, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool are taken. Manchester United remains stubbornly wedded to being coached by a DVD of the 1999 Champions League final. Barcelona and Real Madrid have no money.

Below them, there are a host of other clubs — Sevilla, Borussia Dortmund, Marseille and all the rest — who have either history or ambition or both, but none of them have the resources to match the team in ninth place in the Premier League. Tottenham, simply by virtue of being roughly the sixth-biggest team in England, is the most appealing proposition available to one of the finest managers on the planet: not because the club has done anything to deserve that status, but simply because of where it plays, and who it plays against.

Red Flag

The Dutch referee Danny Makkelie sent a message with a red card on Wednesday.Credit…Dylan Martinez/Reuters

There was a nonchalance to Felipe that was hard, deep down, not to admire. His Atlético Madrid team was by 2-0 down at Anfield, with 10 minutes or so left until halftime. Sadio Mané was midway inside Liverpool’s half, the ball at his feet, starting to break forward with no little menace.

Felipe could have sprinted to keep up with him. He could have drawn deep, heavy breaths and done all he could to stay on Mané’s heels, or at least made sure he was back in time to help out as Liverpool’s attack completed its crescendo. Or he could simply, without giving the impression of thinking too much about it, kicked Mané on the back of his calf, sending him tumbling to the grass, stopping the move at its inception.

Felipe chose option B. Pretty much every player in his situation would have done the same. The so-called tactical foul is a fairly standard element of the game. Almost every elite team has at least one player employed, at least in part, because they are more than willing to use foul means, as well as fair, to stop a counterattack. Fernandinho does it for Manchester City. Fabinho does it for Liverpool. Sergio Busquets has done it for more than a decade.

Ordinarily, the only punishment is a free kick. Occasionally, for flagrant examples, a yellow card might be flourished. Quite why, at Anfield, the Dutch referee Danny Makkelie went one step farther and sent off Felipe is not entirely clear. Diego Simeone, the Atlético coach, said the official told him it was because he “stamped” on Mané. Others argued the decision may have been related to Felipe’s obvious dissent after the foul.

Either way, it may prove a useful precedent. I have never found the cynical side of the game off-putting. Dark arts, well-mastered, are arts nonetheless. But soccer is a spectacle, first and foremost, and it is hard not to think that spectacle might be improved if the truly blatant tactical foul was removed from the equation.

It has happened before: The professional foul, now more generally referred to as Denial of a Goal-Scoring Opportunity — DOGSO, in the jargon — was only incorporated into the Laws of the Game in the early 1980s. That applied to instances when a player was through on goal, only to be deliberately brought down by an opponent. There is no reason it could not be extended to the rest of the field. The rules can change if doing so makes the game better. And if, as in this case, they might better reflect the spirit of the sport.


An entirely valid criticism of last week’s piece on coaches from Pablo Medina Uribe, who points out something that should have been addressed. “Is Marcelo Gallardo really trapped?” he wrote. “As you said, River Plate is one of the biggest teams in the world. Certain teams in Europe might have and pay more money, but is that enough to consider going there a step up?”

This is slightly tricky, because Pablo is right: River Plate is a far, far “bigger” club — whatever that means — in terms of history than quite a few of the teams now considered Europe’s elite. It would be admirable, and understandable, if Gallardo regarded River as the ultimate destination.

But at the same time, coaches, generally, want to work with the best players, and those players are now clustered in Europe. Perhaps we can agree on this: Gallardo should be being offered these jobs. It’s up to him whether he takes them.

Felipe Gaete noticed a name that should have been mentioned, too. “Manuel Pellegrini’s career path is quite similar from the one you say Gallardo must follow: started in his native Chile with not much ‘success,’ champion in Ecuador, in Argentina, put Villarreal on the map, until he got the job at Real Madrid only to be dismissed after one season because they opted for someone who played a double role: manager and showman,” he wrote. “Isn’t that a reason why the managers you mention don’t get the big step up? Because they wouldn’t produce headlines? Is it only down to the C.V. or also for marketing? Since managers don’t sell shirts, they might be expected to sell papers.”

That is a very good point, I think. Club executives are easily impressed by a figure who gets major media play, and as a rule — as far as Europe is concerned — that discounts anyone who works anywhere else.

The newsletter favorite Fernando Gama was also moved to write, explaining why Gallardo would be especially well-qualified for a move to Europe. “No one faces more pressure than the big clubs in South America: Visits from ultras, violence, a schizophrenic journalism that is only result-driven (well, this may be everywhere), the irrational ire of fans,” he wrote. “I don’t say these are good things. But they exist. At a crazy level.

“The stakes may be different, especially in terms of money, but the pressure in South America is much more than the pressure in Europe. I’m pretty sure Gallardo is well-prepared. The two things that have made it harder for him to make the leap are his salary — he is very well-paid — and whether players will believe in him: European players also believe the gap with South America has always been insurmountable.”

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