Dan Zeqiri returns with his weekly column following a much needed winter break…
The retirement of Steven Gerrard produced an explosion of articles, columns and blogs dedicated to his illustrious career. You would expect plenty of media reaction when a player of that standing calls it time; but, by my estimation, it seemed far more fervent compared to the retirements of Ryan Giggs or Paul Scholes. True, Gerrard’s announcement came mid-season and so carried more of a surprise element than an end of season retirement. However, upon further consideration, I have reached the conclusion that the almost hysterical reaction was due to the fact that Gerrard represents something lacking in the game; he’s a leader.
I wrote over the summer about how the footballing culture in England can sometimes overstate the role of the captain; if the national team fails in a tournament we’re too quick to question commitment and desire rather than looking at technical and tactical factors. It can be too easy to reach for the stock of metaphors that reference Terry Butchers’ bandaged head.
Nevertheless, it does seem that academies are struggling to produce ‘leaders’. It’s a difficult term to define. The leader of a team is a player who drags others along with them; who makes at times, fairly average players perform above themselves. Moreover they tend stay at their clubs for lengthy periods or may even have been there their whole lives. Think Totti, Maldini, Carragher, Adams, Keane, and Robson amongst others. They all differ in their styles of leadership but all seemed to represent more than just one player. They were the face of their club.
Of course, one reason why these ‘leader’ types seem to be increasingly lacking is that players seem to move around a great deal more. It’s difficult to establish such a status in a short period of time. I heard it said recently that Luis Suarez was possibly the greatest player ever to play for Liverpool, which seems absurd given that he was only there for just over three years. Though in fairness there is a difference between the greatest player to play for a club and that club’s greatest player. It would wrong to portray this trend as being all about wage hungry players constantly on the move; it’s part of a wider culture, everything has sped up. The top managers now only tend to give themselves three of four season long assignments; Guardiola, Mourinho and Ancelotti.
Nevertheless, it does seem that academies are struggling to produce ‘leaders’. It’s a difficult term to define. The leader of a team is a player who drags others along with them
You may have read between the lines of my previous columns and inferred that I follow Arsenal. Neutrals say to Arsenal supporters all of the time, ‘You haven’t replaced Tony Adams or Patrick Vieira, you need a real leader’. But I often urge people to look around the game more generally. Who is waiting in the wings at Liverpool to be the new leaders post Carragher and Gerrard? Are Chris Smalling and Phil Jones really adequate replacements for what Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand gave Manchester United? Is Gary Cahill ready to take over from John Terry as the senior defender at Chelsea?
Smalling, Jones and Cahill are good examples of how player production seems to have changed. All are competent defenders, with Cahill being the best of the three, but they all share a similar profile. They are all athletic, technically very clean with a ball at their feet and quick across the ground. But none of them are very vocal. Cahill has been superb alongside John Terry since Mourinho has returned, but I’m not sure I’d trust him to be the senior centre back at a top club. Perhaps that will come with age. Arsene Wenger touched on this issue in an interview recently:
“The game has become more technical, because you find more players who have a good technique. Maybe it’s because our society is less aggressive. In the educational football system you cultivate that intense desire less, there’s more focus on quality of the technique and maybe you create less defenders.
I believe the young boys practice more on quality pitches. Before it was more about tackling – you could throw your body in and it created opportunities for the defenders to work naturally on their defensive techniques. Today it’s more about standing up and less physical commitment because the quality of the pitches is much better.”
The culture within football academies has surely played a part in producing different types of characters. The emphasis on obedience and producing ‘good professionals’ perhaps stamps out the independently minded and opinionated; those who might one day turn into ‘leaders’. There are a plethora of sociological theories seeking to explain why young people today are the way they are, not just young footballers. One of which says that children growing up now are ‘too content’, as if characters can only be forged in the teeth of poverty. That’s a view I don’t have much respect for. Nevertheless, young footballers coming through the ranks now have had a different upbringing from those who are just retiring like Steven Gerrard.
There is a good deal of talent in the domestic game at the moment; Barkley, Sterling, Wilshere, Stones, Oxlade Chamberlain, Chambers and Shaw. It does seem though as if Neville, Gerrard, Carragher and before too long John Terry will be viewed in years to come as a lost breed; natural leaders.
You can follow Dan on Twitter: @ZeqiriDan
Quotation courtesy of arsenal.com/news
Image Courtesy of express.co.uk/sport