Team Players : Partnerships

It’s that time of the year, towards the end of the football season, where various organisations unveil their Team Of The Year.

The Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) have done just done that.  (Picture is courtesy of The Times, because I couldn’t be bothered drawing it myself)

The purpose of this post isn’t necessarily to talk about football again, but just indulge me with a few comments.  David De Gea has undoubtedly had another fine season, but is an obvious choice.  The strange one for me is Nicolas Otamendi at centre back.  He has been much improved from the calamity of previous seasons, but he’s still a near £30m defender prone to massive lapses as evidenced when City went out of the Champions League to Liverpool recently.

There’s a disclaimer to write at this point.  The PFA’s team is built up based on the votes of the players themselves.  They aren’t allowed to vote for themselves or their teammates, but other than that their selections are probably made up of their personal recollections from matches in which they have played as well as general form.

This could explain, for example, De Gea’s inclusion ahead of, say, Burnley’s Nick Pope.  Pope has saved 78 per cent of 100 shots on goal, De Gea 79 per cent of 133 shots; Pope conceded 25 goals in 30 games, De Gea’s stats are 26 in 33.  However, the difficulty of a game against a team that will more than likely finish second in the league compared to a match against Burnley probably reflects a greater case for the United goalkeeper rather than the one from the weaker team.

In the fact that the team is picked by the players, it is probably a better barometer than those selected by fans and journalists.  However, because “the most votes wins”, it is arguably not the greatest actual team, but rather the best collection of 11 players.

For a start, Kyle Walker (despite playing as part of three centre backs for City recently) and Marcos Alonso are full backs known more for their attacking prowess than the defensive part of their game.  De Gea’s distribution does not match that of Ederson and I’ve already commented on Otamendi.

The midfield of Eriksen, De Bruyne and David Silva is filled with flair and attacking threat but they are not players known for the defensive part of the game.  It is De Bruyne’s goals and assists from midfield that mean he joins Liverpool’s Mohammed Salah as one of only to real contenders for Player Of The Season.

It is only at the top end of the pitch where Egyptian Salah (at the time of writing the league’s top scorer) is joined by Harry Kane (second top scorer) and Sergio Aguero (third top scorer and finally making the Team Of The Season seven years after his arrival in England) where one can say that flair, creativity and goals is rightly the only criteria on which a player should enter the team.

Or is it?

Liverpool striker Roberto Firmino has 25 goals in all competitions so far this season but they represent only part of his value to Liverpool. The Brazil forward holds the front line together. He accepts the responsibility of being the nominal striker but is constantly on the move, pestering defenders, closing down space but with a plan in mind of what he will do if he steals possession. There is a statistic doing the rounds which highlights how Firmino has won more tackles in the Premier League this season (62) than every other defender at a top six club apart from Chelsea’s César Azpilicueta, who has 74, and Bobby is a striker. That allied to 15 Premier League goals and seven assists illustrates perfectly why he is considered the ‘engine’ of the Liverpool team.

Manchester City midfielder Fernandinho would be a perfect addition to the midfield to give it some bite.  He is one of those players who allow others to play their own game, but is still much more than a water carrier.  His utility by being able to fill in at centre back would make him a fantastic addition to a team.

The addition of those two players would be because of a their less headline grabbing attributes, their functionality if you like.  You wouldn’t show someone Firmino chasing a full back 50 yards down the touchline to get them interested in the game, but you would show them one of his trademark “no look” goals followed by kung fu kick celebration.  It feels wrong to call these players unselfish given salaries in the current game as well as the adulation they receive from fans, but they can forego the individual successes in favour of the collective.

The truth is that every team needs to have a balance.  Not everyone can win the individual accolades and Tackle Of The Year will never be a thing in the same way as Goal Of The Season.  Even more so, there are some players who don’t even make the tackles but can influence the game by intangibles such as positional sense or leadership qualities.  I remember watching AC Milan destroy Liverpool in the first half of the 2005 Champions League Final in Istanbul.  Rafa Benitez brought on German midfielder Didi Hamann at half time and while he didn’t do anything that can be classed as spectacular, he brought an order to proceedings that led to perhaps the greatest comeback in football.

Teams work better when they are a team and not a collection of individuals.  Firmino and Fernandinho are players that make a team greater than the sum of its parts without receiving personal reward with skills they possess that are not the sort that would make a highlight reel.

Away from football, I’ve often thought it not quite right when people suggest that they are in a relationship with someone that they would call a boyfriend or girlfriend or wife or husband.  It’s not that that’s the wrong word, necessarily, but surely it would better be described as a partnership which has a far greater inference of symbiosis, that each person is contributing to a level that makes the collective better.  It suggests a hard work and a sacrifice and that’s where the real unselfishness lies.  They might not always set sparks aflickering themselves, but that’s but that doesn’t matter when others are.

So here’s to the grafters and the hidden gems in every walk of life who may not grab the attention, but still make everything better.

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