The day after Liverpool’s victory over Paris St Germain at Anfield, a clip went viral in which Neymar gets sent straight to the corner shop by Sadio Mane’s crafty footwork. I understand the intense pleasure that this moment gave to Liverpool fans. It is a lovely and precious thing to witness the embarrassment of an overpriced and divey opposition superstar. And schadenfreude is a natural and healthy part of the football experience.
But what I don’t get is the idea that Neymar is overrated because he’s not the world’s finest left back. Or because he doesn’t work like a dog for the team, tracking back and defending from the front and covering for his fullback and making sandwiches for orphans and helping old ladies across the street.
This is Neymar, for God’s sake. He’s an artist, not a sheepdog. He has a right – perhaps even a duty – to conserve some physical and mental energy for his next assault. The same goes for his protegé Kylian Mbappé, who was also slammed by pundits for his similarly underwhelming defensive performance at Anfield.
Insane work rates
John Barnes even suggested that neither player would get into Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool starting 11 on account of their stinky work rates. That may well be true, but it’s even more unlikely that Barnes in his prime would crack the nod from Klopp. Not that he wasn’t a wonderful winger – he was. But he played in a more indulgent and leisurely era, long before the rise of extreme pressing and mass defence and hyperfitness changed the terms of the unwritten contract for star forwards. Nowadays, you’re a despicable passenger if you only score and make lots of goals. You have to do everything, all over the pitch, all the time. It’s insane.
Only Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo can get away with a bit of box-hugging these days. But they both worked so hard in their youth that they’ve bought the right to specialise. The other outlier is Zlatan Ibrahimović – always his own category, he has never dropped deep except in pursuit of opportunities to score from an improbable range. Everyone else is a slave to the collective.
This is a function of cold football evolution, and I can’t argue with the evidence. Had Neymar and Mbappé been more disciplined and industrious in defence at Anfield, Liverpool wouldn’t have dominated to the same extent in the PSG half. As a result, Neymar and Mbappé might have garnered a steadier flow of possession and enjoyed more chances.
The Ambling Axiom
There is a merciless logic to modern football’s Calvinist turn. But it does feel a bit oppressive. This regime might mean the extinction of a player we might describe as the Ambling Axiom. This kind of player is a human fulcrum, either a deep playmaker or a No 10, who stays largely still while the game rotates and switches in obedience to his touches. Think Juan Román Riquelme, Eric Cantona, Dimitar Berbatov, Dennis Bergkamp, Nwankwo Kanu, Matt Le Tissier.
In the annals of South African football history, Jomo Sono, Roger Feutmba and Isaac “Shakes” Kungwane are the prototypes of the Ambling Axiom.
Also at risk is a place for the Sporadic Special: a playmaker or winger who will break into spectacular speed – but only with the ball, and only when the moment is right. Think Ronaldinho, or Maradona towards the pudgy end of his career, or Hatem Ben Arfa, or Arjen Robben on a sulky day, or Jabu Mahlangu, formerly Pule.
The Hidden Hitman
The last endangered figure is the Hidden Hitman – a masterful striker who you do not see until he scores. More recent exemplars are Ronaldo, Miroslav Klose, Filippo Inzaghi (who was famously accused by Alex Ferguson of having been “born offside”), and Daniel “Mambush” Mudau.
Until the 1990s, almost every world-class No 9 was a Hidden Hitman. You couldn’t be ready for the next chance if you were always outside the box, and that mattered because chances were less frequent. Attacking specialisation meant that formations were more static and the pace of the game was slower, particularly in continental Europe.
In South Africa, the tempo was almost comically snoozy before the dawn of the PSL era, when a sustained effort by coaches to speed up the tempo yielded the manic ping-pong football we see today.
Football was less of a spectacle when there was time and tolerance for laziness. But if laziness is the price of poetry, then let’s keep paying it. And let Neymar be Neymar.