The current Sport Columnist of the Year in Britain, Matthew Syed, wrote a piece for the Times this week about what he termed the ‘invisible men’ of football, and how they, like those in so many other professions, are worthy of far more praise than they are often given. He offers up for example the sub-editors who correct the howlers of feature columnists, and the night lawyers who file the paperwork for the high-profile closers.
It becomes apparent in the article that the notion on hand was inspired by Nemanja Matic and his recent performances in the Chelsea midfield. I agreed wholly with the sentiment of the piece and agree that Matic is an extraordinary player – I am however, beginning to find amusement in the irony behind how many people are ‘noticing’ what an un-noticeably brilliant job the Serb is doing. It is the wonderful paradox of the man, that much like our other previously brilliant ‘invisible’ player, Claude Makelele, he is so good at doing the understated and routine parts of the game that so often go unnoticed, that he becomes extra-visible. He does the unspectacular spectacularly well – a statement well evidenced by the lashings praise he’s receiving at the moment, from all corners of the media.
Still however, if anything I’d say the praise doesn’t go far enough. Matic’s contributions go way beyond the typical expectations for a player pf his position. He breaks up play and distributes the ball efficiently in tight situations, but the same could honestly be said of many midfielders in the Premier League right now. Specifically, the player’s brilliance is in his close-to-perfect appreciation for the pace of our play and for the movement of those ahead of him. His passes rarely look extraordinary, but are so often maximally constructive, perfectly chosen, and perfectly placed/weighted so as to exploit gaps in the channels or in between the lines. In short, he has a blend of qualities that make him perfect for a team blessed with so much quality in attack, but also led by a coach for whom organisation and discipline trumps all else. He can simultaneously meet the needs of both in our midfield and I’m not sure there are many other footballers on earth who could meet that requirement.
Syed ended his article by suggesting Jose Mourinho’s success had been founded on an ‘appreciation of the invisible’. It’s an interesting observation and one not only evidenced by the list of defensive midfielders he’s worked with in the past, with Matic, Makelele, Esteban Cambiasso and Sami Khedira all roughly fitting into the same category of ‘brilliant but understated’ – but also in his list of full-backs. With the exception of Maicon and Marcelo, the catalogue of wide defenders he’s worked with over 10 years makes for significantly underwhelming reading, especially given the amount of trophies he’s pick up in that time. It’s clear what he values most in that position is consistency, the ability to comprehend and deliver on instructions and most importantly, to be solid at defending the flank in the defensive half.
His revealing quote last summer that he felt with 11 Cesar Azpilicueta’s he could win the Champions League, suggests that he has found his dream full back, with the Spaniard meeting all of the above criteria to a tee. Gary Neville and Jaime Carragher’s ‘Monday Night Football’ analysis for Sky this week shed a little more insight onto why the 24 year old has become practically un-droppable since his introduction to the first team under Mourinho last year. Azpi was Neville’s response to the question of who is currently the best pure defender in the league. Days after writing a column in the Daily Telegraph about how the ‘art’ of defending seemed to be dying a death, as technical defensive coaching becomes ever more rare, he highlighted the defending of the Spaniard as ‘immaculate’ and ‘as near to perfect as possible”.
Syed also spoke in his column of the ‘invisible’ genius of goalkeepers like Peter Shilton and Edwin Van Der Sar who would often go games at a time without having to pull of anything visually spectacular, by virtue of being so immaculate with their positioning and timing – a quality which I think applies perfectly to Thibaut Courtois also. For over a decade John Terry has quietly gone about being one of the best the world in much the same way, without having to make any sublime Moore-esque sliding tackles on a regular basis to stop his opponents.
One of the many joys of being a fan of this Chelsea team is that with time, what seems brilliant on the surface, will eventually become so much better, the more you watch and the more effort you make to appreciate the quality of its individual parts. It might not always be obvious or spectacular, but there is genius on every corner of the pitch.