The greatest? Stop being so bloody vertical…

Date published: Wednesday 7th June 2017 1:18

Real Madrid’s Champions League triumph on Saturday has thrown out three major questions. Does their retention of the trophy – the first in 27 years – make them the greatest club side of the modern era? Does the fact that Zinedine Zidane led them to it now mean we must consider him a seriously brilliant manager? And does Cristiano Ronaldo’s last 12 months mean that, for the time being at least, he should be considered the greatest player of all time, Lionel Messi included?

It’s an obvious point, but the thing that separates sport from other forms of entertainment is the competitive aspect. Who is the best? And, by extension, the conversation around football must include, on some level, a discussion of who, indeed, is the best, and why, and how, and what separates them from the also-rans.

You can look at it in terms of tactics, in terms of statistics, but more often it is measured in trophies. Regardless of what Lionel Messi achieves, there will always be those who point to his lack of international decoration and say that he cannot be considered the superior of Pele, Diego Maradona or Cristiano Ronaldo unless and until he can take Argentina to a major tournament victory.

We are obsessed with this hunt for the greatest, the best, the most influential. Nothing provokes conversation so emotively and consistently as trying to put things in a definitive order, whether that’s questioning the fairness of the play-off system, picking a team of the season, attempting to make a list of the best 100 current players in the world, or comparing modern-day players and teams with their counterparts from the past.

But as a wise man (Captain Jean-Luc Picard) once said: “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness; that is life.”

I can think of no better illustration of that than Paris Saint Germain’s women’s team. Twice in 12 days, they took on Lyon in a major cup final, first the Coupe de France Féminine and then the Women’s Champions League final.

Bar the Real Madrid men’s side of the 1950s, Lyon’s current women’s side are perhaps the greatest and most dominant side in the history of football. They have won every one of the last 11 French titles, all of the six most recent French cups, and four of the last seven Champions Leagues, finishing as runners-up once. With their Champions League triumph in Cardiff last week, they won the treble for the second year in a row and the third time in six seasons.

Yet PSG took them to penalties in both the Coupe de France and the Champions League, with both shoot-outs ending 7-6 in favour of OL. The Champions League defeat was particularly heartbreaking: on just the eighth round of penalties and with PSG shooting first, Paris goalkeeper Katarzyna Kiedrzynek stepped up and put her penalty wide of the post.

After collapsing to the turf in agony, she managed to peel herself up to face the effort of her opposite number, Lyon keeper Sarah Bouhaddi. Kiedrzynek went the right way, but was unable to keep it out. With that, Lyon retained their European title, and having finished third in the league, PSG will not even appear in next season’s Champions League.

It is history-making for Lyon; they are the first side of either gender ever to do the treble two years in a row. But the lines between success and failure in the cup competitions could not possibly have been finer; over 240 minutes and 32 penalties, the only thing separating them from PSG was two measly spot-kicks.

Does that mean that had one or both those shoot-outs gone the other way, Lyon would not deserve to be declared the greatest modern side of either gender? That seems drastically unfair, but at the same time, those trophies carry enormous weight even to me, whatever the margin or manner of their victories. Seeing a team hoist a cup, even if only after penalties, somehow has the weird retrospective effect of making you believe deep down that they deserved it, that there is no need for an explanatory asterisk in the record books or an acknowledgement of how close the other team came, even if intellectually you know that to be incredibly harsh.

The writer Dan Harmon, creator of Community and Rick & Morty, once described his most lovable character, Community’s Troy, as having an extremely ‘vertical’ view of the world. That is to say, he fundamentally believes that if you have salt and pepper and Worcestershire sauce and mustard and ketchup, there MUST be an objectively correct league table of condiments, from best to worst, and that order can be established by trial and experimentation. His worldview simply does not allow him to see them as being different but equal things for different occasions.

Football tends to makes us all think like that, particularly when it comes to judging managers. Yes, over the long run, the likes of Alex Ferguson, Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Brian Clough, and Herbert Chapman will reveal themselves as unmitigated geniuses.

But that kind of unquestionable and sustained success makes them true outliers; the overwhelming trend, even for the most successful managers, is for them to have a purple patch at one or maybe two clubs over five years or so before falling away.

I don’t think this is a simple case of deviation to the mean, but rather is reflective of the fact that for all but those blessed few, a manager needs a perfect storm of multiple factors to win trophies.

They need the right group of players who responds to their personality, at exactly the right time to capture their imaginations, with exactly the right opportunity to challenge: a lucky draw, a weak league, knowledge of the right transfer markets for highly-talented bargains, believing in just the right tactical system to foil the fashionable strategy du jour.

That’s what happened for Claudio Ranieri at Leicester and Kenny Dalglish at Blackburn, and it very nearly happened for Kevin Keegan at Newcastle and Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool. The past few years have put forward the possibility that perhaps Arsene Wenger enjoyed it for a time too.

That is not to denigrate any of those men: they never would have got anywhere if they weren’t highly capable in some way too. But it does make something of a mockery of the idea that managers’ capabilities can be judged on the basis of one, two or even three seasons in isolation, whether they be great or dismal.

As a result, declaring that Manager X is definitively better than Head Coach Y is very often as silly as saying that salt is definitely better than mustard, or cumin is always better than chocolate sauce.

This, incidentally, is what the likes of Sam Allardyce, Harry Redknapp and Sean Dyche are missing when they complain that a mid-table glass ceiling has been placed over them. They are victims of the misapprehension that taking unfancied clubs into the top half of the table makes them worse managers than those who take Liverpool to fourth or Manchester City to third – yet in complaining about it on those terms, they are also culpable in its perpetuity.

Unless you’re Alex Ferguson, they’re not better jobs for better managers; they’re different jobs for different managers. If there is shame in not being Fergie then the whole world should be red-faced (another area in which Ferguson excels, oddly).

For Zidane, then, the most we can say for now is that he has done a fantastic job with the players at his disposal at Real Madrid. That should be seen as an accolade, not a slight; it’s only our weird insistence on viewing the word so vertically, on drawing a clear thick black line between success and failure, that makes us see it as a backhanded compliment.

It’s not an exciting, attention-grabbing headline, and it doesn’t fit neatly in 140 characters, but the truth is we won’t know for another 10 or 20 years whether we can really put Zidane in that pantheon of indisputable greats. But in the meantime, we can damn well have fun debating whether he’ll make it or not.

Steven Chicken – follow him on Twitter here

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