Let’s have some banter, eh? LET’S HAVE SOME BANTER. I’ll be Gary Lineker. What about Chris Brunt Al – is he world-class? In normal circumstances, the loud honking of the banter-horn would cause a warmth to descend over the average footballer, knowing that the usual interactive stress of being a lot richer than most people and still feeling inferior to them has been removed: this is banter, and with banter, we all know where we stand. At arm’s length from each other, bantering. But instead, a pall comes over the northern granite of Big Al’s forehead. This subject is making him very, very cross indeed.
No, Gary, he’s not world-class. Those eyes narrow to their gimlet, no-messing construct. On MOTD recently, I heard Big Al begin some analysis of Zlatan in the grim manner of a police superintendent describing the don of a local crime family. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, at 35, is showing everyone else in this league…but, the question was again put to him, is he world-class? No, Gary, he’s not world class. Phil Neville, sat next to him in his usual rabbit stance, piped up. I think he is. Thanks Phil. Dunno what we’d do without you. Glad I pay your wage.
The list, big Al informed us, of world-class players, is short. It contains the three players he is definitely sure actually exist outside the Premier League: Messi, Ronaldo, Suarez. But I have some dreadful, cataclysmic news for you, the kind that I can only hope you are comfortably sitting down to receive. Big Al, with those gimlet, I’ll take the penalties lads eyes, hasn’t really got a clue what he’s looking at.
What he thinks he’s looking at, in that over-simplifying way that you absolutely have to have if you want to be a professional striker so that you don’t waste precious microseconds dithering over oooh should I stick it in this corner or that one, is that the mark of world-class is whether they can score goals basically in every single game in every season ever, and those three can. What eludes him, with grim Big Al predictability, are the vagaries of human beings: he thinks his three world-class three are football machines, but they’re not. They’ve simply, particularly the first two, had so much positive reinforcement that their excellence works, that they no longer have to think about it, and henceforth flows consistency. The most beautiful thing to me about watching Messi in full flight is the sense his brain is utterly disengaged: the second he conceives of something he does it, which always makes him look seconds ahead of everyone.
But what about Alexis Sanchez? His positive reinforcement includes being sold by Barcelona as not up to scratch, and playing now under the pressure of knowing he can perform to the fabled 110% of his capacities and be part of a team that can still nervously find a way to lose. Henceforth does not flow consistency; and yet still the guy’s talent is so evidently world-class that he can look absolutely unbelievably good a lot of the time.
Two more factors, Al, because I know how much of a fan you are of mitigating factors. First, it isn’t a coincidence that the three world-class players all play in the same league, where they have regularly faced teams that, let’s be honest, give themselves about ten minutes to be in this game and then when the first goal goes in, give up the ghost. Lots of the World Class Three’s weekly experiences seem like a massage for their talent, which is obviously a nice and productive thing to have done to your talent, and is somewhat different to the regular experiences of Sergio Aguero, say, who is definitely not world-class. Would Messi’s explosiveness in the big games be the same, without those regular massages? Who knows.
The second factor, and this is a bit more tangible, is you’ve probably noticed where Big Al’s big three play: around where he played. They make themselves obvious to him by numbers, like 324 goals in 364 games. And this is what is so utterly boneheaded about his approach – that he can’t even be consistent about what he claims is its hallmark: consistency. There is a player playing currently in the Premier League, who, when a striker is approaching the goal, gives you the same feeling as when Messi approaches the goal: that unless something very special happens he’ll save it, just like Messi will score. A player who, over the last few seasons has sometimes made you feel that if it wasn’t for him, Manchester United would be engaged in a tin-hat relegation slugfest with Burnley and Norwich. And if it’s a question of consistency, Al, you might want to have a word with those United fans who keep giving him Player of the Year.
But, he isn’t a striker. Just like Sergio Ramos, or Phillip Lahm or Andres Iniesta or Jerome Boateng or Mats Hummels or Manuel Neuer or Robert Lewandowski – oh no whoops not him – or Antoine Griezmann – hmmmm – isn’t a striker. HE DOESN’T MAKE IT OBVIOUS TO ME, thinks Al. How can you give him credit for that, he asks Gary, with all the analytical value of the noise a rock would make if you smacked it with a bat.
It’s a wearyingly pitiful thing, that you have to think ‘of course I can’t expect one of the highly-paid analysts on one of the country’s marquee football shows to have a deeper grasp of how footballers work, that except for in the privileged microcosm of insane talent mixed with total reinforcing dominance, they’re temperamental, that the confidence firing their abilities comes and goes, peaks and troughs, moves them in and out of this ephemeral world-class bracket.’ But you can’t, because they’re footballers, and but for a few notable exceptions whose names we all know, they don’t know a lot about football. Admit it, we’ve been so humiliatingly weathered by all this that since big Al moved from ‘utterly useless’ to ‘not always utterly useless’, you’ve started saying to people ‘yeah he’s not actually that bad is he?’ It’s like a weird football-analyst based Stockholm syndrome. Best wishes for 2017.