Does he know his best team? Does it sodding matter?

Date published: Monday 23rd November 2020 10:07

Back in the glory days of the Proper Football Man, the old-school British ex-player and manager would sit on the pundits’ sofa with his legs splayed wide, occupying as much space as possible with his scrotum, casting pearls of wisdom to the mouth-breathing masses who hadn’t played the game, couldn’t put any medals on the table and therefore lacked any valuable insight into Association Football and thus relied on the PFM to tell what what was what.

The fact they had spent much of their adult lives naked in a big bath with other men had taught them everything they knew. Their self-belief was usually in inverse proportion to the depth of their knowledge and certainly to their broader understanding of the human condition.

Cliches were passed off as insights, while grammatically tortured sentences, the strict avoidance of adverbs and the pluralising of players and clubs, were the norm. Then there were the vaguely xenophobic references to “the foreign lads” and “the English game”.

But enough of life in 2016. Today, the PFM has largely been pushed to the margins, no longer even utters the expression ‘proper football man’, can only be found on the channels at the dusty end of the fretboard – and even then only at times of the day when literally no-one else would turn up – to speak entirely in cliches, make jokes about brightly coloured ties, never having had any pace and team bonding sessions which involved brutalising and humiliating an alcoholic with dog shit on the end of a stick.

Even though standards have massively improved, some of the witless old PFM cliches remain. Primo amongst these is the rhetorical question “does he know his best team?” or its prime variant “he doesn’t know his best team”. Because I’ve nothing better to do, I’ve kept a list about the managers accused of this heinous crime so far this season: Mikel Arteta, Frank Lampard, Pep Guardiola, David Moyes, Steve Bruce, Jose Mourinho, Scott Parker, Slaven Bilic, Carlo Ancelotti, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Dean Smith, Graham Potter and Nuno Espírito Santo. That’s 13 out of 20 and who knows, I may have missed the other seven.

This old-school notion has somehow outlasted the PFM glory days of drinking pints of red wine, anti-freeze, novocaine and Joop, in a casino with Reidy, Pards and Miss Industrial Oil Sump Rear of the Year 1977, but it deserves to be consigned to the cultural dustbin along with sayings like “these days with three points for a win” and “he’s a man’s man”, which I thought as a young boy meant said man was gay – or whatever homophobic word was in common currency at time – but which in reality was a catch-all expression for pretty much any man who would be really unpleasant to you, ask why you were reading a book, administer an act of violence upon your person in the name of fun, seek to humiliate you in public by removing your trousers and then tell you in no uncertain terms that this was all just a laugh and why are you crying you fackin’ melt?!

In an era where rotating your team every week is normal, where huge squads of players have to be accommodated, the phrase “he doesn’t know his best team” belongs to a different time and need to be consigned to the abandoned skip of football history.

The term is used as a criticism of a manager, that he is unable to work out which XI play best together. But is it ever possible to do that? The multiple variables surely mitigate against it.

When you have a 24-man squad, most of whom are internationals and have been assembled at a cost of £300 million, there is no such thing as a best team, only the best team to play this game today, against these other 11 players. And even then, it’s all, at least to some degree, a lottery.

Add into this the fact that sports science has reached such a vaunted status in the game with its ability to able to tell a manager when a player is in ‘the red zone’ and needs resting, the chances of ever playing the same team (even if there was a way to discern who the best 11 were) have never been less likely. So unlikely that when an unchanged team is named, it is always highlighted as unusual.

Also, because oppositions vary, obviously you may have to change your team to be more effective against an opponent’s varying strengths and weaknesses. Just sticking with your supposed best side, come what may, would be stupid and basically, no-one does it apart from exceptional teams, such as last season’s Liverpool, who steamrollered all before them. Even then, they had alternatives for certain situations.

Obviously, there are linchpins to many teams; players who, if not playing, make a team far less effective. Leicester City and Jamie Vardy are the best current example. Brendan Rodgers could probably play any 10 with Vardy and they’d be better than any 11 without him. But there must be many positions at every club that could be filled equally effectively on most weeks by one, two or three different players, depending on who the club is up against. Indeed, that’s the whole point of building a strong squad.

Even if you try and settle on your most effective 11, injury and fitness dictate you’ll not have that 11 available all the time, so what would be the point in pontificating which is your notional ‘best’ side? It is of no help. And anyway, given the inevitable fluctuations in form, this week’s heroes can easily be next week’s zeros. This is one of football’s eternal pleasures and conundrums. How can someone be so good one week and not the next?

The ‘does he know his best team?’ accusation is only directed at the manager who changes the team most weeks, but if they don’t, it is usually only because of lack of resources. So is this arcane term a leftover from pre-21st century times when a club would largely field the same 14 players season after season? It seems so.

Being criticised for not knowing something which is not knowable week-to-week, and not even worth knowing in the first place, feels like another outmoded notion that has no relevance to modern football.

John Nicholson

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