Adding a different spin to the famous Gary Lineker quote, “Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes, and at the end, the team with the most goals wins.” As simple as it sounds, within those 90 minutes, fortunes are made, long-lasting memories are forged and, at times, lives change forever.
Outside those 90 minutes, an entirely different yet connected world exists. A world of fans, awards, debates, and many more which earn football its tag of most popular sport in the world. Among the debates, some are infinite; like who is the best player around or whether trophies truly define success.
While the arguments roll on, there are a few questions that beg to be asked in the current times. Where are all the personalities? What is happening to the true magic in the game?
Diving into the first question, this is not to state there are no more personalities in world football. While the likes of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar Jr. and Sergio Ramos still exist, under the age of 25 the names diminish. Kylian Mbappé is one such player who exudes a personality to change and win games. However, this is a far cry from the Gerrard, Zidane, and Ronaldo of the 2000s.
Those were players who could change a bad situation, turn games at will with the sheer force of personality when tactics are not working. A general observation across all top sides currently highlights the lack of such strong characters, especially in the newer generation.
Kevin De Bruyne underlines this problem more than most. The Belgian is easily one of the best players in the world right now and arguably the best player in the Premier League. However, in the UEFA Champions League quarter-final against Lyon, when Pep Guardiola’s 3-5-2 was not helping, City’s talisman was unable to force the issue.
Credit to Lyon and Rudi Garcia for their tactics and wilful execution. However, a top player pulling the strings for one of the most expensively assembled sides in football history would have forced things and won the game. This weakness pops up occasionally for De Bruyne and City.
Digging a little deeper and then analyzing all the top sides in world football at the moment, a pattern emerges. At the top of the football pyramid, systems are starting to gain more importance than individual brilliance. Pep Guardiola’s Man City, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool. Flick’s Bayern Munich, Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid; teams not containing Messi, Ronaldo or Neymar are wedded to their systems.
Managers like Pep and Klopp drill their teams in every defensive and attacking maneuver until they become second nature. In doing so, they ensure most players in the side function as plug-and-play without losing the flow too much. Recruitment and academies are built on the same philosophy to ensure continuity.
While there is freedom for the players to express themselves – more in Klopp’s team than Pep’s – it is still confined to the limits of the system they play in. This way, teams compete better in the marathon-styled leagues but struggle with differently-styled teams in the UCL knockouts.
Since the system is the team’s best player, someone like Neymar will have no other way but to sacrifice parts of his exuberance and brilliance in return for better team performances. Thus, when the system works and all players have bought into it, we see the likes of City, Bayern and Liverpool win games without suffering a single punch.
Players like Kevin De Bruyne thrive in this environment where his genius to process information quickly combines with his technical ability to choose the right option every single time. So, whether he passes or shoots, his team-mate will get into the required position or make the supporting run.
However, when the system is not working, the same player rarely takes things into his own hands and goes for the jugular. After all, it is not a switch to turn on and off at will. Hence, someone like Kevin De Bruyne will thrive in well-detailed systems while someone like Neymar will choose teams where the team is built around him instead.
In the latter case, the Brazilian can single-handedly trouble opposition as he does in the UCL but the risk of losing to a well-oiled team with a working system is always around the corner. There is no right or wrong way here. The increased availability of data is fuelling a system-driven approach where teams play percentage football, i.e., choosing the best possible option at all times.
This directly kills the “one-man army” mantra and in doing so, takes away that edge from strong personalities. For example, data will always point to a rainbow flick as a low-percentage, high-risk move, thereby forcing the player to remove it from their armoury.
The trickle-down effect is that players train to fit into the system, letting their individual brilliance to be chipped away, especially when it is detrimental to the team’s setup. A simple glance at the likes of Mbappe, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Jadon Sancho or Alphonso Davies shows how conditioned their game already is from a young age.
Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing and their outrageous talent still shines every once in a while as their managers do not stifle it entirely. However, it is a diminishing aspect that robs the audience of truly magical players.
The joy of watching players like Messi, Neymar, Zidane, Gerrard, or Rooney is not just about their technical skills but also in their ability to do something you would never expect. That translates into magic for some and force of personality for others.
It looks like this will be a continuing problem in the 2020s with lots of geniuses around but not magicians or players who can force games at will.
So, the real debate for the 2020s is figuring out who will be the next magician and who will be the biggest alpha-male on the grandest of stages. The answer is not straightforward but it will definitely be worth the wait.