I remember vividly how I finally relented to the siren song of the beautiful game. As I’ve said before, my support of Aston Villa came from catching a match, seeing Manchester United on the screen, being a contrarian, and enjoying how the team opposite were giving them a go. I grew up with American football; it was what my family watched, it was what I was drawn to play, and so I played it until I honestly got burned out on it. And while I played that game, I actively hated on the beautiful game. There, I said it. But watching that match in an apartment in Brooklyn in 2005, I was struck by an epiphany.
You idiot, this game is just as much about control as that other one! How could you have hated it?
Two weeks ago I was struck by a similar epiphany.
I was watching Villa’s 3-1 FA Cup win against Bristol Rovers, and Villa prospect Gary Gardner, who is tipped by many who have seen him play reserves matches to be a star of the game and future club captain, had come on as an injury replacement in the latter stages of the match. Now, I’m a Mets fan in addition to a Villa supporter. I’m used to prospects getting hyped to the moon only to flame out through injury (Fernando Martinez, the entirety of Generation K) or incompetence (Gregg Jefferies, too many outfield prospects to name). But in watching Gardner, I saw something that actually backed up the hope so many had projected onto him. It was a small gesture, noticeable, but not unless you were keeping an eye on him.
Gardner had just run into space to receive a pass from Villa fullback Stephen Warnock. As the ball approached, I saw him glance up, look up the field to his left and right, before deducing that an advancing pass was not available, and playing it back to Richard Dunne. It was, as I said, a small action, but one that I felt I had to point out to my wife as we watched.
And as the first epiphany enlightened me to the greater strategies of the game, this later one coalesced my appreciation for players who play intelligent football. Which is ironic for someone who is also (or was in the first case) a massive fan of Jose Reyes and Gabby Agbonlahor (I digress- how could I stay mad at Jose?)- both epitomes of speed and athletic excellence, though both players have added enhanced mental elements to their games- Jose in the form of the plate discipline that won him a batting title, Gabby in the form of improved hold-up play and passing vision.
At any rate, watching players play chess on grass is fascinating. When it’s at its metronomic best, you can scarcely perceive the calculations that Guardiola’s Barcelona make, but they’re certainly there. If you turn on a Villa match, keep an eye on Stiliyan Petrov and watch him either foul or take a foul to tamp down a spell of pressure from his opposite numbers. My wife has called him Keyser Soze for his deceptiveness and controlled brutality, while I’ve dubbed him football’s Carlos Beltran for his ability to do all of the little, unnoticed things in the game exactly right.
At the other end, while ‘Arry’s Tottenham is held up as the epitome of tactic-less football, the reason they’re contending for the title right now is that he added some chess players this summer to do the thinking for him. Scott Parker has been sensational pulling strings and stopping attacks in the midfield, and better complements the vision and movement of Grandmaster Luka Modric than his previous partners. Brad Friedel is an excellent marshall for a backline, and his tactical and positional superiority to Hilarious Gomes has certainly increased Tottenham’s points total this season. Plus, Friedel has brought yoga to the team, which will surely help with their biggest problem over the last decade: fitness and injuries. The loan move for Adebayor was also important, as his exceptional positional sense and technical brilliance are a huge upgrade on PCBDH, especially when it comes to complementing Rafa Van der Vaart’s play as trequartista. Finally, Ledley King, the long injured tactical centerpiece of Tottenham’s back line, has been fit for most of the year, allowing for a defence centered around intelligent play.
So while others are looking for the reasons to shout, I’ll continue to look for reasons to shout “Eureka!”