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Generalissimo

I’ve watched Diego Maradona’s final World Cup match (a 2-1 victory over Nigeria played in Boston) at least ten times. Nigeria pushed Argentina back early with plundering counter-attacks, one of which led to the match’s first goal—a sumptuous chip that had more than a whiff of offside to it. Maradona was imperious that day though, Napoleonically strutting around the confetti-flaked pitch, drawing fouls, and making key passes for both of Argentina’s goals—free kicks finished by Claudio Canigga.

The first one was just outside the area. Maradona runs up as if to take the shot himself, only to back-heel the ball into the path of Gabriel Batistuta, who drives it low and to the right of the goalkeeper, who spills it at Canigga’s eager feet. The second was on the left-wing channel in Nigeria’s half, seemingly a safe distance from goal. Maradona plays an early pass to an unmarked Canigga who cuts into the box diagonally from the left, opens his body, and curls the ball in the upper right hand corner of the net. Less than a half hour had gone by but the game was effectively over. Argentina were on cruise control for most of the remainder of the match.

Make no mistake, it was Maradona’s savvy on both occasions that in an immediate sense undid Nigeria that afternoon. But I go back to the grainy VHS recording not to pay homage to Maradona but to remember the first time I saw Fernando Redondo play football. I was only 13 at the time but I intuitively understood that it was Argentina’s number five, and not Maradona, who undid Nigeria in a more general sense, by blunting a match which in its initial stages was fevered and disjointed—traits that favored the counter-attacking Nigerian side. The beautiful chaos spun by Maradona, Canigga, and Batistuta in the offensive third was complemented by the centralizing order rendered by Redondo’s tackling, distribution, and ball retention. In tactile terms, Redondo polished the game’s jagged edges.

Nigeria couldn’t get near Redondo that afternoon. His first touch (a skill ever so soccer-specific) moved the ball into nooks and vistas on the field where his opponents couldn’t find it—something antiseptically referred to by coaches as “touch direction.” When Redondo possessed the ball it became a game of hide and seek. He had an inimitable ability to hold off defenders and simultaneously run towards goal in a way that the term “riding challenges” doesn’t really describe. At any rate, Nigeria were spent and befuddled.

For those unlucky not to witness Redondo play, allow me a homily: His presence on the pitch can be best characterized by an unlikely adjective for any physical activity—glib. He appeared to play with indifference but he always had the ball, which he received like a stray pill of mercury returning to its base. He didn’t run so much as he sauntered and ghosted past defenders the way you might expect a rakish dandy to push past his scrubbier competition in a cocktail lounge. Elegant to the point of haughty, after being chopped down by defenders he would rise as if he had been knighted. Alex Ferguson (a real knight) bemusedly asked if Redondo had magnets in his boots after the Argentine flummoxed Manchester United’s midfield at Old Trafford.

A handful of blog articles (now a small chorus) exist which wax romantic about how unsung Redondo’s genius is in an age of football that places a premium on pace and power. The speedy smack-down that is the Premier League has put the “Prince” in tintype: the perfect midfielder for yesteryear. Not, “box-to-box” enough, etc. In truth, the supposed hegemony of the Premier League is and has been over-hyped and somewhat repudiated by the successes of continental teams in the past few years. One very astute Guardian football columnist recently argued that it is the Steven Gerrards of this world who are out of step with the times, while precision-based midfielders rule the roost. The rise and rise of Silva and the auspicious start to Mata’s career at Chelsea has made the Spanish number ten an object of recent fetishism. Every world-class team has to have one.

Phil Ball’s recent article about the Spanish interpretation of the creative “false nine” (media punta) is a lively account of what makes players like Silva, Mata, Cesc Fabregas, and even the Mikel Arteta so deadly in today’s game. Namely, they provoke panic and disorder in opposing teams because they artfully dart between the lines of defense and midfield, confusing defenders who have to step out of position to pursue their movement, leaving space behind their vacated areas for attackers to exploit. Theirs is a postmodern art of deconstruction and liminality.

Redondo was no media punta though. His was a modernist art of sleek order and functionality. He wasn’t a Makelele-type holding midfielder, either. In spite of his lithe elegance he was warhorse not a show pony. And yet, he didn’t simply destroy opposition attacks but rather coaxed them to irrelevance by channelling them into less dangerous areas because of his positioning.

Spain, spoilt for choice, also has their Redondo in Javi Martinez, whose performances for the U-21s in the European Championship this summer provided me more than a morsel of nostalgia. Despite starting with a chorus line of media puntas—Thiago Alcantara, Mata, Ander Herrara, and Iker Muniain—Martinez, to my eye, set the pace for the eventual champions. Spain was able to play with so many forward-minded midfielders precisely because Martinez could ably marshal the space behind them, in some cases dropping between the centerbacks to cover the full-backs’ forays up field as Busquets does for Barcelona. Martinez is more mobile than Busquets though, and like Redondo he is more comfortable carrying the ball forward. (Busquets seems slightly embarrassed whenever he dribbles for more than a touch or two.) Martinez is more laterally mobile than Busquests as well. He often bullies opposing players into moving sideways and backwards by bird-dogging them aggressively over the length and breadth of the pitch, which he did to devastating effect in the Euro final with Switzerland’s Xherdan Shaqiri, and more recently with the excellent Javier Pastore in Bilbao’s recent Europa League victory over Paris St. Germain. Yet, when order is restored and possession won, he bounds forward breezily and passes smartly. If Redondo was pure tango, Martinez is a waltz.

Indeed, while there are more than a few differences between Redondo and the still slightly green Martinez, there is something uncannily similar about the manner in which they impose themselves on a match: almost managerial or authoritarian without being brutal or grotesque in the way of a Nigel De Jong or Roy Keane. There is a kind of death-and-taxes inevitability about their centrality in the proceedings of any given match. By the final game of the Euros every time the hulking Martinez emerged from a midfield scrum with the ball I thought to myself: Of course. Martinez. Who else!? While Spain’s attacking midfielders played with postmodern panache, Martinez was a one-man dictatorial modernizer in the middle of the park, restoring, or better, demanding coherence. He was their Franco. Their Ataturk. Their generalissimo.

Finally, consider this a letter of recommendation of sorts. While I hasten to say that I hope he stays in Bilbao for at least a couple of seasons, not least of all because Marcelo Bielsa’s recent arrival has already yielded some eccentric and sometimes great performances from the Basques, Martinez is the kind of signing Arsenal must make to restore consistency and spatial logic when they don’t have the ball. The rush to sign Arteta to replace Fabregas wasn’t so much impulsive as it was second-order in terms of their requirements, the first of which ought to have been finding a replacement for Patrick Vieira, who by my count, has been gone for half a decade. While teams like Chelsea and Manchester City can afford to look for the “Perfect 10,” Arsenal must first find their “Perfect 5.”

Sam Fayyaz is a PhD student at UMASS, Amherst where he studies political science when he’s not anoraking about soccer.

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Generalissimo

by Sam Fayyaz · November 22, 2011

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