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21 October 2017

All players must be considered equal before God – and before the manager

The old adage in football is that the strength of a team is in its weakest link.

By Hunter Davies

Who matters most in a team? One answer is the goalie. If he is rubbish, kicks the ball out to the other team, falls over, lets in goals, then obviously the rest of his team-mates will be well pissed off. He’ll have ruined all the good work they’ve done, making their efforts pointless.

Graeme Souness, writing in the Sunday Times last weekend, said that Man United’s best player for the past four seasons has been their goalie, David de Gea. But I bet he’s not the best paid.

If a goalkeeper is the most vital member of the team, why is he not the most valuable? The Prem’s biggest transfer fee for a goalie is £35m, paid by Man City for Ederson, just ahead of the £30m that Everton paid for Jordan Pickford. Buffon of Juventus held the world record, having been bought in 2001 for €50m, but I am too tired to work out what that might equal in pounds today. The point is, none of these top goalies fetched anywhere like the £200m PSG spent on Neymar this summer.

It is strikers and attacking midfielders who command the most money. They win the game, as opposed to losing it, and they excite and attract the crowds.

The old adage in football, and in other forms of so-called human life, is that the strength of a team is in its weakest link. This comes from engineering, and is clearly true. It just takes one little link, one titchy flange or widget, to collapse and, bingo, the whole jingbang fails.

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What has happened in football is that, in the Premiership at least, most teams do not have a weak link – thanks to all the money, huge squads, coaching, being shouted at from the age of eight. For decades watching Spurs, back to the 1960s, there was always one player who made the crowd groan when his name was read out and close their eyes when he passed the ball. That does not happen now. I am not a big fan of either Eric Dier or Ben Davies, but I don’t cower when they get the ball.

Another football cliché is that what a team needs most is a good spine – the vital players are your striker, central midfielder, centre half and goalie. If you are strong all the way down the centre, the other players don’t matter so much. They can be middling, lumpen journeymen.

With the rise in the general level all over the pitch at the top of the Prem, this is no longer true. They all matter. All must be considered equal before God and, more importantly, the manager.

Whatever the boss’s private opinion about the value of each player, he should, if he has any sense, keep it to himself. It is a team game. His job is to treat everyone equally, make the whole team good. This was behind the rather surprising outburst from Spurs’s manager, Mauricio Pochettino, against Man City’s Guardiola for his dismissive description of Spurs as “the Harry Kane team”.

Pochettino said Pep was being “sad and disrespectful and ungentlemanly”. OK, not exactly an outburst, more of a mumble under his breath – but he then added that he would never have called Barcelona under Guardiola “the Messi team”.

Factually, of course, it is true about Spurs. Harry is the star, scores all the goals, helps old players across the road, is someone every manager would like in their squad… but he is still just a team member. He needs someone to pass to him, to create opportunities for him, while the lesser ranks have to try not to fall over or let in goals.

A manager does not want any players getting big-headed – or others getting resentful and sullen and jealous, made to feel they don’t count . He cannot, therefore, allow the notion to grow that he has a one-man team. In Spurs’s subsequent game, against Bournemouth, Harry was in fact pretty useless and got taken off before the end. So perhaps Guardiola was playing tricks, unsettling Harry, winding up Pochettino.

All managers have to take care what they say. The weakest link in football these days is not any of the players. It is the manager. He’s the one for the chop if the chain breaks.

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This article appears in the 18 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s century of revolutions