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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.

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.

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.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s century of revolutions

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Michael Carrick is the “Geordie Pirlo” that England misunderstood

The Manchester United legend’s retirement announcement should leave Three Lions fans wondering what if?

That it came in the months leading up to a World Cup arguably added an exclamation point to the announcement of Michael Carrick’s impending retirement. The Manchester United midfielder, who is expected to take up a coaching role with the club afterwards, will hang up his boots at the end of the season. And United boss Jose Mourinho’s keenness to keep Carrick at Old Trafford in some capacity only serves to emphasise how highly he rates the 36-year-old.

But Carrick’s curtain call in May will be caveated by one striking anomaly on an otherwise imperious CV: his international career. Although at club level Carrick has excelled – winning every top tier honour a player based in England possibly can – he looks set to retire with just 34 caps for his country, and just one of those was earned at a major tournament.

This, in part, is down to the quality of competition he has faced. Indeed, much of the conversation around England’s midfield in the early to mid-noughties centred on finding a system that could accommodate both box-to-box dynamos Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

As time went on, however, focus shifted towards trequartistas, advanced playmakers and those with more mobile, harrying playing styles. And the likes of Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli were brought into the frame more frequently than Carrick, whose deep-lying capabilities were not utilised to their full potential. That nearly 65 per cent of Carrick’s England caps have come in friendlies shows how undervalued he was. 

In fairness, Carrick does not embody similar characteristics to many of his England midfield contemporaries, including a laudable lack of ego. He is not blessed with lung-busting pace, nor is he enough of a ball-winner to shield a back four solo. Yet his passing and distribution satisfy world-class criteria, with a range only matched, as far as England internationals go, by his former United team-mate Paul Scholes, who was also misused when playing for his country.

Rather, the player Carrick resembles most isn’t English at all; it’s Andrea Pirlo, minus the free-kicks. When comparisons between the mild-mannered Geordie and Italian football’s coolest customer first emerged, they were dismissed in some quarters as hyperbole. Yet watching Carrick confirm his retirement plans this week, perfectly bearded and reflecting on a trophy-laden 12-year spell at one of world football’s grandest institutions, the parallels have become harder to deny.

Michael Carrick at a press event ahead of Manchester United's Champions League game this week. Photo: Getty.

Where other players would have been shown the door much sooner, both Pirlo and Carrick’s efficient style of play – built on patience, possession and precision – gifted them twilights as impressive as many others’ peaks. That at 36, Carrick is still playing for a team in the top two of the top division in English football, rather than in lower-league or moneyed foreign obscurity, speaks volumes. At the same age, Pirlo started for Juventus in the Champions League final of 2015.

It is ill health, not a decline in ability, which is finally bringing Carrick’s career to a close. After saying he “felt strange” during the second-half of United’s 4-1 win over Burton Albion earlier this season, he had a cardiac ablation procedure to treat an irregular heart rhythm. He has since been limited to just three more appearances this term, of which United won two. 

And just how key to United’s success Carrick has been since his £18m signing from Tottenham in 2006 cannot be overstated. He was United’s sole signing that summer, yielding only modest excitement, and there were some Red Devils fans displeased with then manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to assign Carrick the number 16 jersey previously worn by departed captain Roy Keane. Less than a year later, though, United won their first league title in four years. The following season, United won the league and Champions League double, with Carrick playing 49 times across all competitions.

Failing to regularly deploy Carrick in his favoured role – one that is nominally defensive in its position at the base of midfield, but also creative in providing through-balls to the players ahead – must be considered one of the most criminal oversights of successive England managers’ tenures. Unfortunately, Carrick’s heart condition means that current boss Gareth Southgate is unlikely to be able to make amends this summer.

By pressing space, rather than players, Carrick compensates for his lack of speed by marking passing channels and intercepting. He is forever watching the game around him and his unwillingness to commit passes prematurely and lose possession is as valuable an asset as when he does spot an opening.

Ultimately, while Carrick can have few regrets about his illustrious career, England fans and management alike can have plenty. Via West Ham, Spurs and United, the Wallsend-born émigré has earned his billing as one of the most gifted midfielders of his generation, but he’d never let on.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.