Twitter can be a depressing tool, even at the best of times, and using it as a barometer for all society, not just football, is rarely productive. Yet sometimes it can throw up some interesting thought points.
The wibblechat today has been an argument over who was the best Arsenal playmaker of the modern era, Dennis Bergkamp or Mesut Ozil? Stats have been bent, abused, cited and repeatedly plastered in order to prove the case one way or another. Goals, assists, trophies, goals, assists per games, goals per games, goals against big clubs, and goals all of which have articles written about them, all of these can be used to justify whatever opinion you want. Like a historian who comes to a conclusion and then goes looking for evidence to support it, you can assume all kinds of daft or compelling positions. And why not? We are still relatively confined in our four walls for most of the day despite pandemic restrictions being largely lifted, and we have to do something with our time.
It is though, like most things, pointless. Take Ozil v Bergkamp, for example. Ozil’s physical frame at his peak for Real Madrid and then Arsenal was unlike anything really seen in a professional footballer during Bergkamp’s peak, from 1998 to the Invincibles season. Bergkamp was no slouch but he was slight and did not have a burst of pace to scare opponents. Ozil might look slack to most but he would doubtless be able to shove most opponents from 20 years back off the ball with little effort. The amount of physical activity he could have put in would be assisted by huge strides in the medical and fitness sides of professional sport.
Image credit: Getty Images
It doesn’t just work for fitness, either. The sophisticated drills that players are put through now develop ever better technique across the football pyramid, and tactical instructions become more detailed.
Players may have information relayed to them in bite-size portions but there is a wealth of analysis behind much of the activities of the top flight. The focus of some managers on tactical instructions means that former pros can now look obsolete as they discuss the version of the game they used to play.
Bergkamp had to make do without that sophistication, as did his peers. The reasons to compare players across generations should, largely, be reduced to a relative appraisal. How much better was Bergkamp than his opposing defenders? How much danger could Ozil create against the teams he lined up against? Graeme Sounness, for example, now looks a fool when he rolls his eyes at players having haircuts, but it would be a bigger fool who suggests that he would not have been capable of adapting his game were he given his chance again. Humanity has not evolved much over the last 500 years, let alone 50 or five.
Roy Keane is an all-time Manchester United great
Image credit: Eurosport
If you are to compare, then it is hard to ignore that an excellent player of one generation would simply have been an excellent player 10, 20 or 30 years later. They would just be different kinds of excellent. A couple of years ago online there was a Twitter discussion suggesting that Keane simply would not have been able to cope with the demands of the very best teams these days. It neatly demonstrated the way in which Manchester United’s 1999-2002 era brilliance was left behind, but it was essentially a strawman.
Keane, against the teams he faced, needed to do certain things. His passing had to be of a certain level, and his fitness, tactical awareness and leadership, all were gauged to what he experienced and thought he would experience. At United he was hardly cut off from the best support of the time, and he was devastatingly committed to winning. He could be brutal, but his putdowns at the time betrayed something whirring behind the eyes, both malevolent and effective. He didn’t lack intelligence and he still doesn’t. He might not have had the very best technique in the world but rarely was he found obviously wanting on the continent.
But for Keane, the Arsenal side he came up against under Arsene Wenger was one of the first, if not the first, British side to start using creatine to improve their stamina and strength. Creatine supplements now would be regarded as table stakes, something that you must use merely to keep up with your peers. Science and physical training has moved on to something new that most of us probably haven’t even heard of. Even cryotherapy holds no more novelty value. The only ice Keane had access to after matches was in his veins. The only bags of blood were those extracted from his rivals’ knees.
Against a team like this year’s Liverpool or Manchester City, Keane might not have been enough to cope. The game is faster, the approaches are different, and the players are operating on another, new level. Keane might well have looked out of his depth. But take Keane aged 14, with his same pathological commitment to winning, and drop him in Manchester City’s current youth setup, or that of Barcelona, or wherever, and it is easy to see him becoming another kind of brilliant midfielder. Jordan Henderson is a prosaic player at heart, but his heart is much of what won him the Player of the Year award. Spirit and intelligence were not invented last year.
Take it to extremes, and consider tomorrow’s final round of matches. Smoking Johan Cruyff would probably have been left crying on the floor were he suddenly transposed to Sunday’s line-up of games. Gary Lineker would have looked a wreck compared to Jamie Vardy’s greased lightning. The great Liverpool backlines might have looked like absolute clowns against Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino as they ripped through them at pace. It is not a criticism of any of the older players. It doesn’t make them any less great. They were just playing different games.
And for the record, two things: Bergkamp was better than Ozil, but that goal was clearly a fluke.
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