How Andrew Lloyd Webber explains modern football
Wayne Rooney is doing well in Major League Soccer, as he should. Even on tired, 30-something legs, his talent level demands no less. He leads the DC United line, just as fans and coaches expected him to do in the Premier League. The problem in England was his talent level wasn’t so far above the competition’s, be it opponents in a match or teammates on the practice pitch. No one was willing to give him time to adjust his game to compensate.
While you were ridiculing MLS for its emphasis on athleticism over skill and technique, the same attitude infiltrated European leagues. The era when a flashy winger like Ryan Giggs could reinvent himself to become a solid box-to-box midfielder is gone. Even more distant are the times when a player like Andrea Pirlo could wait for the game to come to him, then turn it on its head with one intuitive pass or millimetre-perfect free kick.
Until Kevin de Bruyne came along, Mesut Ozil was the Premier League assist king. Throughout his time with Arsenal, his work rate’s been assailed. Few made such criticisms regarding Il Maestro, who never put up the numbers Ozil does for club and country. Those who did came to regret it.
Even as a teenager, Pirlo was the slowest player on the pitch. He couldn’t outrun opponents or track back effectively. Positioning, vision, and touch were his attributes. Ozil is similar, albeit not as stationary. So is Bas Dost, in a forward role. Both active [as in still employed] players find their reputations marred because they lack athleticism.
Football has become a game for young lions rather than old leopards. Lions hunt in packs, running their prey down on the Serengeti much like contemporary managers such as Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel expect their squads to play on the pitch. Leopards, on the other hand, hunt alone. They lurk in the tall grass, letting the prey relax and drift too close. Then they strike with deadly effect.
It’s apples and oranges but, at the moment, apples are in fashion, or to return to the Serengeti, where apples and oranges are difficult to find, lions are king.
Ryan Giggs was his generation’s young lion, another Kylian Mbappe if you will. When he could no longer run, Sir Alex Ferguson, an old lion himself, didn’t let the younger players run him out of the squad. He gave the Welshman time to develop his skills to fit a more central role where his slowing pace wasn’t as critical. Giggs played a deeper position, even going so far as to serve as a centre-half during an injury crisis. It was his brain rather than his legs which produced dividends.
Pirlo’s place retreated towards his own goal with every passing season, too. Following the 2010-11 campaign, AC Milan no longer believed he could remain effective. Juventus were sufficiently old school to take a chance. It paid off for another four seasons. The Italian may have been the last of his kind.
Michael Owen was forced to reinvent his game after a severe hamstring tear. Recently, he spoke about how much he grew to hate playing against his natural athletic instinct. He managed it nevertheless, in no small part because clubs were willing to give him the opportunity even though they knew he could no longer run.
When Wayne Rooney turned 30, foot and ankle injuries betraying him, not to mention the ridiculous number of games under his belt, he sought to travel the same road. Unfortunately, United were in a different time and place. He struggled as a midfielder, his passing accuracy and long-range shooting more erratic than Donald Trump’s opinions. There were moments, including the sensational diagonal run against Crystal Palace that put the Red Devils in control in the 2016 FA Cup Final. The cut-back cross to the far post was sublime, with Marouane Fellaini chesting it down for a Juan Mata half-volley finish. The consensus was the mazy runs were too few and far between, however. United were struggling themselves. They couldn’t afford the luxury of patience.
Jose Mourinho took over for Louis van Gaal, told reporters Rooney would only ever be a scorer in his eyes, then phased him out when another injury provided the opportunity. There’s no guarantee Rooney could have made the transition in the proper circumstances. Everton brought in Gylfi Sigurdsson rather than taking the gamble.
Regardless, Mesut Ozil and Bas Dost demonstrate that even sublimely gifted players in their prime are maligned when they don’t bust a lung with regularity, no matter that constant movement plays against their skill set. If you're in the right place, why move?
With apologies for bringing Elton John into the conversation, it’s the cycle of life. Old ways die; new methods thrive. In time, intellectual players like Pirlo and Berbatov may come into their own again, just as the W-M formation is now revived as three-at-the-back. In the interim, ageing players will be judged on their ability to keep up with the pack rather than spring unnoticed from the tall grass to surprise an unwary opponent. The chance to reinvent oneself as a footballer is now an artefact to be dug up from the past. Shame, that.