Saturday, November 18, 2006
Most of the players I have a fondness for - the ones I loved most as a boy, the ones I enjoy watching most now - are attackers. Its is no coincidence that many of the greats of the history of the game were natural Number 10s. Maradona, Pele, Platini, Cruyff, Zidane, Puskas and Baggio all played in the space between midfield and forward line, shaping attacks with clever angled passes, explosive dribbling and intuitive misdirection. The player in that position can, if possessing sufficient skill and tactical acumen, utterly control a game. He is the conduit through which each of his teams attacks must pass. When it goes well, he gets all the praise and all of the glamour.
But the modern game, where players are fitter and faster and stronger, has made it more difficult for these conjurors to practice their art. There is less time on a football pitch now than at any time before, less space. Speed of thought must be even quicker, ball control more acute. The modern midfielder is a powerful athlete, capable of covering miles at high speed in every game, and a jack of all trades - he must be a good tackler, a perceptive reader of the game, capable of passing long and short, able to dribble if the need arises and apt to break into the box to score a goal. Players like Steven Gerrard and Michael Ballack typify this new breed, while the traditional Number 10 slowly dies out except for the odd abberative child genius - Wayne Rooney qualifies, as does Yoann Gourcuff at AC Milan (Bordeaux this Season). Only in Maradona-worshipping Argentina is there a concerted effort to promote the playmaker in the classic mould as a workable part of a modern squad. Accordingly, Argentina have produced an astounding number of high-quality Number 10s in the last two decades, most of them cursed to live with "Next Maradona" status from their youth-team debuts for their country. A list of such names would include Ariel Ortega, Juan Roman Riquelme, Pablo Aimar, Andreas D'Alessandro, Javier Saviola and the two main rivals for the title of the newest new Maradona, Carlos Tevez and Lionel Messi.
Less-heralded than the Number 10, but just as important to the way Argentinean teams play their football, and also threatened by the modern midfielders need to be a great all-rounder, is the Number 5. In the Argentine tradition, the Number 5 shirt goes to a central midfielder rather than a defender. The last great Argentine Number 5 was Fernando Redondo. Redondo was a defensive midfielder, but not quite in the vein of a Makelele or a Keane. Instead, he was a deep-lying playmaker. He broke up opposition attacks with sharp tackling and set in motion attacks of his own with crisp, short passing. He didn't race forward and break into the box. He didn't score many goals. He didn't cover every blade of grass for 90 minutes. But he could control a game like no other central midfielder I have ever seen. He played with his head up, always reading the movement of the players around him, always aware of where his next pass was going. The Argentine football character is founded just as much on steely, often brutal aggression as it is on sublime skill, and Redondo was as combative as a ball-winning Midfielder must be. His tackling was hard and he was a big man - a formidable physical presence in the centre of the pitch, around which his team revolved. His technique was extraordinary and he was a flashier Number 5 than his most recent heir in the position, Javier Mascherano - he showed a control and understanding of a football comparable with most of the Number 10s listed above. Playing right at the fulcrum of a team - in the heart of midfield - requires a different personality than that needed to operate in the "hole" behind the forward line. Quiet players such as Zidane and Riquelme can thrive further up the pitch. But in the heart of the battle, the congested central area of the field, squeezed and stretched between two sets of defenders and attackers, the central midfielder must display a big personality, the will to dominate his own team as well as the opposition. Redondo needed to be able to destroy and create in an instant, to orchestrate and bully his team-mates and to see the bigger tactical picture at all times. All of which he did, beautifully.
But he under-achieved, given his tremendous talent. He spent his first years as a professional in Buenos Aires with Argentinos Juniors, then spent four years at Tenerife before moving to Real Madrid. Finally playing for a Big club, he won La Liga twice, and the Champions League twice. He was probably Madrid's most important player in their 1999-2000 Champions League campaign, dominating Roy Keane at Old Trafford in the quarter finals in a manner seldom seen. His backheel to set up Raul is just a moment of genius :
After that triumph, Madrid, amazingly, sold Redondo to AC Milan. Madrid's Ultras literally rioted at the news.
His two seasons at Milan were blighted by injury, and he rarely played. He refused to accept wages from the club, believing that, as he was giving them nothing, then they should give him nothing. These injury problems were what led to his premature retirement in 2003. The mixture of stubbornness and an uncommon sense of personal principles suggested by his stance over wages is perhaps what ruined his International Career. He reportedly refused a call-up to the 1990 squad because he disagreed with the teams defensive tactics. And he would not play for the team when Daniel Passarella was coach because he refused to play anywhere other than central midfield, altough the Argentine press speculated it was because Passarella demanded that all his players cut their long hair, and the ever-stubborn Redondo refused.
He only played 29 times for Argentina and appeared at only one World Cup, in America in 1994, where he was probably his teams most consistent player. That squad had the potential to win a tournament lacking a truly great team. It had the strong spine needed to win a World Cup, with Ruggeri playing in his third World Cup at the centre of defence, Redondo running things in front of him, a seemingly rejuvenated Maradona prompting the forwards, who were the legendary Gabriel Batistuta and Claudio Caniggia. But Argentina, after a great start, were sent reeling by Maradona's expulsion on a doping charge, and were knocked out in the game of the tournament, 3-2, by Romania. This lack of World Cup exposure is most likely the reason that Redondo's recognition factor is not commensurate with his talent or stature within the game.
In Argentina, his importance is acknowledged. The emergence of a startlingly talented young defensive midfielder in the classic Argentine mould at Boca Juniors over the last few years saw the youngster accorded the Number 5 equivalent of the dreaded "New Maradona" title. Fernando Gago has been dubbed the New Redondo. As if that wasn't enough to live up to, in 2007 he moved to Real Madrid...