Where has all the talent gone? It is a question that always arises when fans of different generations come together.
Obviously, unreliable memory must play a part along with any element of truth but I think there could be a few things at play here amongst those that say skill and imagination has been sacrificed for power, pace and athleticism.
Firstly, let me just say, I have no doubt that football has never been better in quality as an aggregate of all the players playing the game. There may be less individual stars over all (and I don’t agree with that analysis) but there are certainly less make-weights in teams and even at the lowest level players are athletic, fit, professional and well coached as a rule.
Secondly, football is also a team game above all else now. And that has effected how the game looks to spectators. Games are won in transitions and forced errors now rather than through domination in possession, as a rule. Dribbling in possession – as entertainment – isn’t an end in itself anymore (consider the transition of Ronaldo from showman to deadly assassin) and players ability to defend space out of possession makes it a far more tactical rather than technical game. But I wouldn’t agree that is less entertaining. It is just different.
If your tastes are nostalgic then there are less stand-out defenders of the continental/Italian mould for the simple reason that they are largely out of fashion in a Serie A – a league that is increasingly attack-minded thanks to Cesare Prandelli and others – and elsewhere too. In England the old style blood and thunder defending is dead too because more is required than just being a stopper like a Carragher, Terry or Campbell. Also, there are less goals being scored and conceded from set-pieces as teams are better organised and less easily bullied. Only in South America, where refereeing standards are ‘different’ do you see old fashioned brutality prevail.
Where I would agree with the Against Modern Football brigade is that we are not producing street footballers anymore and haven’t for some time. This is for a whole host of cultural, socio-economic and structural reasons. And organised football (the academy system) can’t fill that void in terms of personality players, boys that are exceptionally confident and brave in possession. Robotic coaching is a problem. But so too is the attrition rates amongst the too large quotas of players that populate the academy system in the first place. It is a ‘stack them high and watch how they fare’ model that works on a churn of numbers rather than a commitment to stick with and develop what is signed.
The Playstation generation
There is also another unpalatable fact to consider. That is that youngsters today are simply softer and more fearful than earlier generations but they are also smarter and healthier. Football can’t be blamed for that. It is simply the way of the world for The Playstation Generation in developed Western economies.
In terms of Ronaldo and Messi, I suspect we are under-estimating just how good they really are. Their statistical exploits and the fact they are so out on their own suggest that they are a phenomenon that is unexplainable in terms of context. To all intents and purposes they are players from another galaxy. They set the standard for everyone else now and I expect they will do so for a long time into the future. Their evidence is inadmissible as it sits so far outside the mean as a classic outlier. There’s another issue with these two La Liga superstars. They create an over-abundance of expectation relative to everything else in current day football. But that is the only unwelcome impact of their wonderful contribution to the game we all know and love.
Then there is the fact also that memory plays tricks. The past is a foreign country and in football terms it is seldom a better one. Despite what nostalgia says. Are we harking back to a better version of football? Or are we merely nostalgic for that better version of ourselves that experienced it all first time around?
So, let’s compare Holland v Argentina 1974:
With, the comparable, Spain v Italy: UEFA EURO 2012 Final:
No question, I certainly prefer the pace, composure and overall spectacle of the current day vintage. Remove both games’ context, their role in the game’s history and it is hard to make a football case for the Total Football of 1974 over the best football of the Champions League era in the recent past. The proof as they say, is in the eating – as opposed to the reminiscing.