Yesterday, while watching an entertaining collection of mostly off-the-ball incidents involving Danish former Everton and Real Madrid midfielder Thomas Gravesen, I began to consider the importance of controlled aggression in football. It became clear to me that Gravesen, in his both his physical and ‘banteresque’ exchanges with other players, was involved in a strategy of shadow throwing and exaggeration that one is more familiar with in wrestling or pantomime than in modern football. That evening, the Netherlands struggled against Germany, but failed to reach the violent nadir of their performances in World Cup 2010 – especially the final when the inarguably talented but weirdly boring Spain team ground out a win in a game reminiscent of some Christians trying to play keepie-uppie against a team of extremely hungry and irate lions with a penchant for self-loathing.One persuasive narrative to emerge from that night: the Netherlands were seen as anti-footballing villains while Spain were conquering heroes.
There’s little doubt that a rare strain of ultraviolence was embodied by that Holland team, but was that final really the night when, symbolically at least, a non-contact, packed-midfield brand of tiki-taka football was crowned? And, if so, where does this leave the defensively-minded midfielder who’s motivated not only by a desire to turn defence into attack by breaking play up through tackling and distribution, but also – see Gravesen – to turn the course of a game through psychological jostling, cumulative pressure and, yes, the occasional physical attack?
The growing aestheticisation of football, fed by a speed-reading of Barcelona’s fluidity crossed with fantasies of a Harlem Globetrotters-like touch of anti-gravity showiness (Krusty the Klown: ‘they were using a freaking ladder for gods’ sakes’) has perhaps blinded many to the successes of teams more fundamentally grounded in supposedly traditional footballing strategy: put a big lad up front, get it out to the wings and kick anyone who goes towards your goal. For some reason, Real Madrid and Stoke City spring to mind. Barçelona’s efforts to experiment with these ‘sorts of players’ haven’t been hugely successful: Ibrahimovic was a notable failure while Mascherano came in an aggressive, hard-tackling midfield mentalcase but is now someone who slots into defence when one or other of the favoured centre-backs is crocked. The logic of Barça under Guardiola dictated that the target man and the hard-man defensive midfielder must be tamed and domesticated in order to play within the system.
Where’s a defensively-minded midfielder (with a penchant for controlled aggression) to go, though? Strange that such a player, who offers a bulwark for defence, a certain kind of gonzo leadership and, at his best, a hub from which the spokes of successful counterattacking play can project, now finds himself unfashionable and unloved. But, then again, these players are always the least praised, and frequently demonised for their excesses: Roy Keane for his career-ending tackle on Alf-Inge Haaland, Gennaro Gattuso for his headbutt on Joe Jordan – Lee Cattermole for, well, practically everything he does whenever he gets on the pitch. (And then there’s obviously Van Bommel, whose reputation precedes him to the degree that when he fails to hack someone down, he resembles Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner, nervously picking around the laboratory in fear of turning into the enormous green anger monster.) To jump away from strictly defensive midfield for a moment, such vilification puts one in mind of another midfielder, though admittedly in a different galaxy from everyone else – both in terms of the quality of the player and the near-operatic tragedy of the excessive event – Zinédine Zidane’s ‘chestbutt’ on Marco Matterrazi in the 2006 World Cup final.
One of the disappointments of Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parenno’s Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait was its relative silence – Zinédine barely spoke apart from (according to my recollection) telling the ref to go fuck himself at one point. If that film presents the art of midfielding as one of quiet contemplation occasionally punctuated by success, failure and inexplicable violence, the Youtube footage of Gravesen (mostly from his time with Real Madrid and set to broad parpy comedy music) shows the industry with which one goes about creating the sort of legend that leads others – both on and off the field – to refer to a footballer as ‘that psycho’.
Posted by Karl Whitney