Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Dangerous Myth and Sad Reality of the “True No. 10”

Probably a Better 10 than Mehdi Ballouchy
First off, let me say I’m as honored to be a contributor to The Viper's Nest as you all must be to read the marginally-informed, semi-passionate, often tongue-in-cheek and mostly snarky commentary I will endeavor to provide.

For my first post I decided to tackle the popular issue of the need for a “true #10” aka “CAM” aka “savior.”

I, perhaps stubbornly, have long refused to believe any group of skilled, professional soccer players - especially the veterans that the Red Bulls have - are completely incapable of providing an attacking spark when needed. Yet, year after year, the evidence on the field suggests the opposite.

It’s important to make a distinction between “exceptional skill” and “competence” in this discussion. The first is a luxury that the Red Bulls may not have in the foreseeable future. The second is a pretty low bar that may be all the team actually needs - but the Red Bulls appear incapable of clearing that bar.

Teemu Tainio was never meant to be an attacking force, but he appears incapable of setting up strikers.  Dax McCarty brings more a more offensive mindset to the position, but can’t somehow make a decent pass after crossing midfield. Mehdi Ballouchy? Well...

Call me overly optimistic, but those who have played the game their entire lives and as professionals for 5+ years, should be able to collectively make a few leading passes and put a shot or two on goal each game. Henry is clearly trying to lead by example here, to the possible detriment of his own productivity.

Are the players so conscious of nominal field positions and jersey numbers that they’re prevented from playing a more attacking role? Wow. Henry’s really open,but I’m a central defender. No way I can make that pass. Better just play it back. Perhaps stitching a tiny “10” on everyone’s jersey would do the trick. This isn’t an American League pitcher being asked to bat cleanup. It’s players doing the exact same thing they are doing all game, just 20 yards further downfield.

But this is where we stand. After years of resistance, I concede. We definitely need an offensive playmaker that would, traditionally, be a #10.  However, I still believe Red Bulls fans remain overly fixated on the idea that bringing in a superstar (or a semi-star, e.g. Stephen Ireland) #10 will save us. Why? For a couple of reasons.

1—Soccer is the Ultimate Team Game In no sport is it as difficult for an individual to impose his will and take over a game than soccer. Sure, you can point to a Messi or a Cristiano Ronaldo but you might consider the 10 world-class guys surrounding them. Unfortunately, that ain’t RBNY. We’ve seen stars like Marquez, Henry and Angel frustrated by teammates' lack of skill in making/receiving a pass, field positioning, etc. There’s a whole lot of play required to get a CAM integrated into the game—much of it coming from Roy Miller (Eek!). Will giving Henry a competent counterpart #10 make all the difference, or will it just double Red Bulls’ EPG (eyerolls per game)?

2—Players Trump Position Remember when Rafa Marquez was going to be the savior due to his exceptional skill in distributing the ball out of the back, or as a stopper in front of the back line? To be fair to Marquez (probably the last time I’ll ever write that) he actually accomplished this for a little while. If he had actually been able to do so consistently, we wouldn’t be having a conversation about the need for a #10 because the distribution would be coming from somewhere. I’m not talking about Total Football, I’m talking about the expected/required level of competence from a professional starting XI to execute.

So, please, bring in a Riquelme, an Ireland or even a Ballack. Greater skill at the position - like in ALL positions - would be welcome. But don’t buy into the myth that teams can’t/shouldn’t score and win games without a “true #10,” and that bringing that player in will be immediately transformative. To do so is to excuse lackluster performance across the board and to set up a whole new level of disappointment.
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