Ricky van Wolfswinkel is the latest in a long line of occasionally distinguished footballers to have been given a vote of no confidence amongst certain sections of the Norwich City support.
Understandable. One goal, a host of missed chances and the inclination, amongst some, that both his performances and, of late, his overall demeanor, strongly suggest that he has struggled to adjust to life in English football since his much celebrated move to Norwich City in the summer.
Note I haven’t used the phrase ‘step up’ with regard to the Premier League and his arrival in said behemoth with us, because I dislike the reference with a passion.
‘Step up’? Isn’t that just a little bit patronising? A non-too subtle phrase intended to reinforce the fact of just how superior the Premier League is perceived to be in comparison to all of those other’ Johnny Foreigner’ leagues dotted around Europe. In Ricky’s case this refers to both the Portuguese Liga and, prior to that, the Dutch Eredivisie; Ricky’s clubs having been Sporting Lisbon and Utrecht respectively.
The Premier League is many things, a great deal of which I don’t like. Never have, never will. Its insufferable greed; its near disregard and contempt for the FA Cup and the England international team, and the way it constantly hypes itself up as the best, the biggest, the most exciting and popular league on the planet. All of those things and more. Indeed, it’s probable that the Premier League could, if it wanted, cure all known ills and facilitate world peace. Yes, apparently it’s THAT good.
Biggest, best, most exciting. Yadda yadda yadda. It’s for all those reasons and more that Ricky has been found wanting and deemed guilty. Not up to it. Waste of money. Not good enough. The list of accusations goes on and on.
Clearly the Premier League has also spawned the greatest number of football experts in the world – but are they also the best? Biggest doesn’t always mean the best after all. And I don’t believe the Premier League is the ‘best’ league in world football. Yes, it’s amongst the wealthiest. Yes, some of its games are exciting. And yes, the atmosphere generated by the fans at some of the grounds are special – really special in fact. Spine tingling, hairs standing up on the back of your neck type of stuff.
“Spine tingling, hairs standing up on the back of your neck stuff” in the same way a home game at the Mestalla is? Or the Westfalenstadion? The De Kuip perhaps? The Stade Velodrome? Or the Turk Telecom Arena; the recently opened new home of Galatasaray in Turkey which was recently credited as being the source of the loudest roar to be ever heard at a football ground of 131.76 decibels.
Yep, the loudest crowd noise at a football stadium ever recorded. At a ground whose capacity is around 25,000 less than Old Trafford. Of course, if a packed crowd at Old Trafford could, somehow, be coordinated to simultaneously remove the lids from their Cappuccino’s at the same time then they might come somewhere close to matching it. Perhaps they could give it a try?
Indeed, as far as crowd atmosphere and decent grounds visited to get a taste of same is concerned in this country, I reckon you need to step back from the Premier League and give places like Bramall Lane a visit, that place shakes when it’s packed out. Similarly Fratton Park; an old school football ground and stadium that’s up there with the very best in terms of matchday atmosphere. You don’t get what you get at the Arsenal at those places.
Back to the subject in hand and our Mr van Wolfswinkel.
He has struggled this season. I can’t deny that. But what I will argue is that it is not because he has, or is, finding the standard of football played in the Premier League “too high” for a player of his now perceived limited ability.
A total of 28 league goals in 55 games for Sporting Lisbon – a team that rubs shoulders with the likes of Benfica and FC Porto. And yes, that’s the FC Porto who reached the final of all the domestic European competitions at least once, including, on two occasions, the European Cup (1987) and Champions League (2004); winning both which included, a decade ago, seeing off Manchester United en-route. That’s two successes in Europe’s most prestigious football competition and I make that one more than Chelsea and two more than Arsenal and Manchester City have so far managed. Hardly representative of a league where players have to make a ‘step up’ if they move from it to the English Premier League.
It certainly isn’t this perceived ‘step up’ that has caused Ricky problems since he came here from Sporting. Far from it.
The accusation, for want of a better word, that I would choose to label him with at the moment is that he is, or seems to be, a little bit too much of a footballer at the moment to thrive in the blood and thunder that is the Premier League. The same sort of problem which, as far as our club is concerned, also seems to have befell Wes Hoolahan, David Fox and Andrew Surman.
Notice the connection between the latter three?
All have reputations, football wise, as being technically gifted players. Able to pick defensive locks with one compelling pass, individuals who are, well, individuals. Footballers who are not, and never will be, ‘off the shelf’ as far as our domestic league is concerned. Because, it seems, Premier League footballers need to be big, strong, fast and physical – ideally all four but if not a perm of any three from that quartet.
Yaya Toure, one of the best players in the league and the fulcrum from which much of Manchester City’s recent success has been built, has all of those assets in mighty abundance.
He is one of the reasons the Canaries invested so much money in Leroy Fer last summer. The intention there was for Fer to do for Norwich what Toure has done for Manchester City. He has all of those physical assets about him – the only thing is, unlike Toure, he is not the finished article as a footballer. He is still learning the game. You can be sure that, on the day he becomes even half the player and athlete that Toure already is, his name will be high on the shopping lists of many a big club – here and across Europe. He is the very blueprint of what a modern footballer is perceived to need to be.
I’ve never forgotten the phrase a former Norwich player mentioned to me whilst I was researching a book a couple of years ago. He’d cited the time when he was coming and growing into the game – the late-1980s/early-1990s – and that the mantra then was to find gifted young athletes and turn them into footballers. In other words, if the athletic ability, natural fitness and movement was there, it could be used as a foundation for a football player. The modern game, he mused, seems to focus on the opposite – if a player shows some ability as a footballer when he is young then that is taken as a basis from which clubs can build up and develop athletes, following that Toure model – big, strong, fast, physical specimens who can run, chase and harry for 90 minutes without building up a sweat. If a little bit of the football is lost along the way then that’s a small but unfortunate price to pay.
Wes, like Andrew Surman and David Fox, is a footballer – a footballer in the sense the skills and techniques required for the game per se exist in abundance. But you are never going to see any of them outrun an opponent, jostle them off the ball or come off the better after a 50/50 tackle. Indeed, the thought of Wes going into a 50/50 tackle with Yaya Toure makes me wince. Would there be anything of him left?
Needless to say, if Wes Hoolahan had all of those footballing qualities which we hold so dear of him – the trickery, the technique, the jinks, prods, clips and caresses, all combined with the build and stamina of a Toure, well , he’d probably be one of the best players in the world right now.
Rather than a magician in exile.
To a certain extent, Messrs Surman and Fox have suffered from the same condition (i.e. they have a little bit too much football in them). Both are measured midfielders; players who, given a little time and space, can dictate the flow and pace of a game; become its conduit in the same easy manner that Ian Crook was for us in the 1990s. Yet time and space have disappeared from the English game to be supplanted and replaced by pace – of body, ball and thought.
Pace is one third of the sum of English football’s parts at the moment; a member of those three horsemen of the footballing apocalypse who are thundering, unchecked, across Premier League skies at the moment – pace, power and physique.
None of which are assets that the aforementioned ‘gang of three’ possess in abundance, something which should perhaps, in a pure footballing sense, be celebrated rather than held as accusations to be laid against them.
For every call to return Wes to the side, there are two that say he cannot be considered because he gets knocked off the ball too easily; that his influence on a game when up against strong, imposing opponents is negligible. That he can only be accommodated in game if the line-up is built around him. What a tragedy for the game if special players – gifted and talented in ways that are not based in physique and raw power – have to be left out because the way football, as far as the Premier League seems to be concerned, has devolved in the last two decades.
I certainly think that Wes, had he been available for Dave Stringer to pick in the 1988/89 season would have been a leading light and a regular performer for both club and country. Look at some of the leading performers throughout the then First Division that season. Players like Nigel Clough, Chris Waddle, Matt Le Tissier, Gordon Cowans, Paul Merson, Peter Beardsley, and, coming to the end of his career, but still the heart and soul of the West Ham midfield, Liam Brady. I wonder how much the managers of today would indulge them now as they were back then?
The chief accusation held against Ricky of course, is that he has not made that ‘step up’ from the Portuguese Liga to the Premier League. I don’t agree. In fact, in some ways, I think he has taken a retrograde step, football wise, and has been struggling with a step down to what he is used to.
He has, after all, come from a league that is renowned for being dominated by players with the ability for the unpredictable; flair and technique preferred by teams, managers and fans to the triple Premier League gods of pace, power and physique. Sporting’s first-team squad for the 2012/13 season included, as well as Ricky, footballers weaned on a diet of flair and technique alone. This included eleven players from Portugal, three from Argentina, two each from Spain and Holland, plus one from Brazil, Peru, Guinea-Bissau, Morocco and England.
The Englishman was one Eric Dier; a 20 year old defender, capped by England 16 times from U-18 to U-21 level. His only experience of English football took place three years ago when he was sent on loan to Everton. Needless to say, Dier had been so well schooled in the finer arts of football and defensive play by then that Everton took one swift look and almost immediately returned him to Portugal, fearful that his tendency to want to play with the ball at his feet rather than kick it from one end of the ground to another had irrevocably contaminated him forever.
Their loss. Dier is now a regular in the Sporting Lisbon team; a player who, I suspect, will now never return to his country of birth to play regularly.
Eric Dier and Ricky Van Wolfswinkel both, in their own modest way, illustrate just how the Premier League stands out from its domestic rivals across Europe. Not because it is, despite what Sky Sports would have you believe, the biggest, the best, or the most exciting. But because of its footballing differences.
These are best illustrated in the case of Dani Osvaldo.
Osvaldo became one of Southampton’s biggest ever signings in the summer; brought to the club from Serie A side Roma for around £13million, he was a free scoring striker with a growing reputation. So much so in fact that Saints acquisition of him was regarded as a bit of a footballing coup and a sign of the ambition within the club as well as the obscene riches available to even the most modest of Premier League clubs.
A free scoring striker playing with leading continental team. Record fee. Great excitement all round. Remind you of anyone?
After a promising start to his time at St Mary’s, Osvaldo’s form and confidence began to fade to the point of frustration; his career seemingly to have stalled, something which perhaps inevitably came to the fore after he became involved in a touchline scrap in a game against Newcastle. This was followed by a training ground punch-up with a teammate. The latter of course happens at every English club somewhere almost every day but it was enough of an excuse for Southampton to cut their losses and offload their misfiring striker.
Yet the signs had long been there. Before either of those two instances had occurred, Osvaldo had admitted, in an interview with Sky Sports, as to how difficult he was finding it to adjust to the Premier League and English game in general, saying, “I am getting adapted to English football. It is very different to Italian and Spanish. In England, football is much more physical than Italian and Spanish, and it is played with an impressive rhythm despite the fact it’s less technical than in Spain.”
Juventus needed little persuasion to free Osvaldo from his “Southampton hell” (copyright: Daily Mail) and will happily pay the Saints around £15.5million to make an initial loan deal permanent by May.
Proven goal scorer, great pedigree, big reputation and, amongst others, more than good enough to get among the goals for the likes of Espanyol, Fiorentina and Roma. Yet stick him in the mad, frenetic, up and at ‘em world of English football and the Premier League and he wants to go home.
Is that going to happen with Ricky?
Osvaldo and Van Wolfswinkel. Two recent examples of big name players who have garnished themselves a great footballing reputation across Europe but who have, upon looking to ply their trade in the Premier League, been seen to struggle to adapt. I
Is that a sign of their perceived deficiencies as a player? Or that of our domestic game?
It hasn’t stopped the very best of overseas talent from thriving in the English game of course – but as much as we all know and accept the undoubted class of players like David Silva, Sergio Agüero and Luis Suarez, the fact remains that, for every one of their like, there have been highly-priced and overhyped so-called ‘flops’ (despite the fact that their abilities as footballers is, in each case, unquestionable) in abundance. Juan Sebastian Veron, Kleberson and Alberto Aquilani anyone?
Legends or let-downs. Which one will we regard Ricky van Wolfswinkel as part of in, say, five years’ time? And, as I said earlier, if it’s the latter is that fair on him? Or a statement about the English game?