Sunday 14 September 2014

Munir vs. Neymar: 0-2

On Saturday afternoon, FC Barcelona was playing Athletic de Bilbao – always an interesting confrontation. As I wanted to see Barça with Neymar and Vermaelen before October 24 – when Luis Suárez will return from suspension and Barça can safely stop pretending still being més que un club – I checked the ticket prices. Cheapest ticket 70 euros, so I watched it on my terrace instead. Neymar was on the bench and Vermaelen not even in the squad, so, initially, it seemed for the better.

Neymar’s position in the starting line-up was taken by Spanish-Moroccan youngster Munir El Haddadi. The two Spanish commentators were lyrical about Munir, FCB’s new 19-year-old sensation. They both were unanimous at the start of the game that as the season progressed, Neymar would probably retake his position in the starting line-up – as Barça had paid a lot of money for him – but, implicitly, that in fact this Munir is a better quality player. When, in the 63rd minute, he was brought off for Neymar, they concluded Munir had been involved in every Barça attack and you could sense that they felt Neymar was only brought on to satisfy those people who had paid 70 euros or more to see a star team.

Source: fcbarcelona.com

After having been on the field for 15 minutes and when most people had already come to terms with a goalless draw, Neymar signed for the first moment of real excitement in the game by opening the score. The most striking element of the goal for the commentators was the apparent moment of hesitation in his finish, in spite of which he managed to score the goal. Five minutes later, Neymar would score the 2-0 – after another hesitation – and game over.

Indeed, it is not without meaning that Neymar had hesitated slightly when finishing on both occasions. Other than 99% of forwards, not only can Neymar keep his nerve when presented with a goal-scoring opportunity, but also does he know how to make the most of this trait. The split second he holds out, as compared to any other forward, enables him to read where the goalkeeper is moving to, to spot the empty space and to deposit the ball exactly there. The commentators had been most accurate in their observation: hesitation. If you watch his penalty goals at the World Cup, against Croatia and against Chile – arguably, the most potentially stressful penalty taken during the entire tournament – you can also spot the hesitation. Other forwards typically don’t hesitate, they generally just miss.

Munir had had a great opportunity to open the score when Jordi Alba and he showed up in front of Athletic’s goalkeeper. Munir got the ball and finished, but was – just – offside. The number-one rule for the free man when you are two advancing towards the goalkeeper is to stay behind the ball – if Munir had, it as surely would have been a goal. Is Munir a talent? A huge one. Is he better than Neymar? Not now, not ever.

Source: nacion.com

The episode resonates with a recent experience I had related to the last game I attended so far this season in the Belgian league, KV Mechelen vs. KV Kortrijk. After the game, I read a journalist's commentary, dedicated to KV Mechelen’s substitute Van Tricht, who was brought on just before half-time. The journalist described him as the future of the club and the only sign of light on my team’s side that day. At the start of his article, he mentioned that when Van Tricht was brought on, he had instantaneously decided to focus on him for the remainder of the game.

Had I not been in the stadium myself, I may well have taken this journalist’s assessment for true. As I had been, however, I knew that we had been 1-0 ahead when Van Tricht came on and ended up losing the game 1-2 – the only of four home games thus far we did not win – and that the coach had tactically erred by bringing on Van Tricht. What we needed was a powerful defensive midfielder to consolidate the lead, a type of player Van Tricht is not. Van Tricht is a physical lightweight with a light touch and good bouncing skills – most useful skills under most circumstances, but not the ones needed when defending a 1-0 advantage against a heavy-duty physical side such as Kortrijk. The much more sturdy, over-my-dead-body-mentality De Witte would have been the more obvious choice. Coach Jankovic tried to rectify his tactical mistake at half-time, but the system was already out of balance.

The take-away is not at all that either Munir or Van Tricht would be overrated youngsters who lack talent. It is rather very close to St. Thomas’s credo: “First I see, then I believe”. In order to judge those or any player, see for yourself – only then believe. If you rely on the so-called expert observers, you may well be taken in by their pre-conceptions and even their mood of the day. They will want to appear consistent – with their earlier statements or even their random choice of what player to focus on. Relying on their judgement may well get you on top of the day’s fads, but possibly farther away from the truth. If you’re selling newspapers, a fad may well sell better than the truth. But if you’re building a team, ask yourself what’s more important to you: selling jerseys or winning games.