Tackling (not) the problem
I’d wanted to write something about how Andros Townsend runs like Glen Little on springs, or how Lee Martin gets pastier and less effective on the ball the lower down the divisions he drops, or how Marouane Chamakh confirmed at least three of my previously-formed conceptions about him. Three matches watched over the weekend, three (no, scrap the Martin one) essays in the offing.
Another time. In the event, two players remain seared in mind from the past week, neither bearing the slightest resemblance to the above. Emmanuel Frimpong and Luke Hyam are both 18, and both five foot ten. Neither crosses the halfway line very often, neither cares much for running the show. One is, as it goes, among the most sought-after players of dual eligibility in international football. Both appear to have been handed down copies of a key to a dying art.
I spent some time with Frimpong last Wednesday afternoon, for an interview that’s published this Thursday. He was snapped up with incredible speed by Arsenal’s Academy just a year or so after he’d moved to London from Accra at the age of nine. There he met Jack Wilshere, just nine days his senior; the two hit it off, they played together in midfield, they fair tore up most of youth football’s mere mortals. Eight years later they won the FA Youth Cup together; they then went their separate ways for a season or so as Wilshere, several records already broken, came into work through the first-team entrance every day before playing regularly at Bolton. This pre-season the axis returned, Wilshere playing slightly ahead of Frimpong in a deep midfield one-two. As Clarence Seedorf and friends would discover on the last day of July, it was like they’d never been apart.
Particularly singular about Frimpong, quite apart from a general candour that you hope experience won’t drum out of him, was the intensity and relish with which he outlined his role in this team, in any team. Tackling, he said, was what he loved doing the most – he lived for taking the ball off an opponent, it was what he craved more than anything, it was the one thing nagged at him if he hadn’t accomplished it enough during a game. For years he’d won the ball and swiftly passed it on for his mate Jack to, at times, light a game up single-handedly. Wilshere, always quick of tongue, would rib him afterwards; Frimpong doesn’t deny that this took some getting used to but would respond that own his talent, while understated, was mastered by all too few. The tackle, he told me with gaze fixed, was an art. Why would he want to play any other way?
Hyam is not yet being courted by two national associations, and in fact has disarmingly little of the footballer about him. He appears slight, cherubic, perhaps resembling a younger and marginally ruddier relative of Jon Stead, and went to a good school just 20 minutes’ walk from the house I grew up in. His task wasn’t an easy one against Burnley on Saturday. Ipswich used young, sometimes overenthusiastic full-backs in Jaime Peters and Shane O’Connor – and Hyam, sitting on his own behind breaking midfielders David Norris and Grant Leadbitter, resultantly covered most blades of grass in his half. The way he hurled himself into fair, accurate tackles proved as heartening as it was, to the naked eye, unexpected. Late on in the game, he lost out to Ross Wallace in one skirmish near his own corner flag but pursued the issue and, seconds later, recovered the situation with a challenge that was clean, perfect, crunching. He’d played 210 minutes’ football, his first ever of a competitive nature, in the previous week. If his tackling was crisp and frequent, his timing and positioning were also close to perfect, even if longer-range distribution sometimes went awry. But it was the image of that challenge on Wallace that lingered – it was the purity of the thing, and probably the rarity of it too.
The Ipswich kid might not be too much of a regular as the season develops and new players arrive. Frimpong almost certainly won’t be one either, although a loan move is not currently on the cards and he trains with the Gunners’ first-team squad. The holding position has become the plat du jour in recent times, whether carried out by one man or two, and is among the most tactically and physically demanding. It’s little wonder that youngsters are being tailored for it, but to me it still seems pretty noteworthy when they break through and appear to be mastering it – with significant exceptions it’s always seemed an older man’s position, one for the savvy, the positionally-circumspect and tactically astute, the Gilberto Silvas of our time. It’s a struggle to think of teenagers occupying this role to any effect in the Championship, let alone in rungs further up – in fact, I’d positively welcome recent examples that I’m missing.
And the tackling? Claude Makelele admitted to loving it too, while Gennaro Gattuso, Christian Poulsen and Javier Mascherano certainly aren’t shy, but genuine exponents at the highest level are few. Plenty of younger players, like Alex Song and Sergio Busquets, rely on anticipation and possession-keeping – along with a touch of upper body strength in the former’s case – ahead of sliding in to regain possession. As this position becomes mastered by the technicians, it’s easy to see why people fear for the humble ball-winning challenge. As Frimpong explained to me, many attempt it but few master it. It takes a certain character to be devoted towards doing so at such a young age, requires at least some form of genuine groundedness. Fortunately, the very beauty of this deep role might be that it can be approached in so many different ways.
If Frimpong and Hyam’s skills are, as the Arsenal player says, not the most media and fan-friendly, that’s no bad thing. Rather go about your job with efficiency, in a position that’s growing in kudos by the season, than be the unfortunate young attacker who’s blacklisted by impatient supporters after not scoring in his first five games.
Does Steve Claridge still do his scouting report in the Times, inbetween helping researchers feed Manish Bhasin names of lower-league wingers to toe-curlingly parrot in his links every Saturday witching hour? He’d do worse than check out Hyam before he’s taken out of sight for a while, as is inevitable. As for Frimpong, you’ll see soon enough – in a parallel universe, he almost certainly has a full international cap to his name right now. One kid from Accra, one from Ipswich: both doing things that you just don’t expect of the modern-day teenaged footballer, both reifying an art that may not quite be in its death throes.