Have flair players always been undervalued?
When compared to the grafters, the midfielders who put in a shift at both ends of the pitch.
When in contrast to the strikers, the goal-getters, the ones who change a scoreline.
When in parallel to the defenders, those who resist in the face of opposition.
Have the players who really make a difference in tight games always been under-prioritised by those in charge?
Let’s go back a little.
Peter Marinello – the Scottish George Best, or so tagged by the media. A record move to Arsenal to the tune of £100k. He made an instant splash by scoring on his debut and also contributing to our run to the Fair Cup Final in 1970. However, MArinello was left out of the final matchday squad and a combination of a knee injury and a fondness of the glitz and glamour combined to take the focus away from football. However, when fit, Marinello could change a game with a swish of his boot. He lasted a little over three years at the club – despite the massive fanfare at the start and his own undoubtable talent.
Jon Sammels – Those that saw him could attest to the fact that the midfielder had a passing range that would eclipse many in the modern game. He was a pivotal part in our Fairs Cup triumph and made more than 200 appearances for the club. That number was stretched out over eight years though. Sammels was often derided by not only the fans at times – but he had to win over his managers Billy Wright and Bertie Mee to get into the team at regular intervals. Not known for his physicality, Sammels would sculpt games with his distribution and shooting range.
Charlie Nicholas – The Scot will forever remain in our hearts for his League Cup heroics in 1987. Lifting that cup is attributed by many to have been the birth of George Graham’s golden era, and the precursor to the Miracle at Anfield in 89 – and the Almost Invincibles of 1991. Yet Charlie struggled with being played out of position and couldn’t find the consistency, despite the brightest of flashes intermittently. When George Graham rejoined the club as manager in 1986, it signalled the end for Charlie, despite his league cup heroics the later year. Nicholas was quickly deemed surplus to requirements.
Anders Limpar – The Swede was the difference-maker for Arsenal in 1991. All too often, those tiny feet of his led defenders on a merry dance and he bewitched opponents with his dazzling footwork. Again though, George Graham was at odds with Limpar – and according to teammates at the time, the Swede was called out all too often for a perceived lack of effort in training. This led to the slow crumbling of Limpar’s time at Arsenal, ended with a transfer to Everton in 1994, just three years after joining Arsenal so explosively.
It isn’t just wide players with a penchant for the extravagant that were kicked to the kerb in favour of more industrial alternatives.
Bobbi Pires is a bona fide Arsenal icon. Part of the triumphant teams of 02 and 04, the Frenchman is anything but surplus. Yet in our Champions League Final loss to Barcelona, it was Pires who was sacrificed after Jens Lehmann was sent off, in order to bring Almunia on. It wasn’t a full-back. It wasn’t a striker – it was a wideman, a flair player.
The players above – bar Pires – all had their own afflictions. Drink, glamour, even sheer laziness. Some perhaps thought talent alone would get them where they want to be but this wasn’t the case. However, when it came to changing the outcome of a game, these geniuses with the ball were the best equipped.
What I’m trying to illustrate is that this ability that is all too unique, is all too often cast into the shadows by gaffers, in favour of other roles. It is the one that is deemed the runt of the litter in terms of importance.
The decision to bring off Pires when down to ten men makes sense in plenty of ways. We needed the numbers in defence, we also still needed to maintain some semblance of attack – but retaining the ability to create something from nothing was omitted.
It is this magic-like skill that fans adore, but is not at the top of the list for managers when it comes to attributes. It now needs to come hand in hand with workrate, physicality. Look at Bukayo Saka. The kid has muscles where there shouldn’t be, he covers more ground than the majority and he also defends like his life depends on it. It is the reason why his meteoric rise has been so rapid.
But spare a thought for the flawed geniuses. The ones who carried the magic in their boots, the ones who carried fans hopes with them on their shoulders. The sight of them trudging the touchline was always an uplifting one. We may not have always got the best out of them – but WE prioritised their skills more than anything else.
They were top of the tree for fans.