Vincent Kompany, Manchester City (vs Barcelona, 18th February 2014)
Vincent Kompany, Manchester City (vs Barcelona, 18th February 2014)
Nemanja Vidić, Manchester United (vs Barcelona, 28th May 2011)
Zlatan Ibrahimović, FC Barcelona (vs Sevilla, 17th January 2010)
Ah Jens. ‘Mad Jens’. Where to start with you?
Well maybe it’s best to begin by stating that our second inductee into The Gold Club is unquestionably a more left-field choice than debut entrant and certified Premier League legend Ryan Giggs. Lehmann can not hope to compete with Giggs’ in terms of domestic longevity nor trophy haul. His name will not be sung high and low through Welsh valleys nor, for that matter, through the lederhosed hinterlands of his native Deutschland. He doesn’t have a ‘that moment’ on par with Giggs’ marauding run through the Arsenal backline, in fact when attempting to conjure to mind an equivalent for Lehmann you are more than likely left with a montage of the German aggressively wagging his gloved finger in an opposition striker’s face or screaming in protestation at a decision gone against him. The closest thing the keeper has to a tangible ‘moment’ is the farcical confrontation with Didier Drogba embedded below.
And yet his name too will be written indelibly into Premier League folklore. Perhaps not front and centre as will be the case with Giggs, but scrawled in messy biro on the outer margins of the page. Not neat or conventional but deserving of a place all the same.
Why you ask? Well he was an Invincible for one; one of Arsene Wenger’s heroic league-romping squad who went the entire 38 unbeaten in 2003-2004. Then again so was Pascal Cygan and it’ll be a cold day in hell before he forces his way through The Gold Club’s rigorous screening process and into our hearts and minds.
Well, then there’s the fact he was a damn fine keeper too, a fact his controversial reputation sometime serves to obfuscate. His fiery disposition together with a reputation for baiting opposition players and making inadvisable, gung-ho charges from his goal line at the first hint of the ball entering Arsenal’s half (an admittedly hilarious weakness) leads many to overlook the German’s quality; at his most awe-inspiring he was among the best in the world.
Really, you ask, sort of rudely now. Well let’s break it down. His size and aforementioned (over) eagerness to rush from his goal made for an opposing and intimidating presence should a pacey striker chance to slip in behind the Arsenal rearguard. Yes, this propensity to dash from his goal line did cost him on the greatest stage of them all – a early red card in the Champions League Final against Barcelona not only terminally crippled his side’s chances but cruelly ended Robert Pires’ Arsenal career as the Frenchman was substituted eighteen minutes into his self-confirmed last match, a game his entire family had traveled the bereted vineyards of Francais to watch.
However, the keeper’s admitted rashness, here and in other instances, was an accepted risk of the attacking full-back system Wenger employed. More often than not Lehmann’s quick reactions would immediately extinguish an opponent’s attack or, even better, disperse the ball immediately back into opposition territory. A similar sort of system was employed by Spurs and Hugo Lloris under AVB this season although Lehmann was less of a ‘sweeper keeper’ and more of a steaming locomotive hellbent on retrieving the ball at all costs.
The German also called upon a biscuit-tin pilfering reach to pluck crosses from the sky, a cannon-like throw to find distant teammates always looking to break and seemed able to defy the laws of physics to save shots that had looked predestined to nestle into the back of his net. Throughout these moments Mad Jens would simultaneously be throwing a barrage of insults at the referee for not spotting supposed infringements (of which he, of course, claimed to be the victim) occurring on a constant basis in and around his six-yard box. ‘I’ve done my job. Now you do yours’, the goalkeeper seemed to be constantly telling the referee.
But the ref only got half the German’s thunder as he marshaled Arsenal’s defenders in a way that can only be described as Schmeichelesque; commanding, rebuking and outright bullying teammates into doing his bidding at times. Given Arsenal’s more recent problems it’s hard not to feel they’d benefit from a more Lehmannic presence lurking behind their backline; an angry voice spreading through the team’s ranks like a forest fire, gaining in momentum and ferocity as the game wears on. Undoubtedly talented as Wojciech Szczęsny is (and arguably a better handler of the ball than the German), he cuts more of a jovial presence in The Gunner’s goal, an impression Lehmann actively avoided. You’d be hard-pressed, for instance, to imagine Mad Jens taking a self-satisfied ‘selfie’ after a shaky North London derby win or allowing the complacency that occasionally creeps into the Pole’s game to creep into his own; in fact, Wenger’s later occasional preference for Manuel Almunia in goal ensured complacency simply couldn’t become an issue for Lehmann.
There’s also a sense that Szczęsny, like his team, has folded during the big games whereas Jens came emphatically alive one way or another during them. He had the uncanny ability to utilize all the aforementioned skills just when Arsenal needed it most; a crucial penalty save against Villarreal in a Champions League semi-final here, a full-face block from a scorching Ronaldo volley there (advancing the parameters of what we understood to be goalkeeping, via his face). The supernatural, man-of-the-match performance against Manchester United in a FA Cup final his team deserved to lose but Jens stubbornly insisted upon winning perhaps typifies this best.
However, he also had a nasty habit of spectacularly imploding in those same games. Big mistakes against Tottenham and Chelsea in his first season in England, the aforementioned red against Barcelona; the German never hid from the important matches but all-too-often made game-changing errors through instinct-based decisions.
The problem was all of his skills lacked a key essential ingredient; consistency. Throughout his career Lehmann rode sensational peaks and suffered embarrassing troughs. His mistakes were never a result of complacency – Lehmann’s self-confidence was always twinned with an iron-willed application – they seemed instead to be ingrained within his genetics. The player’s form shifted with his mood and the same qualities that led him to pull off remarkable saves were intrinsically linked to the weaknesses that led to a number of high profile errors.
Wenger’s decision to test Almunia in his place may seem bizarre in retrospect, (Almunia at times made errors seem an artform; the 2010-2011 season saw Almunia’s Salvador Dalí compete with Heurelho Gomes’ Vincent van Gogh for the title of worst goalkeeper in the Premiership; a title made all the more impressive considering the category also contained well-versed fumblers Scott Carson, Steve Harper and a fresh off the World Cup plane, Rob Green), but it seemed intended as a jolt to the system for Lehmann. Upon his return Jens excelled in key matches but mistakes still intermittently appeared throughout his game. Wenger’s plan seemed to misunderstand the German; he believed by dropping Jens the mistakes could be eradicated from his game, theorizing a shot to Lehmann’s confidence would make him train harder and become more focused. But the problems were never a matter of poor focus or under-training. The goalkeeper was unshakably confident, yes but it could be argued this skill is essential for a top-level keeper. The ability to not get rattled and to pick yourself up again post-blunder is vital and a generation of England goalkeepers attest to the fact that one high profile mistake can ruin a once-promising career. Lehmann was never rattled. When he was dropped his response was not to look inside himself, it was to look to exterior sources; Wenger’s incompetence, Almunia’s inferiority. Wenger’s dropping just made Lehmann resentful and angry at those around him.
What Wenger initially didn’t understand was that these mistakes were a byproduct of the same iron and fire that made Lehmann such an asset to his team. The same confidence that inspires his team mates around him, the same instincts that are responsible for countless stunning saves are the same traits that proved Lehmann’s downfall on a number of occasions. This “fire” is what distinguishes him from his contemporaries and earns him a place in The Gold Club; a temperamental impulse equally likely to lead to self-destruction as to a moment of magic. It can’t be bottled, it can’t be tamed but at its most potent it made Jens a magnetic, mesmeric presence. A ominous storm swiftly approaching over the hillside. Hurricane Jens.
Aside from his five years in the English top flight (in addition to a brief cameo in which he was parachuted in to cover Arsenal’s never-ending injury problems), Lehmann played the majority of his career in his native Germany intersected by a brief and unhappy spell in Italy. Over the next two weeks we’ll dig a little deeper into these spells and his international career to give a fully rounded picture of the German. We’ll also look more closely at his rivalry with Almunia and the many controversies that have blighted and characterized Mad Jens’ career.
After Manchester United’s 1-1 draw at home against Bayern Munich this past Tuesday, Arjen Robben publicly disparaged United’s defensive approach, likening it to a game of handball. While we at Grüber and Diceman do not claim to be an authority on handball (football but with hands, right? Right???), the implication seems to be that by adopting a defensive mindset from the off and playing on the counter, United were not adhering to the much-vaunted and yet frustratingly vague ‘spirit of the game’.
Certainly Robben is not the only person to make this point with a selection of fans and pundits voicing their disgust that any Manchester United team (‘that’s Busby’s United, Ferguson’s United’, these voices cry) would go into any game at home looking to negate their opponent rather than actively attack themselves. Nevermind United’s current much-publicized weaknesses, nor Bayern’s vintage team who less than a year ago dismantled a Barcelona side considered by many to be the greatest there’s ever been.
Big Sam vs The Hammers
Look southward and similar allegations have been put to Sam Allardyce’s bruising, hoof-centric West Ham United side this season (‘that’s Moore’s West Ham, Brooking’s West Ham, Joey Cole! Joey Cole!’, these cockney voices cry, blowing bubbles of molten vitriol in Big Sam’s general direction). After a turbulent Christmas period, Allardyce has turned The Hammer’s fortunes around and with six games to go they are all but safe thanks to six wins in nine games. And yet the dissenting voices remain infuriatingly vocal for the Premier League’s third longest serving manager (a statistic not as impressive as it sounds). These fans, not unfairly, cling to a romantic history; a reputation for playing football ‘the right way’ that endeared them to other teams and supporters. In this sense this (growing) minority believe Big Sam’s A to B, good-touch-for-a-big-guy, pie-and-mash pragmatism is slowly eroding away the clubs identity.
It’s an interesting way of looking at things and there are certainly fair points on either side of the argument. I, for one, while liking Big Sam, do emphasize with The Hammer’s faithful having, as a Liverpool fan, suffered through the brief, ignominious Hodgson-era; waking up to the newspaper headline ‘Liverpool not too big for relegation battle, says Roy Hodgson’ being a particular highlight of that period. Hodgson’s total misunderstanding of what Liverpool represented and the values it aimed to stand for necessitated an urgent change and there are slight (albeit severely lessened) similarities between this and The Hammer’s supporter’s stance on Allardyce but I digress.
Look back ten years ago to a time in which Allardyce had just taken Bolton Wanders to a League Cup final and an eighth place finish in the Premier League. Along with eventual-victor – the globetrotting pusshound Steve McClaren – Big Sam was considered a strong candidate for the soon-to-be-vacated position of England manager (and not in a faux ironic sense as with the hipster FA’s recent appointment of Hodgson). Sam’s football hasn’t changed, and, for the most part, its effectiveness hasn’t changed, but it’s no longer considered acceptable to play this long-ball game if your team has the means at its disposal to aim higher or a rosy history ardent fanbases are quick to throw in their managers’ faces (with the deadly accuracy of a pro handball player…right? That’s how it works right? They throw the ball …and their hands and…stuff).
The Long and Short of It
So what’s changed? Well obviously Guardiola’s Barcelona happened in tandem with Del Bosque’s Spain. Experiencing those two sides dominate a generation undoubtedly had a cascading effect as tiki-taka’s influence trickled down upon clubs and managers alike, causing mass inspiration and reevaluation. In this analogy Allardyce would be the angry cave troll, stubbornly sheltering himself from the beautiful Spanish waterfall, content that everything he needed to succeed in the game was right in front of him in this dark, lonely cavern. Nigel De Jong too, helped by giving the world a misleadingly clear picture of the two sides of the game; there was the beautiful and the thuggish with no middle ground. Spain’s way was the right way. Any other way was a kung-fu studding in the chest; otherwise known as the wrong way.
Closer to home, where once Sam’s particular brand of football was considered an ugly necessity to staying up in the Premier League, now a raft of fashionable, young managers (Martinez, Rodgers, Pochettino) have shown that not only can you stay up playing easy-on-the-eye football but you can also win things. Not important things; semi-important things like FA cups and respect. Although we still had time for ‘brave’ displays by ‘English lions’ against superior opposition (Chelsea vs Barca, Chelsea vs Bayern, England vs anyone), there was a general consensus that our top clubs should be aiming for better.
Of course, ‘good football’ has always been held in greater regard than negative tactics; Brian Clough’s classic soundbite ‘if God had wanted us to play football in the clouds, he’d have put grass up there’ has long echoed through English football’s corridors but it’s only in the last few years that English fans have gone from desiring a certain standard of football to outright expecting it. Merchants of long-ball tactics are still tolerated but are now sneered at, mocked and treated with general derision. Allardyce will never get near the England job again. Andy Gray’s assertion that ‘Messi would struggle on a wet and windy night in Stoke’ has been misappropriated and used as a stick to beat down anyone who posits a negative opinion against Barcelona’s style.
Meanwhile in the urban pottery jungle that is Stoke, Tony Pulis was quietly moved on after six years because of his inability to implement a more progressive style of football. The physical, aggressive approach of Pulis’ men, memorably described by Arsene Wenger as ‘rugby tactics’, although serving the primary purpose of keeping Stoke in the Premier League hadn’t won the club many admirers. Chairman Peter Coates decided the best way to win over the hearts of football fans around the country was to replace Pulis with the charmless, dead-eyes of Mark Hughes and instigate an altogether more attractive style of play from an admittedly talented squad and Trainspotting‘s Charlie Adam but I digress.
Bland of Football
What I resent in this narrative is the implication that all teams that play within ‘the spirit of the game’ deserve to win; that they are somehow morally justified in their pursuit of victory. Barcelona’s players have a habit of praising smaller teams for playing the correct way before picking said team apart and giving them a beating they won’t soon forget. Likewise David Moyes would have been foolish to attempt to play Bayern at their own game, even at Old Trafford, because the Bavarians have proven themselves the best in the world.
Human think-tank Malcolm Gladwell posits an eye-opening take on the age-old David vs Goliath story in which he asserts (and I’m not doing it justice here) that David wasn’t actually the underdog – he just played to his strengths and Goliath’s apparent weaknesses whilst not entirely adhering to the unspoken rules of combat. Many teams criticised for playing anti-football are just doing similar; of course if you’re playing superior opposition you don’t have to play by their rules. ‘The spirit of the game’ is too often used as an excuse when supposedly superior teams have been unable to break inferior opposition down. In a similar vein, Xavi’s boast that Barcelona dominated possession against Bayern in their 7-0 aggregate defeat was typical of this modern-day mistaken tendency to confuse ‘good football’ with constant, uninterrupted possession. So what if you got in a few more passes Xavi you slug-browed spelling mistake? Possession is not the yardstick by which good football is measured.
Case in point, Spain’s victorious Euro 2012 campaign marked by a mild media backlash; the questions were being asked that if this Spanish team were so amazing then where were the goals? A 1-1 draw with Italy, a 4-0 win over a hilariously inept Ireland side, followed by a drab 1-0 win over Croatia, a dull 2-0 win over France and a stale 0-0 penalty shootout victory over Portugal. None of which would be a problem if Spain hadn’t christened themselves proprietors of this elite brand of football. Effective? Undoubtedly. Deserving of praise? Definitely. But in terms of entertainment value it was even more underwhelming than France’s performance during their shock defeat to Croatia in the 2013 World Men’s Handball Championships…I assume.
Spain starved their opponents of the ball, watching them die a slow and painful death but we too the humble armchair viewers suffered a similarly painful death as we patiently followed the precise lateral passes waiting, praying for something, anything to happen. These opponents wern’t playing anti-football. They didn’t park the bus. Spain just sentenced them to death by possession rather than death by fifty goals as we as an audience would have preferred.
Compare this to Chelsea’s valiant 2-2 with Barcelona at the Camp Nou during their Champions League winning campaign. Chelsea began defensively and when universally adored nice-guy John Terry was sent off for snapping Alexi Sanchez’s spine in half, they ventured out of their half less often than Big Sam would from a cave situated beneath a gigantic, metaphorical, Spanish waterfall. And yet this remains one of the greatest games I’ve ever seen; Cecil B. DeMille would struggle to put on a show half as good as it. Barcelona pushed and probed and tested and teased and battered but Chelsea refused to break, until they did, in the last minute, with Fernando Torres in a square mile to himself. And Valdes waits. And Valdes comes. And Torres skips by. And Gary Neville makes a involuntary noise which is disgusting and yet perfect. And the ball nestles in the net…but I digress.
The point is that this belief in a black and white definition of good and bad football is false. While the ambition of smaller clubs to play progressive football is to be admired some of the best contests come about when two teams have entirely contrasting styles and to pit yourself directly against a team proven to be your better in every department is naive at best, careless at worst. Teams like West Ham, Pulis’ Crystal Palace and the artist formerly known as Stoke help bring variation to the Premier League, offering different propositions and challenges for teams week on week.
So here’s to Big Sam and Tony Pulis; The Pantomime Villains and Perennial Scapegoats. Long may they continue in the top flight, sheltering in their caves, frozen relics in time, offering us a glimpse of ancient days when men were men, and Rory Delap was their king. And while we’re here screw handball, with its hand to ball skills and its aims of putting said ball in or over some kind of net, goal or hoop. And screw Arjen Robben for even putting us in the awkward position of having to fake a basic knowledge of this so-called sport with it’s large European following and hand to ball action…something to do with throwing…I think there’s a D involved somewhere…But I digress.
Roberto Soldado, Valencia (vs Barcelona, 21st September 2011)