They are both unique and uniquely skilled, individuals who can
give a team the winning edge but who can also be delicate and
demanding. As players, they often need to be coaxed to reveal their
very best, or the edge they provide can be lost.
Attacking midfielders are the creative spirits in modern football. Their flashes of genius mesmerise opponents and delight the fans. However, they are often delicate and highly demanding creatures, just as capable of contributing nothing as everything. Members of this rare species normally command impressive transfer fees, but that in itself is no guarantee of success. Psychological and mental factors frequently hold the key to unlocking the true greatness contained within. FIFA.com examines the nature of footballing genius, and how clubs can make the most of it.
All you need is love
France superstar Franck Ribery is a classic example of the genus in question. The dynamic 24-year-old switched to Bayern Munich last summer, immediately taking the Bundesliga by storm with his breathtaking and astoundingly consistent displays. Regarded in his home country as a highly-talented but unpolished diamond after wildly oscillating form at his previous club Olympique Marseille, Bayern captain Oliver Kahn was recently moved to compare the player to Zinedine Zidane.
Just as refreshing as Ribery's supreme confidence and visible esprit as he accelerates away from bewildered defenders was the frank explanation of his outstanding form he recently revealed to reporters: "The fact is that I've been welcomed here in Munich with a warmth I've rarely experienced before. Being loved is very, very important to me. I draw my belief and inspiration from being loved, it makes me strong."
Pressure and responsibility
Few observers were surprised at Ribery's admission. It is no secret that players capable of genius at decisive moments on the field of play require an above-average sense of belonging and support in their immediate environment. Nevertheless, this public 'confession' was still unusual and remarkable for its very honesty. Footballers seldom discuss the fragile nature of conviction and self-belief, but it is precisely these attributes which underpin dazzling solo runs, defence-splitting passes and moments of attacking inspiration.
When things work out, the player can be a hero, but if he fails to deliver, suddenly he is a choker. Week after week, the game's artists are walking a tightrope. "I can only relax if we win. I have a hard time when we lose," confesses Kaka. The FIFA World Player of the Year is required to conjure up moments of magic for AC Milan, but greatness is also a burden: "It means a great deal of pressure and responsibility."
Logically, a midfield strategist will need to be treated with
kid gloves for a period after his arrival at a new club. Achieving
the right chemistry between fans, media, the board, the coaching
staff, the dressing room and the individual's mental strength
is of vital importance.
Help when far from home
Leading clubs long ago recognised that newly-signed attacking stars require rather more than simply a ball, a playing field and an opponent to produce spectacular success. Standard practice now includes hiring dedicated staff to care for the new signing and ensure the settling in process goes smoothly. To paraphrase an old cliché: when the star's smiling, the whole crowd smiles with him.
"I couldn't have a better environment for playing my best football," says Werder Bremen's world-class Brazilian Diego, shadowed wherever he goes by an interpreter appointed specifically for the purpose by the club. Dutch wizard Rafael van der Vaart, who surprised many by opting for Hamburger FC when his signature last came up for grabs, once admitted the single event which tipped the scales in the north German club's favour was a shopping trip laid on by the club for his wife Sylvie with chairman Bernd Hoffmann's better half.
Moving to the flanks
But even when temperamental geniuses brim with belief and continue to deliver the goods for their team on a regular basis, it is really only the start. A creative spirit needs the freedom to roam, and that requires another player (or two sometimes) to put in some unglamorous extra work. With the increasing emphasis on defence in modern football, attacking players relieved of the burden of graft and tactical rigidity are not merely a luxury, they also represent a risk.
Coaches appear increasingly unhappy with fielding just one holding midfielder to anchor the space in which an artist plies his trade. The trend is for two players to be deployed in front of the back four, which often means sacrificing one of the strikers. Alternatively, the creative genius can be switched from the crowded centre of the park and asked to work the oracle on the wings. Barcelona stars Ronaldinho and Lionel Messi certainly fall into that category, and even the aforementioned Zinedine Zidane found himself despatched to the left flank at Real Madrid when specific tactics and risk-avoidance demanded.
Let them fly like birds
Gifted individuals with the ability to pull strings and create something from nothing are by no means protected if the occasion is thought to demand it. Argentina were leading Germany 1-0 after 72 minutes in the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ quarter-final when coach Jose Pekerman decided to shut up shop and withdrew Juan Roman Riquelme. The South Americans still conceded an equaliser in normal time, and went on to lose the match on penalties. Pekerman quit after the game.
Current Argentina supremo Alfio Basile would have done things differently, if his comments about Lionel Messi are anything to go by. "We coaches shouldn't force him into a system," he says of Barceona's mercurial talent. "We have to let him fly like a bird." Words every gifted player would presumably love to hear from their coach.