Wednesday, September 20, 2006


Slow-Motion General

Argentina's subtle, elegant playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme has recently announced his retirement from international football, for what might be described as mysterious reasons. Most neutral fans will, no doubt, consider this a great pity.

I've always enjoyed watching Riquelme, a player who clearly divided opinions on the managerial front. There were those who felt he was simply too ponderous to be effective in the fast-paced European game, and it was only at the relatively ripe age of 23 that he joined a European club.

This is, of course, due largely to his style of play. He is that rare character, a genuine No. 10, a slow-motion playmaker, whose movement is economical and whose passing is both inventive and precise. There have been very few of these in recent years; perhaps the last great exponent of the role was Brazil's Socrates.

Such a player requires teams to be formed around him, and his mentor Jose Pekerman was only too happy to do this with Argentina's youth teams - with impressive results. The slow, thoughtful build-up through the middle, with Riquelme at the hub of things, was characteristic of Pekerman's teams, and at the recent World Cup we saw this philosophy put into action at the highest level.

Although Pekerman famously lost the plot in the quarter-final against the Germans, his team played some of the best football of the tournament, scoring a picture-book team goal against the Serbs. Riquelme was forever at the heart of things.

With Alfio Basile now in charge, perhaps Riquelme felt he could no longer be sure that the team would be able to accommodate his unhurried play.

There's still club football, of course. Barcelona was, in many ways, an unfortunate initial European destination for him, given that the coach at the time was Louis van Gaal, the doctrinaire Dutchman who had no truck with Riquelme's style. Deployed sparingly and wastefully, Riquelme must have been glad to get away to the comparative anonymity of Villareal, where he has thrived.

And there's still time for him to change his mind about international retirement. After all, the most distinguished No. 10 of recent years did so before the World Cup, and helped to propel his side all the way to the final...

I guess Riquelme's ineffective showing against Germany is the price you risk paying for a player that requires his team to very much be suited to him as he's not likely to cause significant damage on his own (free-kicks apart perhaps). If he had more than an isolated Crespo and an out-of-position, somewhat over-rated Tevez ahead of him, I reckon he would've contributed towards an Argie win that day (and who knows what from then on) instead of going home having not convinced the football world of his ability on the biggest stage. Pekerman had the answers on his bench with Messi and Saviola, and possibly the resurgent D'Alessandro available for the squad too, among others.

For a player like Riquelme, it's a very fine line between success and failure I think.
I wonder how much opposition coaches in the World Cup were able to reduce Riquelme's influence. He spent a lot of time at the wrong end of the park.

Despite that, he was still played a big part in each game, and according to the SBS commentary he completed a phenomenal amount of passes. The percentage of his passes that were properly received by a teammate was something like 97 times out of 100, and he did hundreds of them (from my feeble memory).

They even showed a wagon-wheel graphic of his passes, like in the cricket. They were in all directions, all distances, and from most parts of the park. I assume SBS got their info from a shared source, but that sort of new tech fascinates me. People go on about analytical software, high-definition/all-field video, and that stuff, which modern management techniques bring to the table, but you don't actually find out a lot about it. High-budget coverages have their fancy gadgets, like on the EPL, and it will take up more of the game's coverage.

Finally, Riquelme's only 27/28 isn't he? He could still be coaxed back into international duty, if the manager really wanted it. Not like that sort of thing hasn't happened before. I hope to see more of him, and his style.
I salute his ditching of the international game - now to see him move on to bigger things at club level.

This increasing number of players retiring from international football early can only serve to prove exactly how feeble the international game has become.

Forza Club Football
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