Monday, February 05, 2007

On Football - No. 6: Juan Roman Riquelme*

I've written before (in the very first football entry on this blog) about the importance of the Number 10 shirt in Argentinian football and about Argentina's stupendous line of creative playmakers since Maradona. But Maradona is an impossible player to emulate. Arguably the greatest player in history, easily the greatest player of his generation, he could do everything that a creative player is required to. He could dribble like no player before or since, twisting and teasing, his low centre of gravity and amazing acceleration making him difficult to dispossess even illegally. He could run a game with one or two touch passing, sweeping the ball this way and that across the field, dragging defences out of shape with flicks and perfectly weighted long balls. He could shoot from distance, either delicately placing or blasting the ball wherever he wanted it. He obviously wasn't the greatest player in the air - altough he could still outjump Peter Shilton, a good six inches taller than him when it mattered - but he was usually the player supplying the crosses, not the player on the end of them. His true genius was in the combination of all these talents. On his game he was unplayable, no team could cope with him. In the 1986 World Cup Final, Germany detailed two players to mark him, hoping to copy the effect Berti Vogts had on Johann Crujiff in the 1974 Final. Lothar Matthaius, West Germany's best player, followed Maradona everywhere, and when the Argentine had possession Matthaius was joined by one of a revolving number of players in closing him down. For most of the game this worked, but Maradona only needed an instant to hurt an opponent. His pass had set off Valdano on the run that led to Argentina's second goal, and not long after, he embarked on one long run right through the centre of the German defence, evading tackles, which ended with him in mid-air having been kicked by two players at once. Then, with seven minutes remaining and the game tied at 2-2, Maradona, with three Germans in close attendance, found Burruchaga breaking free in the German half with a beautiful first-time volleyed pass. 3-2. Argentina were World Champions.

Most of the Argentinians who have been hailed as "the New Maradona" have excelled while running with the ball. It is this aspect of football, the "gambeta", as they call it, which most excites the Argentine football imagination. It is also what Maradona is best associated with, his goals against England and Belgium in the Quarters and Semis of the 1986 World Cup springing instantly to mind. Players like Saviola, D'Alessandro, Messi, Ortega, Tevez and Aimar have all been excellent dribblers, while Juan Sebastian Veron and Juan Roman Riquelme are more old-fashioned, passing playmakers. Riquelme in particular seems the last of a dying breed. He has no pace to speak of, and so would seem unsuited for the hustle and flying shrapnel of a modern midfield. Yet he never seems hurried and always seems to have time and space on the ball. He never panics. When he is man-marked, he finds enough space to hit devastating one touch passes, Maradona-style. His technique is beautiful, his control flawless, allowing him to caress the ball and make it do exactly what he wants, and so those passes, be they long or short, volleyed or slid along the grass, never seem to miss their intended targets.

Much of Riquelme's work goes almost unnoticed. He takes the ball and relays it accurately, often with the same touch. He moves with his head up and reads the game superbly. He is always moving into space, calling for the ball, moving it along and finding space yet again. This is not often flashy work, as the ball moves back and forth across midfield and his team probes for weakness. But it is Riquelme dictating the pace of that probing, Riquelme's eyes the keenest at identifying the weakness. Creating angles, pulling opposition players out of position, making space for his teammates. The game of the classic playmaker is all about angles around the penalty area, creating gaps in a defence through which to slip the ball. Riquelme is a master at this art. The second goal of Argentina's 6-0 routing of Serbia in the 2006 World Cup was the goal of the tournament, with 24 passes in a minute in the build-up, and its a typical example of Riquelme's subtle prompting. He plays a one-two with Saviola before the ball is passed across the face of the Serbian area to Cambiasso. His touch is a mere flick straight into Saviola's path with the outside of his right foot that instantly eliminates two Serbians from the play allowing the move to culminate in a beautiful goal :

That sort of touch is pure Riquelme : casual, perfect, with an almost sensual feel for the properties of a football. He is capable of dribbles and tricks as well, his ability to get himself out of tricky situations enabling him to maintain his teams possession of the ball, obviously an eternal priority :

His touch is so subtle and delicate that if you watch many clips of him in possession he barely touches the ball with his toes or with either instep or outstep, as most players do. His lack of pace is almost an advantage when it comes to controlling the ball - when faced with an approaching defender he knows he cannot knock the ball beyond them and then outsprint them to collect it. So he has to be clever and use trickery. He tends to drag and spin the ball beneath his studs, minutely inclining and angling his ankles to spin it in first one direction and then another. He is also extremely strong - he is 6ft - and can turn his back on a defender and hold the ball up seemingly indefinitely, losing little ground with twists and turns until he sees a runner he can pass to.

You would imagine that such a talent would be cherished by any footballing nation, but Riquelme is a controversial figure in Argentina. The Argentine style has always combined skillful individual dribbling with fast, short passing along the ground. The above goal against Serbia is perhaps the perfect example. Riquelme's critics contend that he slows the game down too much when in possession. He has been derogatorily called "the tollbooth" in reference to the appearance that everything stops when it comes to him. But this is to miss the point. Riquelme is always in control of that pace, skillful enough to slow things down when he needs to, but with the timing and technique to inject just the right amount of pace into the movement of the ball at the right moment. Jose Pekerman, coach of Argentina at the last World Cup and a big fan of Riquelme, has commented that in football, it is the ball that needs to move fast, not the player. He was the first National coach to give Riquelme a regular place in his starting line-up. Indeed, he built his team around the playmaker's talents, meaning that the likes of Veron and Ortega, still major figures in Domestic football, were dropped, and Aimar, Saviola, Tevez and Messi all rotated from the bench to supplementary positions in the teams offensive formation. He was rewarded by Riquelme by an utterly dominant performance against Brazil in a South American qualifier in Buenos Aires, topped off by this goal and the audacious volleyed pass with the sole of his boot that precedes it:

Argentina qualified for the World Cup ahead of Brazil. After a strong win against a powerful Ivory coast and the destruction of Serbia, they were favourites in the early stages. Riquelme was controlling games in the manner expected of him, but he seemed to tire as the tournament progressed and was not quite so influential in the first knock-out match against Mexico, though Argentina edged it with Maxi Rodriguez's wonderful goal. Against Germany, in a tight midfield battle, Riquelme was again crucial. Argentina were leading and dominant, Riquelme spraying passes around and the Germans unable to hold onto the ball when they could get it off the opposition. But Pekerman surrendered to his defensive instincts and substituted his Number 10. Moments later the Germans equalised and they, not an Argentina without its conductor, were the dominant team throughout extra-time, only to win on penalties. Pekerman resigned, Riquelme only lasting a single game as Captain before retiring from International football altogether, claiming that the criticism he had attracted in Argentina during the World Cup had made his mother sick.

He has had a tough time with the Argentine press ever since he left the country to move to Barcelona. He had been signed by Boca Juniors from Argentinos Juniors at the age of 17, and broke into the first team a year later. Here he became a central figure, Maradona's favourite player, and bearer of the heavy burden that is the Number 10 shirt. He wore it lightly at that time, helping Boca win the Argentine Championship three times between 1998 and 2001, winning the South American equivalent of the Champions League, the Copa Libertadores, in 2000, and the Intercontinental Cup (beating Real Madrid 2-1)in the same year. He was voted South American Footballer of the Year in 2001, putting him in the company of legends like Maradona, Zico, Pele, Socrates, Enzo Francescoli, Carlos Valderama and Romario. In 2002 he became involved in a contract dispute with Boca and was eventually transferred to Barcelona. He already had a reputation as a quiet player, singular in his needs in training, and unable to perform to the best of his abilities unless he had a midfield "minder" to do his dirty work. At Barcelona, coach Louis van Gaal made it clear to his new player that he did not actually want him, that he was a "political" signing, and promptly deployed him on the wing, utterly wasting his talents. To compound these problems, his brother was kidnapped and held for ransom in Buenos Aires only a few weeks after he left Argentina. Riquelme negotiated with the kidnappers and eventually paid the ransom money. But unsurprisingly he played fitfully after his first few months in Spain, until Barca eventually sent him on loan to Villareal in 2003.

Villareal are a small club in a small town, and their Chilean coach, Manuel Pelligrini, based his playing style on South American football, recruiting a backbone of talent from that continent. Brazil-born midfielder Marcus Senna won the ball and did the running for Riquelme, while Uruguayan Diego Forlan gave him a yellow shirt to aim for with his through-balls. At the back, Argentine captain Juan Pablo Sorin commanded the left wing, and there were three other Argentines, an Ecuadorean, a Bolivian and a Mexican in the squad that reached the Semi-finals of the Champions League in 2006. That Champions League run was due to the disciplined, fast-passing game Villareal played, and Riquelme was utterly cruical to that. Diego Forlan won the European Golden Boot in 2005 with 25 League goals, a good proportion of them coming from Riquelme assists. He was the same player he had been at Boca, and the name on his shirt read "Roman" instead of Riquelme to signal the psychological break from the events at Barcelona. He was nominated for the FIFA World Player of the Year award the same year and came second only to Ronaldinho in year-end polls amongst Spanish football writers. But it all went wrong for him in 2006. That World Cup exit and his subsequent International retirement, at the age of 29. His penalty miss against Arsenal in the Semi-final of the Champions League, which resurrected old Argentinian criticisms of his lack of mental toughness. And in recent months he has fallen out with Pelligrini and been left out of the Villareal squad which is not performing to anything like its levels of 12 months ago in his absence. The club signed Chilean wonderkid (and Winner of this years South American Player of the Year Award) Mattias Fernandez from Colo Colo around the same time Riquelme and Pelligrini's problem came to light. Fernandez is a more modern style of playmaker, and he has gone straight into the team, playing in Riquelme's position, but without much success so far. It takes a while for a South American to acclimatise to European football, as Riquelme would testify.

So Riquelme spent much of the transfer window looking for a move away from the club he drove to unprecedented success. Bayern Munich, Man Utd and Inter Milan were all rumoured to be interested, but nothing came off and at the time of writing he remains a Villareal player, though one who is not playing. For me, he is one of the top 5 players in World Football, and the fact that he is essentially without a club at the moment is one of those instances of insanity football throws up from time to time. This compilation ends with a few minutes worth of his performance against England in last years friendly in Geneva. I remember reading after that game the English players testimonies about how elusive and superb he had been. Watching the match, the first half had seemed almost a private duel between Riquelme and Wayne Rooney, each daring the other onto the next piece of intuitive genius, until Riquelme pulled away from Rooney, the younger man's relative inexperience showing as Riquelme dictated the course of the game and repeatedly made John Terry look like an idiot. Pekerman substitued him with only a few minutes left and Argentina 2-1 ahead. In his absence, and granted some possession of the ball, England scored two late goals and won the game. Of Course Pekerman repeated the mistake in the World Cup....

*But hes still playing, I hear you cry. Well, just about. But I never said those were the rules, did I?



Blogger Anand said...

Dear David, beautiful entry. Closely following Romans professional career. I just read that Macri had officially announced his joining decisions to Boca again. What are your thoughts on this?

12:58 pm  
Blogger David N said...

Great news for Boca, and Riquelme will be indulged and obviously be the clubs star player, which should bring out the best in him.
But I would have liked to see him try his luck in Italy or even England. It would be a pity if he never plays in Europe again...

12:43 am  

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