25 April 2014

Pogba? I'll pass. Pirlo? Perhaps...

Ever since the departure of Patrick Vieira, it seems, we've hungered for that domineering, physical defensive midfielder who can bomb forward and wreak havoc on the opposition's structure, defense, and counter-attacking options. We've tried Diaby but, for various reasons, failed. Alex Song filled in for a spell but was never as disciplined in the back or assertive going forward, offering recklessness in place of swashbuckling. More recently, we've gotten by with various permutations of Ramsey, Arteta, Flamini, and Wilshere but have struggled to replicate the kind of partnership that saw Vieira work so well alongside Silva, for example. For better or for worse, the myopia that results has seen us set our sights on Juventus's Paul Pogba, but I'm not seeing it. As exciting as he may be, he's just not the player we need.

First, a few brass tacks are in order. At 21, Pogba's still on the upswing, and more power to him for that. However, the downside to this is that his likely price-tag looks to upwards of £40m. That's madness, even in an era when Gareth Bale can go for more than twice that. It wasn't so long ago that we were beguiled by another beguiling talent, one Julian Draxler, who himself seemed to command a £40m asking price in the same season that saw us nab Mesut Özil, by all accounts one of the best in the world at what he does. To then turn around six months or 12 months later to pony up the same for an ingenue, a starlet, reeks of ridiculosity (again, as with my invention of "imperiosity", I know that "ridiculosity" is not a real word, but I like its rhythm. It's almost onomatopoeic). At any rate, that £40m is likely just a starting point for negotiations. Once PSG gets involved, we'll wax nostalgic about the times when one could acquire a young defensive midfielder for a fee in the low eight figures. If we're going to address the current squad's deficiencies, we can ill-afford to spend half our reported kitty on a defensive midfielder.

If the financials don't quite grab you by the short and curlies, consider the aesthetics. We already have a plethora of forward-thinking midfielders who can play box-to-box: Ramsey. Wilshere. Rosický. Ox (dare I include Diaby? I dare). Diaby. Each of these excels at getting forward and slicing open the opposition, whether it be with the ball at his feet or with the key-pass. How many of the untallied second-assists would be credited to that slate of players? How many chances? No, we don't need another bomber who gets into the box to create or finish chances. We have that. Last I checked, Aaron Ramsey was a Player of the Year and a Golden Boot candidate before he red-lined. Alongside him, of course, are the aforementioned Wilshere, Rosický, and Ox, each of whom love nothing more than to run amok in the opposition's defensive third, harassing and and pressing and all the rest. Each of them can be brought to heel, required if not forced to lie deeper in order to shield the back-four, but why? Why deprive them and us of the sheer joy of seeing them collect the ball and slalom up the pitch, the ball pinging to and fro from their feet or to a teammate and back, as they sluice through hapless defenders? No, thank you. I want my Ramsey, Wilshere, Ox, and, yes, Diaby unleashed. To add Pogba to that mix, as exciting as it might be, would risk opening us up to the very counters we hope to unleash. At the opening whistle, we'd start in an ersatz 4-2-3-1 only to end up, minutes later, in a 4-0-5-1. In short, we need someone who can stay home, attending to the less-scintillating aspects of shielding that back-four, digging in and defending deep. Pogba, as sexy as his name sounds, is not cut from that kind of cloth, even in a league as cynically defensive as Serie A. If Juve hold a fire-sale and make the man available at a cut-rate price, well, that's a different story. Time will tell if that story will be told.

Currently, our holding midfielder, our regista, if the term may be used, is all too often Flamini or Arteta. Each of them is content with (or confined to, by skill-set or age) sitting deep in front of that back-four, receiving the ball and distributing forward. However, as we'll all freely admit, Arteta has lost a step or two, and Flamini is a bit, um, aggressive. In either case, the defense suffers, whether it be through passing lanes left open or set-pieces conceded. That brings me to Pirlo. At 34, he might at first seem to be an odd replacement-cum-upgrade for Arteta (32) or Flamini (30). He might also suffer by comparison with Vieira and Pogba when it comes to stature or brawn. However, compare him to the likes of Steven Gerrard. Pirlo need not rampage wildly in front of the back-four to have an impact. He could collect the ball from Per, Kos, or Szcz, and coolly spray passes forward to Walcott, Ox, Ramsey, or Gnabry, among others. What he lacks in grit he more than makes up for in guile. Pirlo won't boss anyone off the ball, but we've seen how we can more then get by without that. No one would mistake Arteta or Flamini for thugs (despite Flamini's over-earnest attempts). Put a Pirlo-esque player in front of the back-four and let him distribute the ball forward to the more-creative, aggressive types, and we might be in business. After all, one can win the ball through astute timing just as well as through brute force.

If the aesthetics don't sway you, perhaps the financials will. Whereas Pogba might not be available below the £40m range. Pirlo is a Bosman. His contract ends 30 June. While I'm sure that Juve would try to at least swing a re-signing and Pirlo would be willing to play along, Pirlo's market-value seems to hover in the £10-12m range. That's been our wheelhouse, for better or for worse: Giroud. Podolski. Cazorla. Arteta. Each of them has signed at that level, and each of them has delivered on, if not exceeded, expectations. Pirlo is a technically-astute, savvy footballer who could slot in alongside our more-aggressive young Guns. This is not a call to arms towards signing the man, only a suggestion that we do a bit of window-shopping before going all-in for the latest flavor of the month. I don't oppose Pogba by any means; I merely offer a temporary word or two of caution.