Pass. Shoot. It is the footballer’s dilemma that we have seen at every level throughout time and countless grounds the world over. A moment where everything comes down to one of two options. In particularly tight encounters, this can be the difference between success and failure. Decides a game, changes the course of a season, even defines a career. As such, it is only ever the end result that is significant. For all the platitudes, in football it is the destination that’s important and not the journey. It doesn’t matter how nuanced the thought process is, nor the respective ability of everyone involved, there is only one thing that does indeed count. The scoreline.
Bob Paisley said that if you don’t know what to do with the ball, to put it in the net and discuss the options later. In that moment however – with the wider context so binary and the chance itself sometimes not that straight forward – there is an awful lot to consider before any action is taken. Even in that split second. Everyone is quick to condemn the lad who chooses to shoot when there are better options around him and God for give the [Arsenal] player who passes rather than take the opportunity on himself. What too of goalkeepers in this scenario? Sometimes it’s possible to do the right thing at the right time and it still doesn’t work. Which is why it’s always better to be lucky than good. This applies as much to everything that happens off the pitch as it does on.
Jose Mourinho went to Anfield not that long ago with an approach that made people think twice, he got what he wanted. Pep Guardiola tried to take on Barcelona that same week without his best player and found himself on the end of a thrashing which stemmed from an individual error he could not possibly have planned for. What anyone thinks of their respective tactics doesn’t ultimately matter, so long as they get the intended result. Henceforth why those that make those kind of decisions in Manchester (whether it be the red or the blue side) appointed Mourinho and Guardiola respectively. Chairmen appoint managers, they in turn buy players. All of them can be wrong, in spite of how right they think they are at the time.
What normally happens is that a myriad of factors are taken and compressed into a box. One that everyone can easily see and choose to take with them or not. Player or manager alike, they just weren’t the right fit. It is possible; formations and club culture do play a part, although there may be a particularly bizarre shaped dressing room door. People do their research and they stay away. But not every time. Sometimes even the most startling of warnings are not heeded. Circumstances dictate that it’s better to play the lottery, even knowing the odds, than sit out altogether and have no chance of winning.
It’s not that smart thinking doesn’t matter, moreso that there are simply so many to make and none of them – even the obvious ones – come with any guarantees. Football clubs are such a maelstrom of activity from top to bottom it’s a wonder any one of them can get on the same page long enough before it has been turned and we’re onto the next chapter. Some do. They move forward boldly. A handful of lucky ones simply maintain their course. The rest are at the mercy of whatever may come their way. A set of key decisions will decide their fate. A significant enough wrong one can undo a million good ones.
Rather unsurprisingly, there is a way to slow this kind of descent. Even less shockingly, it revolves around money. Teams with seemingly unlimited resources can throw away good money after bad. If your commercial revenue is good enough you can’t be slowed down too much. To any other club, Bebe and Anderson would have been phenomenal anchors, to Man United they’re no more than a error of judgement that costs them but doesn’t really. The problem is that at the top, a stockpile of cash isn’t quite the same guarantee as it once was. Due to the revenue generated with the staggeringly increasing TV deals, nearly every Premier League team has the ability to somewhat dictate their own fate this way. Those at the top have even more disposable income to throw around but because it’s less of a monopoly (as in how many teams have it, not the actual cash itself) even Sheikhs have to be smarter with what they do with it.
Ultimately, those at the very top of both the ambition and the riches scale are playing a rigged game. They’re a child in an arcade with unlimited continues who then demands to be praised when they eventually figure out the combination and get it right. If there are no real consequences for making bad decisions, what of those clubs who truly face that danger? If eventually all things revert back to zero, is anyone really progressing? That’s where Swansea and Southampton come in.
Both clubs have had a similar trajectory in the sense that the ground work was put in a long time ago and the efforts of that labour has been rewarded multiple times over. From League One to the Europa League in recent years via very different means, the hardest part is in trying to maintain such an upward momentum when the vultures are forever circling. Promising young talent gets raided on an almost yearly basis. So too do they become canaries down the transfer mines in terms of so called “risky transfers”. If a manager comes in and does well, it doesn’t take long for a bright future to be traded in for greener grass elsewhere. It seems almost counter productive that everything that either Swansea or Southampton get right, later on they are made to pay. Or rather, made to sell. Yet still they – for now anyway – have not gone spiralling downward.
For the Swans that threat is imminent. From the dying embers of Gary Monk’s tenure up until the appointment of Bob Bradley, there have been clouds gathering; even if it hasn’t rained on them just yet. There will be no panic internally but the swiftness of the change in management so early on in the season and also so soon after the previous one is more in line with some of the more trigger happy board rooms. Brendan Rodgers had 700 days at the Liberty Stadium, Roberto Martinez and Brian Laudrup either side of him got 599 and 843 respectively. Even Paulo Sousa got a full season. One of the earliest warning signs of a club beginning to struggle is the constant removal of head coaches. Like someone who can’t swim and doesn’t realise until it’s too late how strong the current is and how deep the waters are. Nobody wants to see a drowned swan.
Southampton meanwhile are the bane of the pop up pundit. Every year they are cast aside, discarded as having finally being stripped of enough assets, ignoring every time the fact that the same process that got them there in the first place is still very much in place. You’d never get anyone to admit it now because hindsight has the only two Is that everyone sees these kinds of things through but when Mauricio Pochettino was appointed at Southampton, widespread opinion among neutral fans was that they had made a huge mistake. It was common knowledge at the time that Espanyol games on Sky were television events in which the whole country joined in but there was a horrible sneer in the direction of St. Mary’s for having the temerity to fire Nigel Adkins (currently unemployed) for this person whom if you knew that he once fouled Michael Owen in the World Cup you were basically his biographer. The boardroom at Southampton had a long term plan and have continued to see that through. Last night they toppled the leaning power of Inter Milan, they are in the League Cup quarter finals for the third successive year and after a slowish start they find themselves in the middle of the table with all the questions turned on their head once more.
Virgil Van Dijk has recently been lauded as potentially the best defender in the Premier League with suggestions that he could play for Barcelona or Real Madrid (though the legitimacy of whom these quotes are from are perhaps questionable. Before that Dejan Lovren was being put over by Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher. Of course, it’s not an exact science. There is a Gaston Ramirez in there somewhere. On Monday two faces came back to bite the Swansea hand that once fed them. Joe Allen and Wilfried Bony in doing what was right for Stoke attempts to undermine their previous work; one having previously done such good work in first getting Swansea to the Premier League and the other establishing them there. Such is football.
It’s not that the Saints have a magic eye for talent and coaches, nor that whatever mystical artefact Swansea were wielding has suddenly stopped working. Ultimately it’s the relentlessness of the game itself that makes everything that they have done up until now seem quite remarkable but yet holds no assurances for the future. Every choice made has any number of possible outcomes and clubs make them time and again. Even if a wrong turn is made or a step made that stumbles them backward, there will come another opportunity to move forward yet again. Just like the players themselves. Every time they make the so called wrong choice, there will be another decision to make not long after it. You just hope that by then the game isn’t already lost.