You Know What Is Best

December 7, 2016

Play your best XI?

If only it were so simple…

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Written by John Nicholson and published at Football 365 on Monday 5th December 2016.

(This article may be of interest to some Bristol Rovers supporters.)

It can be read below or online:  Click HERE

I have a theory about modern life.

We’ve been sold the idea that consumer choice is always a good thing. More choice is better. Choice will make your life great. Choice will deliver ever greater happiness because buying stuff opens the golden road to Nirvana. Buy more, get happier.

I fundamentally disagree. Why? Because I was in a supermarket and they had – I kid thee not – 48 different olive oils from which to choose. Forty-Eight! I counted them. How do you choose?

As I’ve got older I’ve found such choice increasingly oppressive. I’m asked to keep choosing between electricity and gas suppliers, between banks, phone deals and dishwasher tablets. Half of life seems to be comprised of choosing between things.

Basically, I want a little but not much choice. My generation promulgated the materialistic notions which now oppress you, especially if you’re in your teens and twenties. Sorry about that. We tried to buy our way to happiness and ended up more depressed and anxious. Greater resources did not make us happier, in fact they destroyed our peace of mind as it turned us from citizens into customers. And it’s just the same in football.

Back in the day, a top-flight football club manager didn’t have the luxury of choice. Even big clubs just had 14 or 15 players and a youth team, and had to make the best of it and I’m a big fan of making the best of things. Making the best of things makes you happier, is an art itself at the top end of football, and has all but died out. Got an international out injured? Just bring in another from the squad.

Liverpool, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa won leagues and European cups with a squad of 14 or 15 players. There was no rotation. You turned up and played even if you had recently had your kneecaps kicked off by an Albanian tractor worker in a difficult 1st round game against FK Dinamo Tirana. Several sides fielded players who were technically dead, others were held together with gaffer tape and superglue.

Ah yes, those were the days, but they are not the days any more.

But despite this, whenever a manager is going through a tough patch, one of the familiar refrains you’ll hear, especially on Soccer Saturday, is that the manager “doesn’t know his best team.” This is usually accompanied by wild-eyed staring and a look of astonishment in the eyes of a pundit who stills thinks it is 1988, seemingly unaware that the concept of knowing your best team is totally outmoded in an age of huge resources.

I heard Jose Mourinho criticised for this, which seemed especially ludicrous. He’s got a 32-man squad, most of whom are internationals. Of course, he doesn’t know his best team, that’s because there is no best team. He can slice and dice it in so many ways depending on who his opponents are and where their strengths lie. As a criticism, it holds no water, just as it holds no water to use it as a reason for a failing side.

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This ‘best team’ concept has gone. There’s no such thing. It’s often thrown at a manager as a criticism, as though he should know his best team, but it is totally outdated. Because footballers are low body fat athletes whose thighs get bruised by a stiff north-easterly breeze, it’s got to be a squad game today, due to frequent injuries. Vast income has bloated the resources and choices available at every top-flight club. The only manager who knows their best team is the one with only 11 players. Even if you notionally did know your best side, surely it would not remain constant. Form and fitness rise and fall all the time.

I reckon the idea of making a best one to 11 list, as some sort of hierarchy, is a certain type of man’s idea of how to live life. The sort of men who always want to know what the best album is, the best car, the best girlfriend, the best judge of most things. For them, things must be rated and slated into a definitive ladder. These are the people who obsess about newspaper player ratings, and trawl statistics for conclusive proof of how good or bad a player is, always searching for absolutes, rather than accepting that in football, as in life, all things are relative, many aspects are metaphysical concepts that can’t be measured, and change is the only constant.

Contrary to the “best eleven” notion, chopping and changing your team is not a sign of weakness. Remember when the likes of Claudio Ranieri and then Rafa Benitez used to be routinely criticised for changing the team every week? They were mocked for not knowing their best team and for somehow undermining team unity. Today, such actions are entirely commonplace and normal, and yet still a large swathe of the punditocracy can’t seem to get with the programme and are just stuck in the “you play your best 11, Jeff” mentality.

I do understand the craving for a settled side. I would rather it was the same players in the same team for a whole season at a club. It gave life a cosy familiarity, and it’s still how it is in the lower leagues, of course. Having 32 players in a squad means you have less opportunity to build up a vicarious relationship with all of them, the way we once did. They seem less like people and more like products on a shelf. The fact some come and go and you never even see them play has eroded the fan-club relationship.

As with olive oil in a supermarket, being able to choose from a huge amount of options has not made manager nor fans any happier. But it is where we are. And to think that any manager should know their best 11 is as pointless thinking there’s a best olive oil.

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