/ 20 October 2023

In praise of the unit

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Rassie Erasmus.(Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

The David Beckham documentary: an amusing set-piece, honed on the training ground with the goal of scrubbing any dark corners left in the investor perceptions of American soccer’s messiah. But there is one reality that even Beck’s PR octopus can never sugarcoat – the sheer ruthlessness of Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to cast him out as soon as his individual star threatened to compromise the collective.

Ferguson did not give a thread off his kilt how many shirts you sold. Your on-pitch genius didn’t matter to him; nor whether your name was Roy Keane or Ruud van Nistelrooy, If you questioned the boss, and in doing so threatened the fabric of the team, you were out.

The Fergie nostalgia feels especially warm today as we exit an era defined by personas not just larger than their teams but big enough to subsume the whole sport. Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi monopolised any conversation about contemporary football greatness for a decade plus. Their throne was promised to Kylian Mbappe and Neymar – with the latter effectively abdicating after his move to the Saudi Kingdom this year. 

But an irony has slowly grown in the background. At the helm of Manchester City, United’s mortal enemy, Pep Guardiola has been quietly rousing a revolution. Seven years into his project and his legacy is undeniable. 

Guardiola, like Ferguson, has built a team that is impervious to the inclinations of the individual. A team that also happens to be the best in world football.

Having good players is important, getting the most out of them is important – but doing both while paradoxically mitigating any potential absences is the Fergie managerial standard.

The critic at this point is blue in the face, his cheeks poised to explode a retort on the words in front of him. But of course Guardiola had stars! He half-emptied the UAE’s sovereign wealth fund to get them. 

It’s true that City courted some of the finest talent of the last generation … and you couldn’t move the goalposts wide enough to frame the project as humble, homegrown or organic.

But what’s also a fact is that not one of the magical players summoned over the last few years have ever been irreplaceable. That remains true for the precision of Sergio Aguero, the guile of Kevin de Bruyne and, even now, the irresistible cyborgian drive of Erling Haaland.

All phenomenal ballers. But remove one and City is no less phenomenal – as many of City’s opponents have found during De Bruyne’s lengthy spells on the side of late. Guardiola has carved a squad in which everyone is ingrained with a deep understanding of the team’s philosophy and strategy. Whoever comes into the XI knows precisely what’s expected of him. There is no Atlas holding up the sky, only a formation of pillars, one effortlessly swapped out for another.

Like any legitimate experiment, the credibility is in its ability to be replicated. And in his former student Mikel Arteta, Guardiola has a proven hypothesis. 

Just as his mentor has done, Arteta has fashioned an Arsenal side that rarely relinquishes signs of weakness. Everyone is accountable to one another and fulfils a need. 

Bukayo Saka is their talisman and quickly turning into one of the best wingers in the modern game. But we could argue that he flourishes precisely because there is no pressure on him to pull any stragglers up to his level. Contrast that to the hindered toils of  Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil during their own stints at the club.

Arsenal are title challengers. Chelsea and United – two teams that are yet to figure out what picture they’re trying to paint with their expensive purchases – are not.

We witness the beauty of a team-first dynamic in another trophy chaser … the Springbok rugby team. Now, yes, cross-sports analogies can be spurious things. But on a weekend when they kick off back-to-back and may well both emphatically emphasise this point it’s just irresistible isn’t it?

Rassie Erasmus – with the continued contribution of Jacques Nienaber – has built a system designed to coalesce the country’s deep pool of talent into a co-ordinated attacking wave. Part of what makes the world champions so feared is their focus on a complete 80-minute strategy. When squads are announced, all eyes turn to the XXIII, not the XV.

The Bomb Squad is legend at this point … but it goes beyond rotating the front pack, or as one British podcaster put it, rolling “on a fresh set of highveld warlords”. 

Much of the media chatter ahead of the France quarter final revolved around the question of whether Handre Pollard would usurp Manie Libbok at flyhalf. Yet in retrospect that was more our own salacious gossip than a point of concern in the team itself. Both were given a job to do, and both executed it – irrespective of whether they earned the ostensible prestige of being named in the starting line-up. The same can be said of Cobus Reinach and Faf de Klerk. (Incidentally it would be the latter who came on and had the honour of ripping both ball and heart out of the last French attack).

Malcolm Marx’s injury was a huge loss. The measurable impact of it on team performance, however, has been minimal. The presence of Bongi Mbonambi ensures that – and behind him there is a further contingency in the form of Deon Fourie.

That is very much by design; a design built on the idea that no one number can ever be as valuable as the jersey it’s printed on.