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There Is No Such Thing as a Bad Player


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Rory Smith On Soccer

There is a universal lesson in Patrick Bamford’s story, a reminder that judging players is often not quite so straightforward as decreeing some good enough and others not good enough.

Patrick Bamford: well traveled but now settled at last in Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds. Patrick Bamford: well traveled but now settled at last in Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds.Credit…Pool photo by Martin Rickett Rory Smith

  • Nov. 6, 2020Updated 5:15 p.m. ET

Patrick Bamford bounced around for a long time, the sodium glow of his youthful promise fading in the shadows of all those blind alleys.

A few months at Crystal Palace, when he did not start a game, and a spell at Norwich City, where he failed to convince his manager he was worth keeping. Burnley was a dead end, too. It was not until he arrived at Middlesbrough that he finally managed to make a Premier League start and score a Premier League goal, but it was only one. And the season ended in relegation, anyway.

This was not what had been expected of Bamford. It was not, most likely, what he would have expected of himself. He had joined Chelsea at 18, and was rich enough in potential then that one of the biggest clubs in the world had paid a couple of million dollars or so to sign him after only two senior appearances.

Or, at least, that was the assumption. In 2012, when a club signed a teenage prospect, the natural conclusion was that it must have found a sensation, a next big thing waiting to take the game by storm. It would not have occurred to anyone, then, that a club might sign a young player so it could harvest loan fees for a few years and then sell him at a vast profit.

Looking back, of course, that is precisely what happened to Bamford at Chelsea. It was not that he wasn’t supposed to make it; it was that doing so would have been a bonus. The club was, effectively, running an industrial-scale player trading operation, developing young players so they could be sold on, with the subsequent revenues reinvested into the first team.

There is nothing wrong with that — nothing, at least, in a legal sense; moral reactions may vary — but it came at a cost to Bamford. He has always been judged by the standards of the player it was assumed he was meant to be. Every loan spell that did not quite work out provided a little more evidence that he had not lived up to his early talent.

ImageBamford was often perceived as nothing more than a Championship player. Bamford was often perceived as nothing more than a Championship player.Credit…Carl Recine/Action Images

The year after Middlesbrough’s relegation — the 2017-18 season — Bamford moved to the club permanently. He had, it seemed, finally accepted that his “dream” of playing for Chelsea was at an end. He did well in that campaign, scoring 11 goals, but in a way that success seemed to cement his reputation. Bamford was a perfectly good striker in the second-tier Championship: not prolific, not dead-eyed and ruthless, but energetic and willing and intelligent. He had, most decided, found his level.

Two seasons later, Bamford is a Premier League player. More than that, he is a Premier League-standard player. He scored one of Leeds United’s three goals at Anfield on the opening weekend of the season. He scored another in a 4-3 win over Fulham a week later. Then he scored a decisive goal in an impressive victory at Sheffield United. Not long after, he scored all three in a 3-0 win against Aston Villa.

He has played seven games and scored six times. Those goals have been of all shapes and sizes: pretty finishes and scruffy ones, artful ones and emphatic ones, from close range and from distance. A player written off as destined for life to be a second-tier workhorse has arrived in what is regarded widely — and occasionally even accurately — as the best domestic league in the world and has been transformed into Ruud van Nistelrooy.

The explanation for that is, in part, specific to Bamford. It is only now, as his father, Russell, recently told The Athletic, that he is working for a coach — Marcelo Bielsa — who “believes in him.” It is only now that he is with a club invested in his success. For all the due diligence Chelsea and its peers among the superpowers do when finding client clubs to take their players on loan, the athletes are rarely anything more than borrowed assets. Players on loan are easily discarded.

And Bamford, 27, is, perhaps, at an age when he is more centered, more comfortable, more at ease. Bamford, semifamously, had a privileged upbringing. He went to private school. He plays the violin. He speaks three languages “conversationally,” which in his case is probably not a résumé-boosting euphemism for knowing how to ask where the swimming pool is.

In his early years, that made Bamford an outlier in a sport where difference is too often seen as weakness. At times, he has admitted previously, it was a source of discomfort for him. Now he is old enough and wise enough to shrug it off. (He is also, as Phil Hay, a journalist who has covered Leeds for longer than is healthy, has pointed out, working for a manager who will not even be aware of his background, much less care about it.)

If you put all of that aside, though, there is a universal lesson in Bamford’s story, something that almost affords it the status of parable.

In Marcelo Bielsa, Bamford finally has a manager who wants what he can offer.Credit…Pool photo by Oli Scarff

Bamford is flourishing under Bielsa partly because of the connection between the two of them, but largely because he fits the coach’s system perfectly. Bielsa does not need his striker just to score goals; that is not the sole metric by which he judges the effectiveness of his No. 9.

Instead, the forward in Bielsa’s vision of soccer is there to hold the ball up, to bring others into play, to create space, to destabilize the defense and, in particular, to lead the press. Goals are helpful, of course — goals are the point of soccer — but they are not the only metric.

It is the same reason Jürgen Klopp finds it odd that Roberto Firmino attracts criticism for not being more prolific; it is why Rafael Benítez, a generation earlier, built a title-winning team with Mista as its spearhead, a player who scored 48 goals in 218 games across a decade in La Liga. Bielsa sees Bamford in precisely the same light.

Too often, as fans and as observers, we write off players when they fail to meet some indistinct performance standard. We determine that they are not good enough for this team or that level. We demand that they are dropped or sold or upgraded. We decide that they will never make it.

Bamford’s goal against Liverpool at Anfield got his season off to a great start.Credit…Pool photo by Phil Noble

Bamford offers a salutary reminder that it is not quite so straightforward as decreeing some players good enough and others not good enough, and that doing so based on one element of their job — in this case, goals scored — is misleading to the point of myopia.

Often, it is not so much that there are bad players. There are just players on the wrong team, or in the wrong system, or in a job that they are ill-suited to do. For a long time, that was Bamford: a player who was supposed to be a sensation, but never quite managed to settle.

That does not mean the early promise was wrong. He was, instead, waiting to find the right place, the right time, the right team, the right coach. In Bielsa, and in Leeds, he has found that now. His story is not one of a player finally reaching his level. It is a much more common story: that of a player finding his place.

Soccer found a way to play despite the pandemic. What if it hadn’t?Credit…Miguel Riopa/Agence France-Presse, via Associated Press

England went back into lockdown on Thursday. This one is set to last a month, initially, but longer feels likely. In July, the government — on suspiciously short notice — canceled Eid for those living in some of Britain’s largest Muslim communities, so there really shouldn’t be any reason to place a firewall around Christmas.

There are tighter pandemic restrictions in place across Europe now, too: nine cities subject to curfews in France; partial shutdowns in Germany and the Netherlands; limits on opening hours for restaurants and bars in Italy. The continent is in the grip of the second wave of the coronavirus, and most are warning that, without stringent measures, it may rise higher than the first.

Elite soccer, you will have noticed, is carrying on regardless, even at a time when youth sports are being put on hold. The domestic leagues continue uninterrupted. The Champions League group stage has reached its halfway point. At a time when borders are closing and travel is being restricted, soccer has an international break planned.

None of this has been met with any moral outcry. No anonymous executives have come forward, as they did in spring, to demand that the season be abandoned, to declare that it is abhorrent to play on while the death tolls mount. There have been no calls to nullify and void everything immediately.

Nor should there have been, of course: Elite soccer has proved, over the last seven months, that it can play on in a time of pandemic. The number of positive tests among players remains low; the testing regimen is thorough and assiduous. Most important, the sport has not been linked to any major outbreaks, and it has not placed any excessive burden on health or emergency services.

But it does raise two questions. One is why those who wanted to abandon soccer in spring on moral grounds are not calling for the same to happen now. The other is: Given that Europe is facing what may be a long winter of monthslong lockdowns, what would have happened if soccer had not proved that it could play on?

What if we had set the precedent of abandoning last season? Without seven months of evidence that soccer, at least among the elite, can function in these conditions, presumably we would have to abandon this season now. That could mean almost an entire year without any revenue at all for clubs and associations. It would mean a return was effectively impossible until a vaccine had not only been found, but also been widely administered.

Soccer did not handle that conversation at all well in spring. It was fraught and self-interested and duplicitous and, at times, toxic. But, in hindsight, it may well have been the game’s salvation. If it had not started then, it is not clear, now, whether the games really would have been able to start — in any recognizable form — at all.

Jesse Marsch and Red Bull Salzburg probably won’t advance in the Champions League. But that doesn’t mean they have failed.Credit…Andreas Gebert/Reuters

Jesse Marsch looked a little forlorn as he tramped across the field to congratulate his opponents and commiserate with his players on Tuesday night. It was not hard to see why: His Red Bull Salzburg team had been holding Bayern Munich with 12 minutes to play in their Champions League game. By the time Marsch stepped on the turf, head bowed, his team had lost, 6-2.

Sympathizing with any of the Red Bull teams — being, as they are, the sporting emissaries of a corporate empire — is a complex thing. As we wrote of RB Leipzig in August, they make imperfect underdogs. All they have to compete with the game’s elite, after all, is the backing of a $20 billion drinks empire, and some of the best facilities money can buy.

Still, it is hard not to feel as if Salzburg has given more to the Champions League than it has, thus far, received. Marsch’s team went toe-to-toe with Bayern Munich, the best side in Europe by some distance, for 80 minutes this week, and got nothing. It lost only at the last against Atlético Madrid the week before.

There is an element of déjà vu here: Last year, in its first Champions League group stage appearance, Salzburg lost narrowly to Napoli at home, took a point in Naples, and almost drew with Liverpool at Anfield. Only fine margins and an unkind draw separated Marsch and his team from a place in the last 16. The same fate, most likely, awaits Salzburg this season.

That is a shame, because this is a team that would hardly wilt in that rarefied company: a collection of emerging stars — with special mention for Dominik Szoboszlai — and a coach who encourages them to play adventurous, intense soccer. Marsch was, clearly, disappointed his team could not quite get over the line this week. He can take great pride, though, in how far they have come.

Thanks to Joe Klonowski, who saw in last week’s retelling of the Colombian Pirate League an echo of baseball’s Federal League. “The reserve clause was the maximum wage, holding wages down,” he wrote. “Joe Tinker, Edd Roush and Mordecai ‘Three Finger’ Brown” were baseball’s de Freitas, Rial and Di Stéfano, famous players who jumped to the outlaw league for better pay.

“The Federal League sued the established National League for monopolizing baseball, and the suit made it all the way to the Supreme Court. The court’s ruling upheld the reserve clause and, to this day, gives Major League Baseball (and the N.F.L., N.B.A. and M.L.S.) legalized monopoly power in their respective sports.”

I did not know any of that, but am glad to have been educated. Much appreciated.

West Brom was the West Brom of its 2-0 loss to Fulham on Monday.Credit…Andy Rain/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Christopher Orr, meanwhile, is not convinced that someone’s having to become West Brom is quite the problem for a super league that I have suggested. “I’m wondering if we’re missing the fact that most fans of English football would prefer to watch West Brom in the Premier League than Brentford, Luton or Bristol City in the Championship. In a super league, isn’t it logical to assume fans of European football would also prefer watching the ‘West Brom of Europe’ to watching domestic league sides in regionalized European versions of the Championship?”

That’s all for this week. There’s plenty to keep your eye on across Europe this weekend: Bayern visits Borussia Dortmund on Saturday in the Bundesliga, and Sunday is packed — Lazio against Juventus, Atalanta against Inter Milan, Liverpool visiting Manchester City, and then Valencia hosting Real Madrid. This week’s Set Piece Menu is a good one, on what role sport plays in broader culture. And, of course, please tell your family and friends that there is more to The Times than just working out which way Pennsylvania went.

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