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If you watch Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo play football, it's obvious why they're regarded so highly. Their talent is quite blatant even to the most casual football fan; it's hard to miss them dribbling past four players and placing the ball in the top corner. Their success cannot be praised highly enough and rightly so, but what about the players whose skills aren't quite so recognisable? The kind of players who would be one of the first names on the team sheet, but one of the last mentioned in the pub after the game. This article is dedicated to the footballers who don't seem like they're particularly good - but really are.
If a newcomer to football were to watch Germany or Bayern Munich, they could be forgiven for taking a while to notice Muller was playing. It may seem like a flaw, but that is Muller's biggest asset. He isn't particularly quick or strong, he isn't a great dribbler of the ball and he rarely attempts audacious passes - you may be thinking, what can Muller do? His lack of the primary skills a footballer needs to excel would mean, in theory, that against well-marshaled defences in big games, Muller has no chance of scoring. Yet in big games, Muller does score. All the time. His goal scoring prowess in the important moments are evidenced by his 10 goals in two world cups; it's not unlikely that by the end of the 2018 World cup in Russia, Muller will stand top of the list in all time scorers. Not bad for someone who seems so physically inept he once said of himself "You can’t get hurt if there are no muscles. My calves are so thin, opponents never hit the bone because they’re so hard to see".
Muller's self deprecation aside, there are quite a few things he is very good at. There have been countless times when a ball is played into the box, it's bumbled around, and Muller is there to prod it in. His secret lies in what he does when he doesn't have the ball. Where others in attacking positions fail to spot a space to run into, Muller promptly sees it, runs into it and scores. His intelligence in understanding space has grown to such an extent, he now has a word named after him - 'Raumdeuter'. This is how he is known in the German press, simply translated as 'space investigator'. It takes some player to be so key to a team, that his coaches disregard his inability to naturally fall into a position, so they invent one for him instead.
If you were to ask most football fans in England to rank the Barcelona team in order of their talents, Sergio Busquets would probably come some way down the list. Thankfully most in Spain don't think this way, especially his coaches. "If I could be any player in the world, I would like to be Sergio Busquets" These were the words of Spain national coach Vicente Del Bosque prior to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa - Busquets would go on to start every game as Spain eventually claimed their first World Cup triumph. "He does everything" Del Bosque continued "He always helps the team, he is generous, and he is the first to get the team moving. When he plays, the football is more fluid. With Busquets in the team, our football is better."
An argument held against him, is that without great players around him, Busquets wouldn't have a career. There is some substance, however, to flipping the argument. Without Busquets' natural ability to link the play from defence to midfield, Barca's notorious fluidity would become stagnant. The two centre backs splitting with Busquets coming deep to receive the ball from Valdes, was the lasting trademark of the Guardiola era. Guardiola, and consequently Busquets, seemingly transformed the meaning of the 'Pivot' role. His emergence as a holding midfielder possessing exceptional technical and defensive qualities, was one ingredient in the seamless recipe that cooked up arguably the greatest ever team football has ever seen.
Busquets' natural understanding of the game, and more importantly, his understanding of the position he's made his own, is what separates him from other holding midfielders. Wherever his team need him to be, he'll be there. If a path to the opposition striker needed to be blocked, or a pass to Xavi needed to be made, he would do it. This may not seem like a lot to some people, but to his teammates, it's vital. "People who don't like football don't appreciate my game, but I like it. My team-mates appreciate that I do the dirty work and I know it is necessary." Judging from his words, it seems Busquets is happy to continue to appear a bit part character in his own, illustrious career.
Ki rarely scores, rarely assists and rarely breaks up play, so it's a testament to how well he keeps the ball that he's evolved into one of the Premier League's finest midfielders. He keeps the ball so well in fact, that in the 2013/2014 Premier League season, Ki had the second highest pass completion in the final third at 86.3%. Quite an achievement considering the company he was up against, as well as the fact he played in a Sunderland team that finished 13th in the league. He was fortunate that Gus Poyet took the helm that season; the Uruguayan gave Ki the belief in his ability to perform consistently well for the Black Cats."Gus gave me confidence and he believed in me" Ki said of his former manager. This bout of confidence was evidenced by his bravery to take the winning penalty against Man United in the Capital One Cup - he scored with a pass into the bottom right-hand corner. There's no other way he would have done it.
Despite a 92% pass completion rate for Swansea in the 2012/13 season, former manager Michael Laudrup didn't see Ki as part of his plans; this looks to have been somewhat of a blessing in disguise. Since then he's grown in stature as a player, cementing his place in the Swansea starting XI this season with consistently impressive displays. His calmness on the ball is perfectly suited to Swansea's patient build up, but recently he's been proving to have more than passing to his game. Several teams, especially towards the lower end of the table, come to the Liberty Stadium to sit back and defend (a statement showcasing how far Swansea have come) which means they can be tough to break down. Ki has developed the ability to run with the ball a la Andres Iniesta, disrupting the shape of rigid opposition, creating space for him or his teammates to run into. In certain games, at home to QPR for example, he's bagged the winning goal because of adventurous forays with the ball. If Ki's rapid improvement continues, he may stop being overlooked and scouts for some big sides may take notice.
Given the calibre of central midfielders at Juventus, Asamoah maybe thought he wouldn't get much playing time when he moved to The Old Lady in 2012. In fairness, the amount of minutes he's spent in the middle of the park has been limited, but former manager Antonio Conte had different ideas for where the Ghanaian international would be deployed. In almost every game throughout Conte's tenure, his team lined up with three at the back, with wing-backs covering the wide areas. This formation has come back into fashion in the past couple of seasons; Conte's ruthlessly efficient Juventus side likely to be a considerable factor in it's resurgence. For the formation to be effective, certain criteria must be met in some areas of the pitch - the wing-back role an especially niche position. Stamina, positional awareness and an ability to attack and defend are the compulsory requirements; in Asamoah, Conte found of all these and more.
It was love at first sight for Conte and Asamoah; his debut came in the Supercoppa Italia against Napoli, he scored and Juventus won 4-2. Since that game he became a stalwart in a very competitive side, the regularity of his selection in the team signified how important he quickly became. His power and pace gave Juventus a balance to their midfield, allowing the more talented ballplayers in Pirlo and Marchisio the platform to showcase their talent.
This season he's been in and out of the team under new coach Massimiliano Allegri, with La Vecchia Segnora reverting back to the more conventional four in defence. This has led to Asamoah being left without a natural role in the team; Patrice Evra is a more experienced left back, whereas there are an abundance of central midfielders bidding for the same position. When he's been granted a starting birth, he's performed admirably, but Allegri doesn't seem to have the trust in him that Conte did. Clubs the size of Juventus obviously need squad players, but Asamoah is an instinctively hungry footballer; if he doesn't get the time on the pitch he feels he deserves, Juventus' loss could be another club's gain.
Under the radar
The types of player mentioned will, by nature, continue to stay under the radar - the play-makers and exciting wingers will inevitably grab the headlines. As long as the unconventional, underrated and unnoticed get the recognition of their team-mates and coaches, they'll happily collect the trophies and accolades their selfless play deserves. Given their understanding of the game, it wouldn't come as too much of a shock to see them emerge as managers after they retire from playing; their teams will inescapably be filled with players who are just as unassuming as they were.