A player receives the ball just inside the opposition’s half, drops the shoulder, feints on hitting it long, which gives him time and space to put his foot on the ball and look up. He then glimpses a bustling central midfielder charging at him from the side, ready to plough straight through him. So he taps the ball to the side of his opponent and dances around him to collect the ball and survey his options once again.
This might be what a player of above average skill does 1% of the time, perhaps in the 84th minute when his team are 3-0 up at home, but this is Adel Taarabt’s stock move. His default move. And that is why he is my favourite footballer.
Unfortunately, in England players are coached to hit the big man up front early, the only justifiable exception to that being to hit the channels where the quick guy will run onto it. There’s even a difference between the crowds in England and . When Kaka does a stepover on the half-way line in Spain, the crowd howl with excitement despite him not having made any progress. If you see David Bentley do some stepovers near the byline, you hear 30,000 voices shouting ‘Just put it in the box you ******!’. Admittedly the expected success of each of those players plays a part, but the difference behind the two reactions is remarkable.
There is heavy scepticism towards skill and flair in England. Commentators even criticise it, saying mindlessly that “there’s no need to do that” when a player dances around the ball, not realising that the player is expressing himself artistically (although perhaps not in the case of Heskey and his stepover in the World Cup). Abroad, there seems to be more tolerance, and even welcoming of skill and flair, although it’s important not to band ‘every-country-which-isn’t-the-UK’ together like some fans do.
Taarabt is an artist. Unfortunately, Adel probably won’t make it in the Premier League because of his inconsistency and ill-discipline, but he’s the only player I’ve watched consistently who does things which are awesome, in the truest sense of the word. Taarabt will gain his team an advantage by nutmegging, spinning, flicking or dancing around naive British defenders and midfielders.The majority of players in the UK on the other hand, certainly from the nPower Championship downwards, are rough-and-tumble athletes. Thus it’s the way he stands out from the usual brutish Englsih footballer which attracts me. Maybe, in a parallel universe, I’m watching and playing football in a country where skill was everywhere, and I would be writing this article romanticising about the occasional Lee Cattermole who pops up and says bollocks to it all. But it is this way round with Adel in the UK.
Intelligence is brilliant to admire in the English game, a wonderful interlude to the first time channel hitting, to the wingers with their head down running up and down the touchline. Benayoun is also a favourite of mine because as soon as he receives the ball he turns towards goal, seemingly thinking ‘Can I get there myself? How far can I go without being tackled?’ Taarabt possesses this same intelligence.
Of course there is a personal aspect to my love (no, that’s not too strong a word thank-you) for Adel. I first saw him on his Spurs debut in the great 4-3 win over West Ham at Upton Park in 2007. It was my first time at Upton Park, and my first away London derby, and apart from the racist chanting and coin-throwing from the upper tier down onto us, Adel’s cameo sticks in my mind the most.
West Ham were winning 3-2 when Martin Jol threw him on with 86:48 minutes on the clock. On 87:18 minutes, he receives the ball, turns around Tevez, and slides a through ball with the outside of his foot through the tiny gap between Zamora, Bowyer, Noble and Konchesky to set Paul Stalteri racing down the right wing – you didn’t think I was going to go into this much detail did you? He receives the ball back from Stalteri, rolls it across the path of a lunging Noble, slips it past Blanco with a one-two with Berbatov, dancing across the line of the West Ham defence and then winning a free-kick as Marlon Harewood cynically takes him out on the edge of the box. Berbatov scores the free-kick and Stalteri nets the winner four minutes into injury time.
Six months later Jol is replaced by Juande Ramos, and Adel’s performances were limited to these little cameos which, predictably, didn’t result in such effective performances. As soon as his tricks didn’t work on Joey Barton at White Hart Lane in 2008 when Taarabt was the last man back and allowed Barton to snatch the ball and help Newcastle to make it a 4-1 defeat, Taarabt’s commitment to skill was made a scapegoat. He wasn’t given a squad number for the next season at Spurs, and he has since been at QPR, moving there permanently just last week.
But I don’t care. He’s nutmegged Joe Cole, Cesc Fabregas, Bacary Sagna, Frank Lampard, and a hundred other poor Championship players. And anyway, aren’t these the most enjoyable things to watch in football?
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