In 2007, at the age of 36, Henrik Larsson signed for Manchester United. And in 2009, at the age of 30 – though his career almost seemed over by that point – Michael Owen also spent a fruitful period of time in the twilight of his career at Old Trafford.
Once Owen had left, the baton fell to Javier Hernandez. And so one thing is clear: Sir Alex Ferguson liked a goal poacher on his bench. And when you look around the Premier League’s top six, you see quite a few teams who could be doing with a similar approach.
Although United are praised for philosophies involving youth players coming through the ranks and for playing attacking football, Ferguson clearly had a pragmatic streak. Every year, players seem to be getting younger and younger, with Marcus Rashford and Kylian Mbappe talked up as potential world beaters before they’ve even turned 20, and other players considered to be hitting the middle years of their career by 23. Ferguson may have given youth a chance during his time, but he certainly knew the value of experience, too.
That’s the problem facing almost every manager in the top six this season. The brief for all of these super-managers who have come to England with the promise of big salaries and spending money is not just to build a winning team, but to build a winning dynasty.
At Manchester City, Pep Guardiola has been brought in as a sort of constitutional expert to give the club an identity and a way of playing. Mauld a winning team, but to build a winning dynasty.
At Manchester City, Pep Guardiola has been brought in as a sort of constitutional expert to give the club an identity and a way of playing. Mauricio Pochettino is building a squad of young talent, and Jurgen Klopp is doing a similar thing. The point is to keep the nucleus of a team together who can compete for trophies in the long term.
But when you look back at the impact that players like Larsson, Owen, and even Hernandez had at United, they were impact subs off the bench. And it didn’t matter how old they were – Owen and Larsson old, Hernandez young – what mattered was their ability to read the game whilst sitting on the bench so that they could find the right spaces in the box when they came on. Larsson may only have scored one Premier League goal for United, but he played enough games that season to get himself a medal. He was part of a squad.
In a world of instant results and earth shattering pressure placed on managers and players alike, the idea of a squad player is often lost. While it’s only natural that football players want to play first team games, both for their career prospects and for their own enjoyment, we seem to have lost the type of player who is happy to be involved when the team needs, safe in the knowledge that he’s a valuable member of a winning squad. Perhaps that’s the legacy of foreign imports and a lack of homegrown players from the same city, but players see playing as a career, not a vocation.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but isn’t that exactly the sort of plan B that both Liverpool and Tottenham could be doing with this season, especially when it comes to their striking options?
And with Jermain Defoe’s form over the last couple of seasons earning him an England call-up once again, and his goal at Wembley this weekend, you start to wonder why he’s not talked about in the same bracket as the off-the-bench poachers we’ve spoken about before.
It’s not his physical prowess that allows Defoe to score goals, it’s his cleverness and his experience. It’s how he reads the game and gets into the right positions as much as his natural finishing ability that makes him so deadly. And with his age and presumably low price tag (at least lower than you’re likely to spend on most 15-goal per season strikers) you’d think it would make perfect sense.
Maybe the stumbling block isn’t with the big clubs but with Defoe himself. Maybe he just wants to end his career as a first choice striker, though wherever he goes at this point, you get the feeling most fans would rather have a younger model. But having a player like Defoe come off the bench 15 times a season and bag seven goals could be the difference between second and sixth. And in a top six that’s as congested as it’s ever been in the Premier League era, it could well win you the title.
And if former club Tottenham, Liverpool or even Manchester United can’t offer Defoe first team football, they might still be able to offer him something he hasn’t managed to get his hands on very much in his career: medals. He only has one League Cup winner’s medal from his time in north London, but with each of the top six looking to win much more than that over the coming seasons, maybe Defoe could be persuaded to swap starting berths for squad roles, and exchange goals for medals.