The Champions League Final and the Boy Who Would Be King

Posted on by

Many years ago, I wrote this piece on Dirk Kuyt for this odd thing called a “soccer blog” and that many people named “the Run of Play.” The premise was simple: Dirk Kuyt, then at Liverpool, was really slow, but worked really hard, and scored ugly goals from time to time. This was back in 2009. Kuyt was a stark contrast to Liverpool’s other striker at the time, Fernando “El Nino” Torres, who ran like the wind and scored goals with the same ease as you and I blink.

Yet seven years later, things have flipped.

Way back in the day, when cell phones could not yet edit images or videos and we rode pterodactyls to work, Rafa Benitez was even a respected manager and enjoyed a bit of success. He structured his Liverpool team in a 4-4-2 that sat very deep and counterattacked with aplomb. Torres was a lone striker who did very little work off the ball: his job was to hang off the last defender’s shoulders, stay onside if possible, and wait for Stevie G, the attacking mid, to fling a Hollywood pass either into space or out of bounds.

Kuyt was the defense-first hustler on the left side of the field, who worked to compensate for the backtracking deficiencies of a Luis Garcia. Torres scored some amazing goals for Atletico, but he was absolutely unstoppable in Benitez’s system and surrounded by the right players. His pace unsettled defenders, but his precise and calm finishing set him apart: he could blast the ball far post at any time, but preferred to round the keeper just because.

Time, though, stops for no player. It just keeps timing along, until your body is timed out. Torres lost his pace, he got sold to Chelsea, and things worked out a bit poorly. Yet this odd thing happened: he did not die and fall off a cliff. Instead, he scored key goals in a run that culminated in a Champions League trophy. Were the Blues drab and defensive? Yes. However, are Leicester City drab and defensive? Yes. The beauty of the counterattack is, and always will be, in the eyes of the beholder.

Now we arrive at the present. After a nice couple years of exorbitant paydays (assuming he got paid) in Turkey, Dirk Kuyt has enjoyed an Indian summer in the Eredivisie. However, you can’t even call it an Indian summer because Kuyt never ever before scored goals at this rate or this volume. Yes a lot of them are penalties, and most are classic Kuyt goals that come from a late-run or a rebound, but volume is volume is volume, as the statisticians say.

On the other hand, Fernando Torres is not scoring a lot of goals at Atletico Madrid, but will soon be appearing in a Champions League final. Simeone’s Atletico is a 4-4-2 just like Rafa Benitz, but actually play even deeper and like to press attacking wingers near their own corner flags. More importantly, Torres is no longer the kid with pace who runs into space – he’s old man Gerrard and flings first-time passes to his French teammate.

Yet we can’t appreciate him. He now tackles and presses and marks a holding midfielder at times, but we won’t forget him as the Nino who almost scored goals to lead LFC to a Premier League title. We can’t appreciate grit and determination because we prefer the flair and tangible statistic of goals from his earlier years. He’s worked hard to remain relevant on the field – that’s why Diego starts him in key games. But, off it, he’s now a nobody. The perception is that he came back to Atletico with his tail tucked in and nobody wanted him.

And that’s okay. He’ll just go out and win another Champions League title by sheer force of will, and nobody will notice.

Please check out the Kick Starter campaign for Elliott’s new soccer book here.

Comments are closed.