Although physique has historically been less important than skill and technique, there was a short period of time where it seemed as though top clubs were evaluating physical stature of players over soccer intellect before deciding on paying their transfer fee. That period of time (2004-2009) was also not surprisingly a dominant era for English teams in the Champions League.
Domestic clubs also profited and Stoke City were the masters of this, exploiting physical attributes to the fullest. Fans of opposing teams feared the worst when Stoke City signed Peter Crouch, which I considered to be a dream signing.
Chelsea profited from this revolution the most. They looked unbeatable during Jose Mourinho’s first few years in charge. Their midfield was tall and strong. How scary do you think opposing midfielders were of getting stuck in with Michael Essien and John Obi Mikel? And then they added Michael Ballack, who looked more like Ivan Drago of the Rocky movies.
There was an unfair mismatch for teams who were defending Chelsea on set pieces, especially when they threw out a starting lineup with only Ashley Cole measuring less than 6-foot? You could almost see the fear of players when having to challenge Essien in a 50/50 tackle. Those days were tough, and it seemed to be the future or soccer, but the miniature superstars of FC Barcelona saved the little players from possible extinction.
FC Barcelona’s signature tiki-taka style of football has mesmerized observers and even the players they play against — as they sometimes marvel at the brilliance instead of pressure the Barcelona players. Such astonishing attacking football exhibited with meticulous passing was the evidence managers needed to spend and begin the resurgence of smaller players.
Whether you were taller, faster, or quicker it did not matter – opposing players weren’t even going to get a sniff of the ball. The physical specimens like Essien were transcendent athletes during that dominant English Premier League era, but the Barcelona players brought back the focus on skill and technique.
The latest victims of joga bonito football were Manchester City, who couldn’t help but chase shadows for the majority of the Champions League encounter against the Catalans. Big clubs started chasing players like Jack Wilshere instead of Tomas Graveson. Skill and technique ahead of strength. Wit over brute strength – FC Barcelona made that narrative possible.
Possession football made players like Mathieu Valbuena useful again. An intriguing question is how Valbuena would have performed with a long-ball tactic team? Remember the old Bolton Squad coach by Sam Allardyce that would always get the best of Arsenal through their physical play? Imagine Xavi trying to play on that team – it’s very likely the world would have never considered him even a good player if he played on that squad.
But that didn’t happen and the short players lived on. However, that could also be short-lived. What if a club produces replicas of FC Barcelona’s squad with players over 6-foot tall with physique comparable to massive Bulls? Nothing would ever be able to stop that and the shorter players would once again be lost into obscurity.
Maybe, just maybe, that thought will never turn into reality.