Javi García’s role at Manchester City turns him into a new screen idol | Barney Ronay
Football terminolgy is changing fast and nothing shows that more than what we call the humble midfielder
There is a good bit in Don DeLillo's book Cosmopolis where he talks about the clunky, slightly embarrassing words that we have now simply got stuck with. These are mainly the early-adoptive words of new technology that have since aged at quadruple speed. For example the word "computer". We are now stuck pretty much forever with "computer" despite the fact it was originally coined to describe a massive humming iron-clad barn crammed with radioactive mega-transistors capable of doing the 12 times table in six weeks flat, and most often shown being escorted from military complex to Swiss exhibition hall by a team of hair-oiled boffins lined up next to its personalised flatbed truck like proud fathers of some vast and malevolent King Kong child, behind them the miracle machine already rattling its chains, eyes flashing red, muttering strange phrases like "music download" and "porn apocalypse" and "humans are … weak".
This issue of evolving terminology applies also to football where, after several decades of seeming to be more or less fixed, the names we use to describe players – and in turn what they can reasonably be expected to do – have, by contrast, begun to evolve unusually quickly. It is six games, five weeks and 555 minutes of football since anybody scored a goal against Manchester City, a universal shut-out that has coincided with Javi García's rise to understated prominence.
Against Queens Park Rangers on Tuesday García played as a centre-back, but really the Spaniard is something else. He is best employed, as the man on the radio, "in that screening role", a rather generic description that is in this case just about bang on. García is a screener. He screens. Not holding or pressing or sitting. At a push he shields, although screening gives a more accurate sense of something brusque and surgical and dispassionately non?concusssive.
He is unlikely ever to inflame the domestic imagination in the style of Yaya Touré, whose absence has coincided with García's run. Last season Touré seemed to offer not just standard-issue defensive wrestling, but also the nostril-flaring forward skedaddles of his "runaway caravan" mode, the ball not so much tied to his foot as concealed within the skirts of his pounding limbs, advancing on Premier League defences like an admiralty fireship scattering the fleet at Calais. García's interpretation of the role is more controlled, the latest stage in a wider response to the eradication of tackling and the challenge of how to defend in a manner that is still just about on the right side of the laws. The screener isn't a tackler, who plays the ball, or a presser, who plays the man. He is a player who plays the space, an expert, basically, at getting in the way. García doesn't "rise to the physical challenge". He expertly sidesteps it, seeking not the assertive collisions of the muscle midfielder, but instead lurking, stealing, nicking, a cold war midfielder gaining control by stealth and covert manoeuvres.
This is a little different to simply being a "holding midfielder", a player who defines himself by what he is not, part of a duo where one player "bombs on" while the holding man remains a selfless midfield eunuch left balefully tending the laundry. The screener is instead a highly specialised agent of constriction, engaged in a process of ushering and shuttling. Often there is talk of an attacking player having a "picture in his head", bringing to mind one of those war rooms where sombre moustachioed men push battleships around with wooden spatulas. The high-class screener appears to have this in reverse, a defensive picture, fires to quench, buds to deadhead.
To appreciate his work fully it is best to note where the screener has evolved from. The obvious ancestral influence was the "ball-winner", a vigilante-action midfielder skilled in the outlaw art of seizing possession through direct force. With the rescaling of the limits of acceptable force, fight turned to flight and midfield defence has often become a matter of simply running around a great deal, an attempt to solve the thorny problem of where to run by just running everywhere all at once, and a tactic that remains unsustainable in any team that can't also rest in possession for equal periods. Watching Scott Parker play for England, for example, can become terribly uncomfortable, those stoically trudging legs now run almost down to the knees, a man who is at times reduced to moving around the pitch at a kind of heroic half-speed, a footballing equivalent of those people who insist on running the London marathon wearing a Victorian diving suit.
And so the final option is simply standing your ground. There are other variations beside the simple screener. Michael Carrick has been excellent in his interceptor role, more aloof than the screener, less claustrophobically close-quarters, combining positional presence with a strolling authority. When fit Abou Diaby has something of the screener-variant, a brilliant manipulator of the ball and a gangling, spreading obstacle, a giant squid midfielder able to whisk the ball into space with those beautifully gifted tentacular feet.
In many ways, as the notion of what "a midfielder" is becomes more refined in the general sense of pitch-shrinkage and ultra-fit players, this is perhaps the screener's moment, the keeper of the space. Around the nation small boys may already be dreaming of growing up to become a screening midfielder, peering up at the tacked-up posters of shuttlers and scrabblers and saying one day I'll funnel an opposition midfield laterally across a suffocating defensive shield. One day I'll screen on the big screen.
On the other hand maybe it is simply the lack of overt physicality in García's midfield constriction that stands out as something new in the Premier League. This is something that may already be changing. Premier League managers are expert in identifying potential soft spots and no doubt the idea of the contactless barrier will soon be tested to the full. For now, though, the screener has made his mark, offering a glimpse of elegant cohesion at the centre of City's virgin January.
Filed under: Euro 2012
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