John Nash, Robin Williams, Christopher Wallace: genius often comes with a flipside. In football, the pitfalls tend not to be so drastic, but they're there all the same. It’s no stretch to use the G-word to describe Roy Keane, Patrick Vieira and Claude Makelele. They were sublime for a time, but the price of their genius was the impossibility of replacing it. At Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea, the past decade has told similar tales.
All three players arrived to usher their clubs into eras of unprecedented dominance: Keane turned one-time title winners into serial champions, Vieira and Makelele transformed also-rans into winning machines. In United's 13 years with Keane, they helped themselves to 12 major trophies; Chelsea won five in Makelele's four full seasons in London, while Arsenal and Vieira earned seven in nine years. Together, the three midfielders forged the modern era’s status quo.
Their departures have all been keenly felt. Arsenal's post-Vieira drought is well-documented: his final kick of a ball in red and white won the club its last trophy for nine years. United and Chelsea suffered less acutely from the exits of Keane and Makelele, though their fortunes have oscillated in a way that never happened while they were on the books. None of the three have dominated quite as emphatically since losing their virtuosos: a combined 24 trophies in 26 seasons with them has dropped to 17 in 30 without.
The chronic inability to replace these men has hung like a storm cloud over each club. From Michael Carrick to Lassana Diarra to Abou Diaby, the trio’s supposed successors – lazily branded or not – have invariably and inevitably failed to live up to their billing.
United and Arsenal have each gone over a decade with a conspicuous absence in their midfield; Chelsea eight years. Rarely has a transfer window passed with at least one club trying, and failing, to fix the problem. Now, it looks as though they may all have done so in the space of a single summer.
In north London, it’s no coincidence that Arsenal’s positive results have coincided precisely with Granit Xhaka’s appearance in the side. Against Liverpool, the team’s soft centre was bypassed as they let in four and lost. Since then they’ve gathered four points from six, conceding only a consolation. Their standout player in a rampant defeat of Watford at Vicarage Road was the Switzerland international in the heart of midfield, his presence a healthy blend of robustness and refinement. Arsenal have had plenty of the latter in recent years but the former has been excruciatingly rare. It’s cost them.
Any talk of the ‘new Vieira’ would at this stage be madness, but it’s safe to say that, in style if not ability, Xhaka looks to be as worthy a successor as there's ever been. A glance over the pair’s disciplinary records shows that there will, at the very least, be one common denominator.
Across town, N'Golo Kante has been the standout summer signing of the season’s opening weeks. His showings have Chelsea's most talented midfielder consigned to the sidelines, and on current evidence, Cesc Fabregas – the original Vieira successor, a decade back – can have no complaints.
If comparisons between Xhaka and his predecessor are premature, in Kante's case they’re much less so. Early signs are that he may soon rival Makelele in both excellence and importance.
His performances at Chelsea have been characterised by exactly the same brand of unfussy firefighting as his countryman, his understated, purposeful range of passing further inviting the comparison. Both specialise in plugging holes when their team-mates raid forward, spotting counter-attacks before they happen and snuffing out danger with minimal hassle. Simple enough on paper, but as demonstrated by John Obi Mikel, Ramires and David Luiz in recent years, not so easy in practice.
"He gives us confidence," said Eden Hazard of his new team-mate. "We want to try to dribble past the opponent because we know if we lose the ball, he is there behind us."
At Leicester, Claudio Ranieri encouraged the Frenchman to make lung-busting forward runs, to be a driving force as well as a destructive one. Antonio Conte has deployed Kante slightly deeper, the midfielder rarely getting ahead of the ball. Shielding the defence, stealing possession, feeding the ball forward intelligently: Kante is playing the very role made famous by his forerunner.
Famously, the unglamorous Makelele fell victim to Florentino Perez's starry-eyed galacticos system at Real Madrid, and found a new lease of life within the selfless collectivism of Jose Mourinho's Chelsea. He left Spain aged 30 but played another eight seasons of top-level football. Kante is only 25, and far more reliant on his energy and endurance, but the first three weeks of Conte's equally team-centric regime have already offered signs that he may be able to adapt his game similarly.
Kante wins the ball back against West Ham
Keen for another Keane
Ironically enough, Mourinho – having been chewed up and spat out by the real Real Madrid – is now at the helm of the closest thing the English game has ever seen to a galacticos project. Manchester United have spent the summer splashing eye-watering sums of money to acquire the sport's glitziest names, and Paul Pogba, the project's crown jewel, may well turn out to be the heir to a throne that has gone unclaimed at Old Trafford for over a decade.
Keane departed Manchester in 2005 in the only way he knew – seething acrimony, no regrets – and since then the spot vacated by the Irishman has rarely been less than glaring. If the latter-years Alex Ferguson seemed weirdly intent on never again buying a senior midfielder, Mourinho has no such plans. He wanted Pogba last year, he got him this year. The parallels between the two players are numerous.
Keane's status was cemented in Turin; Pogba left for Turin before boomeranging back to England, reputation similarly elevated. United broke their transfer record to sign both players – and while the club need only look to Juan Sebastian Veron for proof that searing talent and a soaring fee is no a guarantee of central-midfield success, the memories of Keane's magnificence are an equally stark reminder that the new boy's top-dollar pedigree makes him a close to a sure thing as there can be.
Pogba's swaggering early displays have done little to dispel the notion that he'll invigorate United's engine room, though whether he'll do so to the extent of Keane is another matter entirely.
Different styles, same influence?
Keane hared around the pitch like a demented jackrabbit; Pogba is a languid stroller. And while Keane was old-school to the bone, Pogba's the archetypal modern footballer: the celebrity, the brand, the haircut for every occasion. Yet the two are also remarkably similar. On the pitch, Pogba is in fact hearteningly old-fashioned. In a position dominated by specialists, he's nothing of the sort; his domineering, box-to-box style is almost a throwback to a bygone era.
If Pogba specialises in anything, it's his ability to do everything. He can pass, shoot and tackle well, if not always outstandingly. His real strength is the capacity to energise his side, tweak the tempo of a game accordingly and use his herculean fitness levels to provide a constant buzzing presence between both boxes. Remind you of anyone?
“He inspired all around him,” Ferguson said of Keane's signature, superhuman performance against Juventus at the Stadio delle Alpi in 1999. “I felt such an honour to be associated with such a player.”
The Frenchman has big boots to fill. So do Xhaka and Kante. But if any can come close, it could mean big things for English football's power base. Genius has a flipside, but it has one hell of an upside, too.
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