Football is all About Alchemy

There is no magic formula for success in this sport, writes Susy Campanale, but that doesn’t mean ingredients that worked in one recipe won’t fail in another setting.

Football is the most complex and unpredictable of sports precisely because there are so many different elements that need to come together. It is a team sport where one individual can do very little without help from their companions. A single goal can secure victory, even when the other side has dominated possession and opportunities. It is a complex alchemy of ingredients, and they need to be in the right environment to come together, which can change from one game to the next. We seem to forget that when judging a team, a player or a coach, but it’s worth remembering before launching outrageous accusations or flinging improbable praise.

Italy won UEFA EURO 2020 by being the best team in the competition, the most consistent and the side that ultimately deserved to lift that trophy at Wembley Stadium. The same squad failed to qualify for the 2022 World Cup, again, deservedly. Both things can be true and do not negate each other. It was pitiful to see some people rewrite history, claiming the Azzurri’s victory just eight months earlier was a “fluke” and that Roberto Mancini ought to be sacked. A few even claimed Mancio had “achieved nothing” in his tenure, conveniently forgetting the 37-match all-time new unbeaten world record for a national team, which by the way was earned during the European Championship triumph.

Memories are short in football, we know that, but there’s more to the way people are evaluating and re-evaluating teams nowadays. The assumption is that any success seen before was a stroke of luck, nothing more than a strange combination of events that weren’t deserved at all. You don’t see the same attitude in other walks of life or even sport, like an actor being in a terrible film and therefore the Oscar-winning performance earlier in his career was nothing but a lucky break.

Romelu Lukaku is a perfect example of this rather strange approach many people, especially on social media, take to evaluating football players. He was an excellent striker at Inter, essential to their Scudetto victory and prolific with the right kind of service provided to him by Antonio Conte’s team. Put him in a Chelsea shirt with totally different teammates and a manager in Thomas Tuchel who has the opposite tactical approach, the results are inevitably not going to be the same. That does not mean the Belgium international is a terrible player, nor that he only shone in Serie A because it is a ‘farmer’s league’, whatever that means. Put Lukaku in Conte’s Tottenham Hotspur and you’d get a very different performance.

In other areas, players have their own individual characteristics and cannot be expected to tick every box. Gianluigi Donnarumma has never been good with the ball at his feet, everyone knew that was a weakness, but he remains one of the finest shot-stoppers in the game. Rather than damn him for not being able to dribble away from Karim Benzema, perhaps Paris Saint-Germain should focus more on not passing it back to him when he is under pressure from one of the best strikers in the world. Acknowledge different players have their own strengths and cannot simply be replicas of others.

Barcelona look like a totally different team since Xavi took over from Ronald Koeman in November 2021. Some of that was down to the club intervening in the January transfer window with the arrival of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Adama Traoré and Ferran Torres, not to mention still trying to fill the void left by Lionel Messi last summer. There is such a special alchemy required for a football team to really work, a change of coach is the most obvious element you can adjust, as well as the easiest for a club to rely on, finding that scapegoat.

If you want to know why football is the most alchemic of all the sports, look at PSG. No matter how many coaches and superstar players come through Parc des Princes, they simply don’t gel as a unit. Every year their attempts to buy Champions League success are doomed to failure, because they are trying to throw together delicious ingredients that don’t work in conjunction, like a casserole with lamb, chocolate and crab meat. All tasty, just not in the same mouthful. What they need in Paris is some bread, legumes, perhaps rice to soak up the juices, to provide a balanced meal that won’t give their supporters indigestion. Yet no matter how many times they falter, do you hear people saying Neymar, Kylian Mbappé or Messi are over-rated? Does anyone consider their previous successes a freak occurrence? This is a team sport and there is no magic formula for success. That’s why we love it, and why it makes us suffer so.

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