Widely used as an insult in contemporary football, a luxury player is, essentially, a player who could be considered a luxury if utilised. Their inclusion in a team triggers the inevitable dilemma: do the positive effects of the player outweigh the negative contribution they will make? A player of this nature is contentious matter, often the subject of a heated debate between the supporter of talent and undeniable ability and the advocate of team spirit and collective responsibility.
Fittingly, if one browses the web for synonyms of the word ‘luxury’, the ever reliable Google encompasses all that is a luxury player in a series of suggestions: magnificence, aptly describing such a player with the ball at his feet; costliness, demonstrated in the immense expense of a luxury player, in all senses of the word; and prosperity, the potential future of a player of such grandeur.
Alas, the very selection of a luxury player is inherently fractious, as formations are usually adjusted and modified to accommodate this ornery player of immense talent. Moreover, alongside the luxury player, diligent, hard working players are deployed to recompense the lack of defensive contribution.
With all things considered, is there room in the modern game for the luxury player?
The luxury player has many positive aspects to his game, the most obvious and significant being their immense talent. Regardless of all else, watching performers of the ilk of Dimitar Berbatov and Adel Taarabt at their peak is a joy. They play with an effortless nonchalance and almost dispassionate grace that can carve open defences and leave fans mesmerised.
Furthermore, the languid playmakers, insouciant characters, are one of the beacons that draw people to the beautiful game from all over the globe. They can sell out stadiums, convert ardent haters, and transform a cagey relegation clash into an exhibition of raw yet refined skill, all with the deft, laconic flick of a foot. Their presence is invaluable: imagine Barcelona without Messi, Madrid minus Ronaldo, the Saints lacking Le Tissier.
Plus, such artistry on the pitch inspires children across the world to pick up a football, enthusing the youthful lovers of the game. Their influence is almost solely culpable for the decision of a Sunday League winger to poorly execute a Cruyff turn instead of passing. Evidently, these players are quintessential attackers; they evoke awe on a dreary Sunday mid-afternoon, making the game look deceptively easy as they incite a mad dash to the back garden on the final hoot of the whistle; kids attempting to emulate their pococurante heroes.
Such positive facets have been demonstrated this term by Messrs Arnautovic and Morrison of Stoke City and West Ham, respectively. Despite their respective teams enduring somewhat underwhelming campaigns, the perfunctory forwards have lit up the Premier League with mazy dribbles and adroit footwork. Likewise, across the Channel, a certain Zlatan Ibrahimovic, one of the game’s most polarising figures, has arrested the attention of pundits everywhere with his nine goals and four assists in a mere 13 games.
On the other hand, the luxury player has a number of deficiencies, chiefly, the ability to defend. Of course, this is a sweeping statement, and I am sure that there will be exceptions to this generalisation, but it is overt that the majority of luxury players have defensive paucities, for example, Spaniard Juan Mata, who has been somewhat ostracised by Mourinho since his return to London this summer. The primary factor in Mata’s shock omission from the Blues’ first team has been his frailties when out of possession, compelling indication that such players are not capable of surviving in the modern game.
Similarly, many luxury players are overlooked in team selections, particularly in crucial clashes, as they fail to comply with an apt formation. One such case is the exclusion of Kim Bo-Kyung from the Bluebirds’ first team versus fierce rivals Swansea, Mackay instead opting to deploy tireless midfielder Jordan Mutch in an orthodox, if conservative 4-1-4-1. Although Kim provides offensive energy and purpose, he was ignored as the rather more conservative Mutch was elected.
In addition, the luxury player is synonymous with poor work rate, a notion compounded by images of discontent trequartistas loitering on the half way line, watching their teammates toil endlessly to prevent concession. A player that typifies such apathy is Frenchman Hatem Ben Arfa, an unquestionably gifted winger, who has been disregarded by manager Alan Pardew this season, aside brief appearances in an unfamiliar false nine role. The expulsion of Ben Arfa from a regular starting spot has been vehemently supported by Toon favourite Alan Shearer, who has defended Pardew’s judgement, stating: “He won’t work hard for you,” before adding, “He will give you other things when you are playing the lesser teams … but work-rate is not what you can associate with him.”
Penultimately, luxury players, by nature, lack consistency. They can express themselves wonderfully, with tantalising skill, balance and composure, but the Fortnum and Mason footballers can only effectuate their talent in sporadic bursts. Often, players of this breed enjoy a brief peak in their career as their ability outweighs their inadequacies, rapidly followed by an unceremonious plummet, a la Lee Trundle, into the dregs of domestic football, conforming to the stereo-type of a disenchanted, lethargic enigma with lurid boots on.
Take Jay Emmanuel Thomas, a player that typifies the term luxury player, now plying his trade at Bristol City. He was once the future of English football, a hot prospect that had Wenger waxing lyrical: “He has outstanding quality. He has outstanding qualities; he has the build you dream to have. It is down to how far he wants to go because he has big potential.” Although he has found form at the Robins, he had the potential to become a leading midfielder in the Premier League, development that was abruptly halted by his detrimental attitude, a trait with strong connotations to luxury players, and a lack of game time. The former Arsenal prodigy was doomed to fail: he was the product of media hysteria, heightened anticipation and a premature pay rise. Consequently, his attitude slumped as he was afforded little game time due to the fact he could not conform to typical formations. Surely the luxury player has no place in the modern game if even the most talented prospects fail to fulfil their potential.
Conversely, there is evidence indicating that the luxury player still has a place in the contemporary football environment. Why have Arsenal been so successful this season? They have a wealth of luxury players, explicitly Mesut Ozil, Tomas Rosicky, Santi Cazorla and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, suitably nicknamed the Ox. Luxury players are ubiquitous in football, regardless of division or nation. For instance, the aforementioned Bristol City has seen luxury players come and go for years, such as Dave Cotterill, Lee Trundle, Nick Carle, Brett Pitman and Jamal Campbell Ryce, as fans articulated in a recent forum.
On the contrary, many contest that there is no place for luxury players. When asked whether there is place for luxury players in the modern game, Steve Holland, Chelsea assistant manager, replied “I don’t think there is, these days, I really don’t think there is.” Equally, it is apparent that luxury players are not tolerated to the extent that they were in the past. Years ago, they were an integral feature of any side, and, in some instances, valued so highly they were granted clauses in contracts absolving them from any defensive duties, or so the Stoichkov rumour goes. No player operates in the recognised leagues of the world who has been so indulged, underpinning the theory that the casual enganche is a largely extinct breed.
In conclusion, I summarise that football is a team game, with every player in the squad a cog in the collective machine, if you will excuse the generic analogy. For a team to prosper and succeed, every cog must turn in the same direction, a luxury player can be the cog stimulating the others, encouraging them to spin more rapidly, or he can be the cog that causes the machine to halt, their ego obstructing progression completely. I opine that the efficiency of the machine when flourishing prevails over the ineffectiveness of it when stalled.
I believe that the luxury player is an indispensible element of the beautiful game, serving to provide drama, entertainment and unrivalled ability. Their unique composition of undeniable skill, utter arrogance and enigmatic nonchalance has inspired generations and stimulated interest in football globally. The traits possessed by the likes of Cantona, Ibrahimovic and Morrison have shaped, are shaping and will shape football.
Fittingly, it seems that football will have to make room to accommodate such players in its modern environment. After all, Jon Obi Mikel and Tom Cleverley won’t prise kids from their consoles.