By the Numbers: 5

Soccer lists are ubiquitous and come in all shapes and sizes, types and varieties. We at O87 never settle for just doing another list. “Just another list” isn’t even in our vocabulary. So, when one of us decided that it would behoove our blog to have it’s own take on the “Best Of” phenomenon of modern sports, we decided that we couldn’t just list the best players in order of their relative merits, by their decades or eras, or even by their positions. We would try something marginally novel (we won’t be so bold as to claim to be the first to come up with this idea): let’s rank players by the number they wore, not by their position. Now obviously, this throws in some wrinkles. Players who might not normally be compared to each other will needs be. For example, Makelele, Hargreaves, Koeman, Zanetti, and Fabregas have all iconically worn number 4. Who to choose? It doesn’t matter! We’re trying to approach this question from a different perspective. We hope you enjoy it.

Wait, why are we doing this as a Q&A?

Because the catethetical form is a useful one for teaching you everything you need to know about our number 5 player. And because we really like Chapter 17 of Ulysses. That one had 309 questions. We’re not going to make it quite that far.

Which event or person will emerge as the salient point of this dialogue?

Franz Beckenbauer.

Did you like how we paraphrased straight from the book there?

Yes, we’re very proud of you. Can we stick to the subject at hand?

Fine. Who is Franz Beckenbauer?

German and Bayern Munich sweeper, widely considered the second-best European player of all-time, and the greatest defender.

All right then, so then what’s the deal with Franz Beckenbauer?

How many former players do you know whose nicknames still apply? Fat Ronaldo isn’t Il Fenomeno anymore. Any day now Super Pippo will revert back to regular old Filippo, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is neither Baby-Faced nor an Assassin at this point. But Beckenbauer has always been Der Kaiser. Three years after retiring as a player he managed West Germany to the final of the 1986 World Cup, where they lost to Argentina. They won the tournament four years later, making him the second man to win it as both a player and coach. Then he convinced FIFA to let Germany host the tournament in 2006; the way those stories are told, they make it sound like he single-handedly designed the stadia, planned the transportation and lodging, schmoozed the FIFA bigwigs and sold lemonade next to the Brandenburg gates to raise money for the appropriate bribes. Also, he was a member of FIFA’s powerful ExCo committee until last year, and probably one of the non-corrupt ones, or maybe one of the less-corrupt ones, since he publicly supported England’s bid, which got two votes, so presumably there wasn’t any impropriety there.

How much of that applies to why he’s the greatest number 5 of all-time?

None of it, but it’s food for thought nonetheless.

*Deep sigh* Then why was he the greatest number 5 of all-time?

Because he was a number 5 and a number 4 and a number 8 and a number 10 all at the same time. Beckenbauer famously began his career as an inside left forward, dropped back to midfield in his teens and early 20s, then took one look at Inter’s Giacinto Facchetti and said “I can do that, but from the center.” And he could. That comfort playing higher up the field stayed with him throughout his career, and by the end he could defend like a center back, spray long passes like a regista, keep the ball moving like a midfield metronome and both play the killer pass and score the occasional goal like a true number 10. Depending on where he was on the pitch, he could be Pique, Busquets, Xavi or Iniesta.

That sounds pretty awesome. Why doesn’t everyone have an attacking central defender?

Because Beckenbauer had a very specific skill set during a very specific era of the game. We’ve seen attacking defenders since then, but few who were quite like (or quite as good) as Beckenbauer. Last week’s honoree, Ronald Koeman, probably comes the closest. He’d come galloping out of central defense with the ball at his feet on occasion, and was renowned for his long shots and ability to drop passes onto a guilder from 30, 40 or 50 yards.

How long ago did Koeman retire? What about today?

Hold your horses. Today we have attacking defenders who are generally divided between passers and runners, ones good at distributing the ball rather than hoofing it or playing the easy pass and ones who can take it upfield on the run and try to cause havoc in the opposing ranks.

How is that different from Beckenbauer?

Well, Beckenbauer was both, but also more than that. Think about David Luiz. Luiz’s main strategy during his attacking forays seems to be to run fast enough that no one has a chance at tackling him, which leads to him looking somewhat out of control until he finally gives the ball up. His great fear is that someone’s going to take the ball away from him and he’s going to be lambasted for it. Beckenbauer, however, could be an outlet for his teammates further up the field because he was never out of control, and never seemed to worry about someone taking the ball from him, because he was so good at dealing with that immediate pressure.

By what means would he avoid that pressure?

You’ve seen modern players do similar things. Xavi is a master of shrugging off pressure by essentially bending himself over and using his backside as a wedge to throw off the balance of his opponent, a move he uses both as a tackle and a tool for keeping possession. Beckenbauer’s famous move does the same thing by having him essentially orbit the ball. His feet are so quick that he moves the ball within an infinitesimal space while he himself runs around it, at the same time shielding it and finding a proper escape vector before scampering off with it.

Why can’t anyone do that now?

Well, forwards are better tacklers now, or at least more of them bother trying to tackle. Plus nearly every team plays the kind of high-pressing game that punishes central defenders who try to bring the ball out of defense. Beckenbauer was very good at making time for himself on the ball to pick a pass or decide on a run – remember, he was like a whole midfield rolled into one man – but the fact remains that often he did get a lot of time on the ball.

What was he able to do with that time?

Score 60 goals for Bayern, plus another 14 for West Germany and 19 for the New York Cosmos. It’s a crime that I can’t find any decent assist statistics for him, because I bet that number is staggering high.

The whole of this discussion so far has been about offense. Could he defend?

Yes, not that there’s a whole hell of a lot of evidence on YouTube to prove that, mostly just minor clips of defensive plays scattered amid videos of him attacking. Trust me, I just spent an hour looking. Seriously though, at Bayern in particular, Beckenbauer often had a very functional, that is, defensive, midfield stuck in front of him. So he could in effect sweep up either behind them or the defense, and had multiple places on the field where he could use his sense of positioning to arrive out of nowhere and intercept a pass or nip the ball off someone’s feet. He was not, as you might imagine, the kind for dishing out bone-crushing tackles. And that’s okay.

Is it?

Yes.

Hang on, I see that picture over there. Why is he wearing #6 in it?

He won a European Championship, a World Cup and several European Cups in #5. We reckon that qualifies him.

Would he have made this list if he had spent his whole career as a midfielder?

It’s an interesting point to ponder. There’s no doubt part of the appeal of Beckenbauer is the novelty, the fact that there’s been no one quite like him before or since. We, both here at the blog and as soccer fans, tend to value that novelty — I personally am such a fan of the idea of attacking central defenders that I consider myself a big fan of Belgium and Ajax (perhaps soon to be Tottenham’s) Jan Vertonghen, who gets forward to good effect but hasn’t been embarrassed enough times in the Premier League that you feel kind of ashamed for liking him, like his countryman Thomas Vermaelen. That’s despite the fact that I can’t really recall ever seeing him play, though I know I must have, I just have no memory of him in particular aside from highlight videos and things I’ve read.

If he had stayed in midfield, Beckenbauer’s skill set would be a little more common. He was better at what he did than just about everyone, but to be in an all-time best XI you actually do have to be better than everyone. It’s an interesting hypothetical to ponder.

Can we ponder that hypothetical?

Not at the moment. We’re dealing in reality here.

How else will we attempt to remedy this state of comparative ignorance?

Don’t ask stupid questions.

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