There are usually very few fresh opinions to take from a single group of football fixtures. Beyond the idea that you won’t die of electrocution if you take a bath with a toaster, or the liberating realization that baldness is hereditary so it won’t be getting me (suckers), both the size of the sample and the fact that there just aren’t many things to learn about football once you know the basics—everyone involved is a bad person, goals are overrated etc—mean that lessons simply aren’t around to be learnt after five or six kickarounds. And even the baldness news, it has to be said, has a dubious link to football: I am here writing about football and I wanted to talk about my not going bald, and that’s about it.
Yet, after the Europa and Champions League games this week, there was a thing to notice. It was this: there really are quite a few different ways to be a footballing genius. People say all the time that genius comes in many different forms, but until midweek I’d never taken them seriously, I’d assumed it was another piece of hollow sentiment, like “money doesn’t grow on trees,” when we all know it does, or “put your trousers back on,” when we all know I won’t, or “I’m calling the police,” when we all know I disconnected the phone hours ago, duh. Turns out, no, genius really isn’t a One Hit Wonder, it’s all kinds of things.
David De Gea was the host for the first bit of “Exceptional intellectual or creative power or other natural ability” that you could witness. It wasn’t his first save from Fabio Coentrao, which was merely excellent; it was his second, which was with his foot. Here’s what happened in just the right amount of detail: Sami Khedira found space down the right hand side for Real Madrid and whipped a low ball across the penalty area where, on the opposite side of the six yard box, it was met by a sliding Coentrao and directed, I think I’m right in saying this, towards the goal, which, again I think I’m right in saying this, is the white building constructed from two posts and a crossbar at either end of the pitch. The ball was going to go into the goal. Then it happened. De Gea, inside the goal for Manchester United, moved across towards the ball, but rather than using his hands to try and push it away, for seemingly no real reason, went for it with his foot, which is a different part of the body to the one you usually use.
If you watch the video, and I have watched it several times in preparation for writing this out (as you can tell), his torso moves back towards the ground in order to allow him to thrust his foot up towards the ball, which was a good two feet off the ground. He connects with the ball perfectly and it flies away from the goal, which, as I understand it, is the aim of the goalkeeper in almost all circumstances. And that was the save in full. It’s nice to be clear, yet again. In my opinion not enough detailed description of football goes on.
Now, Gary Neville on the commentary described that save as “unconventional.” It was a significant act of underselling. De Gea hadn’t just done something unconventional: with one moment he’d picked apart the whole idea of what it is to be a goalkeeper—the one player who can use his hands if he wants to!—and left it to rot. From here on in it is little exaggeration to say that no goalkeeper will ever use his hands to make a save again. And De Gea set that in motion on one of the biggest stages in world football. He demonstrated extreme, exceptional creativity, within a hugely pressured environment, and in doing so changed the landscape which he occupies forever: that is genius. Saving the ball with your foot is genius, is what I’m saying.
Alone, though, none of that would have meant anything, and not just because some – if not all – of my logic back there needs going over with the help of a psychiatrist. My assumption that there was really only one kind of genius would have remained untested, just slightly honed, if De Gea’s save had existed in isolation: I simply would have gone on to assume that the only type of genius there was was goalkeepers making saves with their feet. But that wasn’t the only bit of genius we saw this week. Far from it; it wasn’t even the only piece of genius we saw that game. We also saw Jose Mourinho.
“Oh, but Mourinho basically lost out in that game, surely that isn’t genius?” I can hear people asking, wrongly, and with a tinge of condescension. They’re wrong because the fact that he failed is precisely the point: these days, Mourinho’s genius isn’t in being a winner, it’s in seeming like a winner even when he’s losing. He didn’t need to come out after Wednesday’s game and say that his team would still go through in the tie to seem like a winner; he doesn’t even need to go through in the tie; he’ll seem like he’s won either way. When Mourinho loses, it just feels like another mind game: like he’s got some angle or some card he’s not showing yet. He’s essentially surpassed results as a measure of success: he’s a success even when he fails.
And that’s another kind of genius we got to see. It feels as though in years to come we’ll be saying “ah, now we can see what he was doing at Madrid was all a mind game in preparation for his time at United, where he famously won the Premier League and Champions League permanently.” Obviously that’s not right (or is it?) but that’s the power of the man: he’s really really good at seeming really really good. There can be no more exceptional quality than that.
One more act of genius this week. Gareth Bale’s free kicks. I wanted to describe them in detail here, but apparently you can have too much of a good thing, and you can certainly have too much of a bad thing, so I’ll just link back to where I described one a few months ago. He won Tottenham a Europa League game with two unbelievable free-kicks, and in doing so ensured he’d scored all six of Tottenham’s last six goals. It’s like being a mathematical or literary genius, except he makes a ball move a bit weirdly.
What a selection! And comprehensive proof that there are at least four kinds of genius operating in the footballing world today. De Gea’s, Mourinho’s, Bale’s, and mine, in the art of describing De Gea’s save. Remember: De Gea, inside the goal for Manchester United, moved across towards the ball, but rather than using his hands to try and push it away, for seemingly no real reason, went for it with his foot, which is a different part of the body to the one you usually use. Inspiring stuff, from me, a genius.