“Our goal is to try to bring a calm and simplicity to what are incredibly complex problems so that you’re not aware really of the solution, you’re not aware of how hard the problem was that was eventually solved.” – Jonathan Ive
As with any sport, football lends itself to classification. There’s a pleasing definition and closure to stuff. Players are categorised, teams ranked and records made, with a pleasing number of universal acceptances and truisms helping punctuate conjecture and debate.
Each player is seen to have a function and we measure effectiveness based on their ability to fulfil it. Goalkeepers and defenders generally act as barriers to entry whereas forwards are tasked with breaking resistance. Even the more general remit of the midfielders involves specific roles.
Where this clarity and logic falls down is when certain types of players are specifically referred to as being ‘functional’. As if functionality is a function in itself. ‘He isn’t one of those fancy-dans types, he’s functional’.
Surely each and every player has a function? Otherwise they’re redundant and pointless. Any player not performing a function for the team is by definition completely useless. ‘Functional’ in this sense really means ‘basic’. They win and/or distribute the ball without fuss or flourish.
The antonym is the ‘creative footballer’ or more derogatory ‘luxury signing’. Such players seek to create rather than destroy, allowing us to define football more as art than science. As such they can be unfairly characterised as somehow superfluous or decadent. A want rather than a need.
This of course is baloney. The prime goal in football is a goal. You gain and retain possession for long enough to score. When Bill Shankly once stated that “Football is a simple game, complicated by idiots” he wasn’t wrong. Which brings me to Shinji Kagawa.
Kagawa is a creative player. He creates and scores goals. But this doesn’t make him pleasant excess. He is no more a luxury than the goalkeeper. If we define a functional footballer in terms of how well they perform their required role, he’s one of the most functional players around.
His beauty is his simplicity. Whereas other players dazzle with their showboating and offer up more lollipops than Jimmy Savile on a school visit, the Japanese forward is wonderfully efficient in everything he does. He won’t take three or four touches when one or none will suffice.
Shinji marries form and function. The brilliance of his play is rooted in perfectly honed technique, clever movement which either buys him space or displaces defenders, and wonderful vision. He’s pleasing on the eye, but that’s because he makes it all seem so effortless.
If function is measured on effort exerted and the resulting fruits of that labour, then he has is far more functional than say Alan Smith, who wasted a lot of energy and bluster achieving very little. If anything it could be argued Smith was the luxury. A pointless Energizer bunny. A mascot.
Kagawa also runs around a lot. And closes down defenders. And makes unrewarded darts around the pitch. But he does it with intelligence and purpose. He could easily double his efforts, garner all sorts of praise and plaudits for his ‘passion’ and ‘commitment’ but be half as effective.
It’s perhaps part of the problem with football in this country that the important but secondary tasks of covering ground and ‘keeping things tight’ are arbitrarily seen as more essential and fundamental to a team’s success than something as necessary as creating goals.
Creativity is a need not a want. It’s absolutely necessary. Just because players as talented and skilled as Kagawa make it look easy doesn’t detract from its importance. Crafting an opportunity to score a goal is not easy. It’s just made to look that way by those who do it best.
Kagawa is a gloriously functional thing. Use him properly and often and he will perform to an excellent standard. He may not end every game with muddy knees and a red face but that’s because he doesn’t need to. He understands the power of simplicity and does football well.