Football seems to be turning more and more into an individual sport. With individual votes such as the Ballon D’or growing each year, and now the introduction of “the best FIFA” awards. Even Spain seemed to become more Ronaldo v Messi than Real v Barca at one point. Football still holds similar rules and regulations since its inception centuries ago, but times have moved on. We are in a world now where individual awards are touted as being as being almost important as league championships.
Away from these awards and media spotlight used to live the majority of players. Once in a while these guys would creep into the back pages through hard work and success. I am talking about the underrated players.
This phrase is now becoming something we hear more and more, just how underrated a player is. Usually an industrious midfielder, these players are the back bone to a successful team. They win the ball, they start moves, and they lay the platform for the superstars to build upon.
That, however, could all be about to change. It now seems to be a competition between pundits as to who can be the highest regarded underrated player. At what point does an underrated player become rated? How many column inches must they have before they can go down as a great of the game? Will it ever happen or is it the case that once you are underrated you have this tag before your name until retirement. At this point will everyone look back and consider how truly special they were.
Michael Carrick is the current king of the ‘underrated’ player. Previously in the shadow of players like Ronaldo, now it is Zlatan and Pogba who occupy the media circus surrounding Old Trafford. Carrick is for sure one of the keys to United’s turn in form the last few months. People now seem to remember how good he really is, despite being a huge part of the league championships won towards the end of the Ferguson era. The Red Devils are yet to register a defeat in the ten games that Carrick has featured so far this season. In the twelve games he has missed, United have won only a third, although some against tougher opposition.
In the early part of last season, it looked as though there would be a new king of the underrated in town. A player, who protected his back four, won the ball and moved it forward for more creative players to take on the mantel. For months it was working, as Leicester City rode high in the league it was Mahrez and Vardy taking the plaudits and admiration. As the season came to a close however and the opposition defences dropped deeper, the Foxes were forced to do adjust. This is where N’Golo Kanté went too far and got himself noticed. Twelve clean sheets in their last 20 matches of the season gave the Midlands side a platform on which they could steal games and win the league. Kanté was a huge part of this success and over the summer he moved to Chelsea for £32 million. He is now regarded as one of the best ball winning midfielders around and rightly so.
So what is the recipe for a truly great underrated player? Looking at the above examples, it seems to be as follows: taking the example of Carrick, you cannot be the biggest personality on the pitch. Constantly being out shone by brilliant goals, last ditch tackles, and full stretch saves, the job of the underrated player is to allow all this to happen. When your winger runs down a blind alley you win the ball back and let him try again. When your striker misses from six yards, you win a header from the goal kick and let him try again. When your goalkeeper makes a save for the camera, clear it to the stands so he doesn’t have to do it again.
Another great example of this is Claude Makelele. He was the platform on which the Galacticos of Real Madrid built from. Winning the Champions league in 2001/02 with a team including Raul, Figo and Zidane, Madrid needed defensive cover. Makelele will be remembered as part of this team, but his involvement is always likely to be underated. Later, Makelele moved to Chelsea to win the league twice in a row, but I am sure many people outside of west London will need reminding of the fact he was part of it.
Any of the new breed of underrated players could easily move for £30 million in the current inflated market. Once they do, the price will attract media attention and cause a discussion. This topic will inevitably be around whether the player is worth this price, are they good enough. It is at this point the player will no longer be underrated. Under the scrutiny of the media and fans alike, the player must hit the ground running and prove his value. There is very little time gifted to adjust to new surroundings in the current game.
So who is part of the new breed of underrated player emerging from the league? Steven Davis (Southampton), Cheikhou Kouyate (West Ham) and Sam Clucas (Hull) all fit the bill. They are players you will have heard of but they are not the star of their current side. They are capable of winning the ball, picking a pass and even pitching in with the odd goal. It will be interesting to follow over the coming few transfer windows which of these players attract the big moves.