By Paul Gardner
What’s this? The Red Bulls win the Emirates Cup? An unlikely turn of events, for sure, but a result not to be argued with. In their first game the Red Bulls were superior in every category against Paris St Germain and fully deserved their 1-0 win. The second game, against hosts Arsenal, was another matter, with Coach Hans Backe playing a cravenly defensive first half -- a tactic that kept the scoreline down to just one Arsenal goal.
Things were only slightly more adventurous for the Bulls in the second half, but enough was done to get a possibly deserved equalizer (via an own goal by Arsenal’s Kyle Bartley). In terms of its own play -- which, even when the team was a goal down, remained disappointingly cautious -- maybe the Bulls didn’t deserve that equalizer.
The merit for the Bulls’ win came primarily from the negative qualities displayed by Arsenal, which looked like a team that would struggle in MLS, never mind the EPL. They were without Cesc Fabregas and Sammy Nasri? Oh come on, a team with a bench like Arsenal’s, a team that goes 1-0 up in the first half -- forget it, this was a pathetic Arsenal showing.
So the Bulls, without having to do anything too strenuous, took full advantage. And, if it comes to that, they were playing without Joel Lindpere and Luke Rodgers.
The absence of Rodgers is worth pondering, because it meant that we saw something of Juan Agudelo. That “something” turned out to be 74 minutes as a starter in the first game, then 35 as a sub in the second.
I find it intriguing to wonder whether we would have seen anything at all of Agudelo had Rodgers been fit. Recent statements from Hans Backe (to say nothing of his sparing use of Agudelo) and Thierry Henry have not gone down well in this quarter. In fact, I find them strangely offensive. Mostly, I think, because they speak with sweeping, arrogant authority about that troublesome subject of growing up.
There’s no reason to doubt Backe’s sincerity when he says he needs to protect Agudelo -- not from thuggish defenders, but from “approaches and appointments” and the demand for “appearances” that, he says, the club must minimize. Fair enough.
But how does that justify Backe being so Scroogey with Agudelo’s playing time? Why on earth did Agudelo get only 10 minutes in the MLS All-Star Game? The question was asked at the time, and Backe retorted, to the media, “Let him grow in his own way. He’s only 18, he has a future. He’s no end product, he has a long way to go.”
OK. But who says keeping Agudelo on the bench is the right way to “let him grow in his own way”? Isn’t that rather Backe’s way? Backe gets uncharacteristically rattled when challenged, and responds by attacking the media: “You guys make him out to be the No. 1 story. In two years, you will kill him.”
Comparisons are being made with Freddy Adu. We’re being told that Adu got too much, too early, had his head turned by all the attention, and as a result has never lived up to his promise.
That Adu has not turned into a superstar is undeniable. But whose fault was that? Could it be that he was over-rated from the start, that he simply doesn’t have the talent? Could it be that he is, as was often remarked upon, too physically slight? That he doesn’t have the mental toughness required?
Possibly, possibly to all of those things. But there are some very obvious differences between Adu and Agudelo. It seems more than likely to me that the biggest damage to Adu’s prospects was done by Nike when, tossing money around as they do with young basketball stars, they gave Adu a $1 million dollar deal ... at age 13.
If that level of “approach” is what Backe is talking about, then I don’t think anyone is going to disagree with him. But approaches from sponsors and promoters present a huge problem. Turning down money can hardly be recommended as an immutable policy for young players. A balance no doubt has to be found. Presumably, Backe feels that he is qualified to make those decisions.
Maybe he is -- and maybe keeping Agudelo on the bench is part of Backe’s response, his way of keeping Agudelo’s feet on the ground, of not letting visions of fame and glory sweep him away. I don’t know how one can prove that is the right policy.
Going back to Adu. His first pro coach, Peter Nowak, behaved in much the same way as Backe, using Adu sparingly, “protecting” him in fact. Well -- in view of the unsatisfactory (so far) outcome -- was that the right thing to do? Would it have been better for Freddy if he’d been given the sink-or-swim treatment?
We don’t know. And we never will know. Which is why I find Backe’s certainties about Agudelo unacceptable. But at least they surely have Agudelo’s welfare as their aim. Listening to Thierry Henry is a different story altogether. Last month the New York Post’s Brian Lewis reported a long whine from Henry, in which he repeatedly heaped blame on “you guys”, the media -- “You guys need to leave him alone ... you guys are going to have to let him grow and be the player he can be.”
Obviously, Henry supports Backe’s miserly approach to Agudelo’s playing time: “I went through the same thing. He plays, doesn’t play; he should play, he shouldn’t play, whatever. ... I couldn’t understand it at the time, because I wanted to play every game. And that’s the attitude of Juan.”
So, according to Henry, because that approach worked for him (then again that’s a questionable assumption, given that we don’t know what would have happened if he had played every game) it must be the approach to use for Agudelo.
A shaky conclusion, and one that appears almost vindictive, as though because Henry suffered, so too must Agudelo, in the same way. Henry reveals that attitude pretty openly -- “Nobody gave me anything. You have to work. That’s what I tell him.”
No doubt that’s an attitude that most people would endorse, but it involves a crucial decision, one that Backe (and Henry, to the extent that he is involved in Agudelo’s future) are, in my opinion, getting wrong.
Agudelo’s 100-plus minutes on the field against PSG and Arsenal made it perfectly clear that he should be getting his training in real games. What he already shows is good enough for the first team. He is a big, strong player, there are no problems physically, he has ideas and skills that should not be wasted either in scrimmage games or on the bench.
The decision as to when a young player is ready for the big time must vary greatly with each individual player. Chronological age is not necessarily the main consideration. We know that Pele, greatest of all players, was scoring goals in the World Cup final when he was only 17. And yes, we know that things were different back then -- Pele did not have the burden, or even the thought, of a $1 million contract to deal with.
But that, surely underlines the whole point at issue. Times change. The game changes. Life changes. And the players themselves change. Agudelo is not Pele, he is not Adu. Nor is he Henry. He is Agudelo, a child of the 21st century if you like. His development need not be assessed by the same criteria that applied to former players. Nor does it have to be protected by the universal safety net of the cautious approach.
Ultimately, each of these decisions is different, because it must take into account a unique situation, the totally individual personality of a young man. And that is bound to differ enormously in each case.
As for Agudelo, surely if he is good enough to be one of the Red Bulls’ best players against both PSG and Arsenal, then he is good enough to be a regular starter in MLS.