By Paul Gardner
Is Juan Agudelo going to be a star? We've seen flashes of sheer brilliance from him, and we’ve seen him looking pretty ordinary. Anyone can look ordinary, but not many can look brilliant, so it is only natural to believe, to want to believe, that Agudelo has something special.
But the question raises a whole string of “ifs” and “maybes” -- and the biggest uncertainty concerns the way in which he is being handled at the Red Bulls.
I have expressed before my feeling that Agudelo is not getting enough playing time with the Bulls. That feeling became a certainty on Thursday night -- a certainty to which is now added the conviction that Agudelo should find another club as soon as he can.
Thursday night’s game, against the Philadelphia Union, was described by Red Bulls Coach Hans Backe as a "special" sort of game. Presumably because it was the game that could ensure the Red Bulls’ qualification for the playoffs. A win or a tie would do, and even a loss would not have been fatal.
For whatever reason, this “special” game called for a special approach, it seems. “More direct,” said Backe, “maybe a little more cynical in our approach.” It meant a total lack of anything that looked like midfield creativity, or even midfield activity, and a succession of long balls whacked up the middle for Luke Rodgers to chase.
One was left, yet again, wondering why, when a “special” game -- i.e. one requiring a result -- comes around, all thought of playing decent soccer is abandoned.
I suggested to Backe that this was crude stuff -- he didn’t agree, of course. Rodgers’ acceleration and combativeness were needed for this more direct play (accompanied by his customary stupidity, for which he collected a yellow card). Rodgers did a lot of charging about, was called offside several times, but never really threatened the Philadelphia goal.
This all meant that there was no place for Agudelo. Until the very end of the game, that is, when we witnessed what can only be seen as a colossal slur on Agudelo’s ability. The game was already into added time, when Agudelo was sent on as a sub ... for Luke Rodgers. Agudelo played for precisely 1 minute and 45 seconds. I’m not sure whether he even managed to get a touch of the ball during that briefest of moments.
There are several ways of looking at this, none of them encouraging. The most obvious are that the main idea was to take Rodgers off the field -- either to be applauded, which he was, or simply to banish the danger of him collecting a second yellow and a subsequent suspension. Both of those possibilities -- as does a third, that this was a move to waste time -- see Agudelo being treated merely as a pawn.
All of those reasons unquestionably reveal a lack of respect for Agudelo. And that attitude, for sure, can only exist if his playing ability is not rated very highly.
The development of soccer talent remains a highly mysterious process. Maybe, given all the attention that is paid to it, all the experts and theories that have appeared over the past couple of decades -- and, it must be said, all the great young players who have come through -- there ought no longer to be any mystery attached to the matter.
But there clearly is. Nothing in the process is as clear as the experts would have us believe. There is not an expert on this planet who can say, with rock-solid certainty, that teenager A will make it and teenager B will not -- and who, should he have got that right, go on to repeat his successful prediction with a succession of other players.
One thing that greatly distorts the scene is the unavoidable fact that we tend to hear a great deal about the successes, and very little about the failures. We are accustomed to praising the coaches and the academy programs that produce young stars, praise that is no doubt substantially merited. But can it be assumed that if a promising young player doesn’t make it, his failure is entirely down to his own shortcomings?
I don’t think so. There must surely be cases in which young players are mishandled, where their talents are not appreciated by their coaches, who want something different from them. I’m not talking about the special kids -- a young Maradona or Rooney or Messi, say -- whose talent is always likely to overcome any obstacles. For so many others, though, the molding of their talents, the way in which their coaches treat them, is crucial.
There is nothing to be marveled at here -- any sort of education runs into the same problems, of teachers who suit certain children but not others, of pupils who respond only to certain ways or aspects of teaching and so on. In the case of Agudelo, it is clear that he has the wrong coaches. No particular blame needs to be handed out here -- we are deep into the realm of soccer styles, and what gives a player his personal style.
It should be enough to say, at this stage, that Backe and his cohorts at the Red Bulls want qualities -- probably they are European qualities -- out of Agudelo that he is not able to give them. His style, still developing, will naturally be more Latin American, and it is clear -- at least, I regard it as clear -- that it will be based more on sophisticated, skillful play than on the physical power that Agudelo’s size and strength suggest.
We -- I mean the journalists -- have been berated by both Backe and Thierry Henry as over-praising Agudelo, we stand accused as potential trouble-makers who are causing ego problems for him, even as menaces who will destroy his career before it gets going.
Possibly. As I said, there is little certainty in any of this. Backe’s method, it would appear, is to drastically limit Agudelo’s playing time. Hence that miserable 1 minute and 45 seconds. And talking of ego problems, and morale issues -- are we being asked to believe that such a belittling move, such a glaring insult, is supposed to have a positive effect on Agudelo?
To progress, Agudelo needs to get away from the Red Bulls -- from a heavily European-oriented coaching staff that regards, not sophistication, but the crudities of Luke Rodgers, as the pinnacle of forward play.
That is the irrefutable message of that unpardonably callous substitution at the end of Thursday’s game. Just 1 minute and 45 seconds, that was all that Agudelo got.