Thursday, July 8, 2010

Missing Muller and Considering The Psychological Wonders of Nicklas Bendtner

If Thomas Muller becomes a great German player and this young German team becomes a great team, which all signs are certainly pointing to, his unfair exclusion from the semi-final will take on more and more historical importance. I expected a louder outcry over his preposterous yellow card; all I can assume is that Suarez had already used up the all the possibilities of indignation in the tournament. And that it was a matter of timing: at that moment in the win over Argentina, Germany was flying so high it felt like they had players to spare, an embarrassment of counterattacking riches. But if for some reason this kinetic young team falls apart due to injuries, or internal strife, the only thing keeping it from being a "what if?" for the ages is the clear technical superiority of the Spanish. Because Muller's absence was an obvious game-changer. They obviously missed his presence in the box, and his height and ability to convert set pieces. But as I watched the Germans come out of the tunnel without Muller, and I saw Ozil’s nervous, stricken expression, and the changed demeanor of all of the young players, I wondered if it wasn't more than that. I wondered if they didn’t mainly miss The Bendtner Factor.
(And just like a woman I used to work with who managed to bring everything I said, however idiosyncratic and obscure, be it meeting times or printer ink, back to what she had eaten for lunch, so today I am with Arsenal. It’s what happens at cusp times like this. The end of the regular season seems to exist only to tell us about the country teams; the first friendlies were useful mainly to confirm what we knew was broken about the club teams. And so in order to re-engage with club and prepare to face the spiritual abyss after Sunday, I’m grasping at any metaphor and connection I can and hoping for multiplication. Let’s just see if this one holds, shall we?)

I’ve always been fascinated with Wenger’s attitude towards Bendtner. He seems to keep Nikky B around as a sort of psychological freakshow; you sense Wenger wants to put him in a jar and conduct experiments on him. I think he wants Bendtner to act as a sort of human sponge, absorbing the rampant neuroses of the rest of his team. A counterpoint; a psychological tonic for that army of small, lithe “intelligent footballers” whose minds so often get in the way of their football. Muller is clearly already a much more complete footballer than Bendtner, and from a finishing standpoint you can’t really compare them. And of course his mastery of English idiom shows him to be quite a bright fellow. But still- that particular brilliant bravery of a certain kind of youth at the front, that lackadaisical explosiveness, can galvanize a team in a way a more established "Tall Man at The Front" like Ibra does not. It's both risk and insurance. Because the fact remains: Germany showed no nerves in the quarters against Argentina, who were an estimable opponent- why the incapacitation by nerves against Spain? 
R. has a theory about Bendtner. He thinks that his extraordinary confidence in himself is deliberate. I mean- more than just fronting. He insists that Bendtner is intentionally externalizing the necessary internal landscape of the striker. Every striker must  have the same seemingly inexhaustible, dumb faith in his ability, but R. maintains that Bendtner has decided to forego the extra step of creating an alternate persona of modesty in proportion to his actual accomplishment. And that by doing this Nikky B has intentionally provided a sort of psychological social service almost to his teammates. This argument could be dismissed as football fan’s desperate plea for help, but you must concede that Bendtner really does have a bit of the idiot savant about him. I imagine he chews with his mouth open, stroop waffles flying everywhere, and then turns and calmly tells you the complete history of machinery manufacturing in Denmark. 
During the loss to Spain, the cameras cut constantly to Muller in the stands, track-suited and squirming in his seat in the stands, looking like Prince Harry and Prince William's German cousin, the crown prince of a far-off, mineral-rich province.  His inability to disguise his physical desire was touching: you could tell everything you needed to know about his state of mind just by looking at him. I did for a moment think of Bendtner. One never needs any previous knowledge about the schedule or the importance of the match when Bendtner is starting; you can glean everything from the intensity with which he chews his gum during the lineup. Sometimes there is that half-smile. But in the World Cup games he chewed it slowly, deeply, as though digesting a very intense, and very minty, thought. 

PS: After watching the third place game, I realize my comparison really falls apart. Though of course Germany did play better with Muller there, it could hardly be attributed to his psychological presence on the field: the completeness and boyish ruthlessness of Muller’s play is startling. At the same time, the presence of such a powerful conscious unselfconsciousness surely didn’t hurt. And I’ve already found this adorable picture of him and his wife and a heart-shaped pretzel, so I’m loathe to abandon the idea altogether. Consider it then just a meditation and not an argument on the inside-out mind of the striker.  

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