There is one phenomenon in English football that has eternally baffled me. It’s not that Brits love sitting in the freezing cold watching poor quality football matches the day after Christmas and it’s not that fans literally despise each other for happening to be born in a place where they support a different team. It’s not even that some people don’t rate the greatest footballer on the planet as highly as they should because he’s not had the common courtesy to come to England and play such footballing giants as Cardiff, Huddersfield and Burnley every week. No, it’s something far more sinister: the absolute love-in with a group of footballers that I like to call ‘passion merchants’.
It’s hard to define the difference in people who rate players who try hard but with limited footballing talent and those who don’t. Perhaps, in my case at least, the dislike of passion merchants comes down to a love of footballing purism? I’ve never been much of a fan of traditionalism in English football and find myself fascinated by the tactics and philosophies of the great minds in the sport. I think it’s pretty safe to say that you would never see Pep Guardiola starting a player who requires high levels of determination and aggression to compensate for a lack of talent.
As the game advances and the technique and finesse of football players seems to improve year on year, perhaps there is less of a requirement for individuals who rely on their determination and desire more than any other attribute. It is also not to say that passion merchants cannot be good footballers, although usually they are not. In fact, the best example of a ‘good’ passion merchant is probably Steven Gerrard – although even he had enough of his moments. Remember when he got so fired up coming on against Man United at Anfield that he got sent off after 38 seconds of coming on for stamping on Ander Herrera? An incident that’s still immensely entertaining to re-watch nearly four years after it actually happened. Regardless, Gerrard is not the type I find so unbearable to watch: he has far more footballing talent than the culprits who are much closer to home.
In fact, there is a player starting regularly for Plymouth Argyle right now that falls under this category – and he isn’t the first. If it wasn’t obvious already, I’m talking about Yann Songo’o. A player who joins an elite list that includes such players as Andres Gurrieri, Craig Tanner and Jordon Forster. For me, he’s probably the worst of all the ‘passion merchants’ who’ve played in green at Home Park. For clarity, I wouldn’t want this to turn into a witch hunt against Songo’o and the effort and commitment to the cause is absolutely undoubtable. It’s just a shame that that is part of the problem.
If Songo’o plays at centre back then there’s less of an issue. Well, less opportunity to do damage to the team’s structure at the very least. He is a player who seems to be regarded particularly highly by a huge number of fans at Plymouth Argyle and I’m always at a loss for why. In midfield, he has comfortably the worst pass completion percentage of any of our central midfielders this season (at 64.8%), is the most defensive error prone midfielder (0.39 per 90 minutes) and has made more defensive errors than any other player this season with 11, three higher than the second highest in Tafari Moore. So what is it then that Yann Songo’o offers, and why is it that he seems to remain so highly thought of?
It could come down to a number of factors but generally it appears that you can put it down to ‘running around a lot’, charging into tackles and needlessly launching himself at any loose ball be that in the ground or in the air. It certainly isn’t that he improves Argyle’s style of football or that he helps to relieve defensive pressure on a rapidly ageing David Fox. Ultimately, he is rated for the effort that he puts in and that is not productive long-term for the future of this football club. I understand you need players who are committed and hard-working when you’re trying to stay up, but did it ever dawn on anybody that Argyle’s league position might actually be partly because of Yann Songo’o not in spite of him?
Limited but passionate footballers look good in bad teams. There might be a reason that he played a huge part in our awful side last season but barely featured in our excellent run before coming back in as we finished the season poorly and failed to reach the play-offs. I doubt there is anyone on the planet who can sincerely argue that he has any attributes that are better or more useful than Oscar Threlkeld’s, who is currently sat warming the bench every week.
It’s one of those weird love-ins in English football that I’ve just never gotten on board with. It’s not to criticise the guy either, I can’t fault his psychological attributes and his attitude to playing for this club. Certainly, there are players we’ve seen who could learn a thing or two from his mindset. But it is inarguable, that type of footballer is becoming a thing of the past. As the game progresses, there is less of a need for limited triers. I, for one, hope that the constant footballing education that is going on at the top of the English game from some of the greatest tactical thinkers the world has ever seen might encourage a few more fans to see things in a similar way. At the very least, I might not have to roll my eyes the next time Yann Songo’o gets a standing ovation for clearing a bobbling football half a mile out of play under minimal pressure.