27 juni 2009

I Am A Big Ballack Fan

Även publicerad på Chelsea Vital.


Michael Ballack is one of my all time favourite footballers.

He has not been the same Ballack in Chelsea as in Bayern and Germany, but that is easily explained. I have followed him a long time and always liked him, though I am very ambivalent about my feelings for Bayern Munich.

In Bayern and Germany the teams were geared around Ballack as Liverpool is around Gerrard. It is not that all play goes through those players, but all the other players are aware that they are the nucleus of the team, and hence they are involved in a way few other players are in their team`s overall play. Maybe Xavi in Barcelona and Kaka in Milan have similar roles, but not as obvious. A totally different role than the one Michael Ballack has found in Chelsea. Or had to make do with.

I have always been a fan of German football. The best mix in Europe between the sometimes rather rigid English style (4-4-2 mantra) and play (at least some years ago) and latin football. With the tactical acuteness of Italian football and still with the power and physique of the British style. With ball control like Holland and the efficiency of German industry.

There are two German footballers that stand out to me. And I have seen so many great ones; Gerd Müller, the bomber and the best box player in the history of football, Lothar Mathäus a true midfield general, Klinsmann, Sammer, Höness (both of them), and so many more…even the psycho goalkeepers. But to me above them all stand two players with style, grace and a seemingly effortless way of playing football, Franz Beckenbauer and Michael Ballack. Beckenbauer invented, or at least perfected the role of the libero (a more fun way of playing defence than today`s straight back four I think) and Ballack might not be the very best of the rest, still my favourite due to his style. The way they make football seem effortless.

Michael Ballack has it all as a footballer. He is almost as lethal a goalscorer as Lampard when playing the attacking midfielder, and he has shown that he can play holding midfielder and neutralise the best, like with Xavi in the Barcelona games. The problem for him seems to be that he does it so easily that he does not get credit for what he does except when he scores. He is one of the top free-kick takers in the world, and stands back in Chelsea to Lampard, Drogba and even Deco. Ballack takes not much more freekicks than Alex does at Chelsea. Watch him taking them in the German national team and you understand what I talk about.

He is not the speediest of players but reads the game like a Makelele. Without being noticed for moving he is most often in the right place. And I doubt there has been more than a handful games ever in his career when he has not been the one, or the second one when it comes to covering the most ground in a game. He usually averages 1-2 kilometers more than any one else on the pitch. He is not a slow player either as he often showed at Chelsea when being able to come back and give cover in defence.

He just has the style that does not make his work obvious. Some players look like they work harder than anyone, others look like they have been out for a strol despite covering 12-13 km running in 90 minutes. Ballack is of course the epithomy of the latter. He is also a very intelligent player, not as intuitive intelligent as Lampard but still much more so than most.

I wish sometimes he struggled more, then people in England would notice how hard and skillfully he actually works. I think he by a lot of spectators is ruefully underestimated by English football fans. He is not by managers that look and read the game differently, hence he has been the first choice so often in Chelsea. He had a tough time coming to Chelsea, adapting to English football and with some injuries. Still he has always come back and kept a spot despite never being allowed to play the game he is most suited to. Simply because Chelsea has not since Roman came in based our play around one player like other teams. Had Ballack, or for that matter Frank Lampard had the support like Gerrard has then their greatness would never been disputed. Chelsea have three midfielders of similar ilk, Lampard, Ballack and Essien and honestly all three of them suffers a bit for it. Thankfully I do not think Chelsea suffers from it as all three even at 80% capacity belong to the 20 best midfielders in the world.

When Lampard was injured he was asked to step up to be the number one in the midfield and he did it wonderfully. I do not know, but sometimes for the individual player sometimes being the only good one in a position or two is better for a team (until he gets injured). For the ego and reputation of a player it is obviously that way, I refer also to the raging Lampard-Gerrard debate so many people engage in and the shameful treatment the English fans give Lampard for that.

The thing I think Chelsea most woefully have utilised (not), actually even ignored is Ballack`s aerial ability. No player in Chelsea has a cleaner hit on the ball with his head, but the ball is very rarely directed at Ballack`s head on set pieces. As with the free-kicks others are choosen ahead of Ballack. He has accepted this with great grace I think. Most footballers and definitely those of his calibre would have been whining and moaning in the press about how they are being played. Ballack never said anything but has loyally done what the manager asked from him, even playing holding midfielder for Guus Hiddink. A role he did as well as almost anyone though I personally think that it is his least good role in a team.

His passing is controlled and neat, though he rarely does the great plays in passing that Lampard does, especially with his crosses. Again maybe not by his own choice.

Ballack`s main problem hence seems to be that he is too nice a guy, too polite and not self-centered enough to please many of our supporters. Or to push himself ahead of others. Thankfully the managers and the club have appreciated him more for what he has given. I was very happy when the club extended his contract as I really want him to have another go for a great win, something he never had with so many final losses that he looked jinxed.

Maybe it is true that nice boys never succeed, whether it is in kissing the best looking girls or winning the big finals. Or winning the admiration of many English Chelsea fans. Me, I am proud that Ballack is playing for us. Unlike so many that snubs us as my fellow writers point out.

He came for free. Yes, he has one of the highest salaries, or had I think. But then Chelsea saved some £15-20m in transfer fee so I can find nothing wrong with him being paid more and paying more in taxes than others.

He also had the pick of the world when he decided to try his fortune in another country. Something too few other footballers dare to do (read Homesick Villa and more). He turned down the big Spanish and Italian clubs for Chelsea. I also think he turned down Man U. He really wanted to play for Chelsea, more than many others that the fans like better (read Robben, Duff, Robinho…) Just that alone should earn him the fan`s love more I think. He took a lot of bad words, especially from Bayern for choosing Chelsea as his last club. Chelsea should be proud of Ballack as he is one of the greatest player the club ever has attracted before they turned 30.

He is a gentleman in football (though Øvrebø might think otherwise after being rightfully riled by him, though Ballack was not penalised by UEFA so that makes the intrigue bigger of what he really said). He is also a true gentleman and not scandal orientated as so many others on the side of the pitch. Something to be rather grateful among us that do not revel in seeing headlines like the ones JT, Mikel, J Cole, Mutu, A Cole and others have supplied us with over the years. He has never whined about his situation and shamed the club in the media, as he keeps a low profile off the pitch too.

I am sad though that we have not seen his very best football in Chelsea, but I put the blame for that squarely on how he has been used and asked to play in Chelsea. Still he has managed to be more than a vital part of the team many times. Hopefully Ancelotti will be the man to get even more out of him, it is in him. Maybe Michael Ballack needs to be more authorative and temperamental in a team with so many huge egos as Chelsea, but if it is not in him I am still grateful for him being a Chelsea player in a sometimes unappreciative surrounding.





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