Pelé – A Thoroughly Modern Man

12 05 2011

In a month in which Lionel Messi again demonstrated his genius and the El Clasico series dominated football it was only appropriate that the Greatest Player of All Time was asked his opinion on matters.

Interviewer: “Who is the best, Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi?”

Pele: “I am the best.”

It’s a brilliant answer and one that gives rise to that most ancient of chestnuts – where would Pele fit into the modern game?

Perhaps a good starting point is to address some of the traditional arguments against players of yesteryear. The standard response of those wishing to question stars of the past is to point out that the game is quicker now and players are fitter.

This is an argument that can easily be turned on its head. Obviously, if you time-warped back to 1958 then the player of today would be physically superior. But modern training methods, increased professionalism and superior medical treatment would only make players of Pele’s era even better. It’s fair to assume a dedicated pro like Pele wouldn’t take too long to get up to speed so any advantage for the modern player would easily be negated.

The reality is that the proverbial goalposts have been moved since Pele retired – and many of the changes would surely work in his favour. Rule changes such as the more lenient interpretation of offside as well as the introduction of the backpass law clearly benefit attacking play.

More specific to Pele, the increased protection afforded modern players would be a huge advantage to him. Speaking about the 1966 World Cup, of which he was brutally kicked out of, Pele said:

“I found the violence and lack of sportsmanship as dispiriting as the weak refereeing that allowed it to go unchecked for so long.”

One can only speculate how many more goals Pele may have scored if savage defences had seen this weapon removed from their arsenal. But you don’t need to look beyond recent events to see the impact that going down to ten men can have – Messi’s vital brace against Real Madrid came only after the opposition had  a man sent off.

Ultimately, I’m more interested in the question of not whether Pele would fit in but how he would fit in.

Brazil 1958 World Cup

To answer that requires us to start at the beginning and take a look at Pele’s role in Brazil’s 1958 World Cup success. Although that side is characterised as playing a 4-2-4 formation, 21st century eyes could easily mistake it for the 4-2-3-1 that is seemingly ubiquitous in the modern game. Pele is – both literally and figuratively – the classical No.10 in this formation.

By 1970, and the Brazil side usually cited as the finest ever, Pele was seen as the complete footballer. He had speed, skill and vision. He was good in the air and better on the ground. And, although he had developed as a player, he was still playing in the No.10 role – and Brazil’s formation could still be interpreted as a 4-2-3-1. Certainly, Tostao was the central forward. Roberto Rivellino enjoyed an advanced role on the left and Jairzinho’s attacking presence on the right is proven by his scoring in every game Brazil played in the tournament.

From a tactical viewpoint therefore, Pele is a man who could seemingly slot into many of the top sides of today. Ironically, for much of the past decade that may well not have been the case. Tactical specialist Michael Cox noted on his website, Zonal Marking, that the 2000s were a decade in which classical No.10s struggled to find a role in the modern game. As Cox said:

“Almost every player that would have expected to spend their career behind the front two has had to redefine their game, generally being stationed out wide.”

This modern challenge has left a talented man like Juan Roman Riquelme looking like a man uncomfortable playing in his own era, and yet one suspects there would be no such difficulties for Pele. He had both the pace to cut in from wide and the physical presence to adapt to the demands of a false 9 role. And besides, there are now indications that a more attacking interpretation of the 4-2-3-1 will be the next tactical advance – and, as Jonathan Wilson points out, that is a role with which Pele is more than familiar:

“It is intriguing too that the emergence of 4-2-1-3 seems to hint at the playmaker/second striker hybrid once again becoming something akin to the playmakers of the 1980s, but operating behind a front three rather than a front two. In that the playmaker is returning to his origins: Scarone, James and Pele, at least in 1958, were similarly creating the play for a central striker and two wingers.”

Such is the cyclical nature of football – Pele, both individually and tactically, remains a thoroughly modern man.




8 responses

12 05 2011
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12 05 2011
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12 05 2011

A very enjoyable article as always but one thing I would say is that I feel comments are slightly harsh on Riquelme being uncomfortable in his own era considering he was absolutely outstanding for Villarreal and was nominated for world player of the year. Keep up the good work Ghost Goal.

12 05 2011
Paul Blades

Very hard to assess how players would have done in different eras. Fair to say that Pele did seem to possess the attributes that make you think he would have been just as successful. Nice article

12 05 2011

Excellent article.

As you suggest, I don’t think anybody can say with a degree of certainty how Pele would fit into the modern game, given the many variables we could all debate long into the night.

But do we really need to scratch our heads as to how to accommodate the greatest and most complete footballer of all time into an eleven?

Play him in a Messi role, wandering around the pitch, laying off passes and waiting for an opening. Shell long balls up to him as a lone forward on a cold December night in Scunthorpe.

Whatever you throw at him, I imagine he’d still look a cut above.

That’s what makes him the greatest. He had it all.

Strength, intelligence, pace, power, spring, dribbling, passing, shooting, heading and pretty much any other ingredient you can think of when concocting the ideal specimen of a footballer.

Maradona and Messi come close, but neither have (or had) as much in their locker as Pele.

12 05 2011

Great piece on a fascinating player.. It’s always difficult to gauge stars from previous era against todays players, we don’t have the blanket coverage or stats we do now and any footage we do have is usually lower quality. One thing we can be sure of is, as the article says, Pele had the attributes to be the complete centre forward. It’s also safe to say that he had the big game temperament and winning mentality all the great players need

29 08 2011

Pele playmaker? Classic N10? iN 1958? WHere did you read that he was as number 9 as it gets Though he wore the 10 At least until 1970.

29 08 2011

Thanks for reading but I’ll have to turn the question around and ask where you read that he was No.9?

Everything I have read suggests Vava was the most advanced forward.

The formation in the diagram is inspired by Jonathan Wilson’s ‘Inverting The Pyramid’ – the defining work on football tactics.

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