Does one man make a team?

Pele astounded the world of football in Sweden in the World Cup of 1958 when, as a mere 17-year-old, he played superbly and with amazing confidence and flair, writes Brian Glanville.

Can one man make a team? The question, usually seen as a rhetorical one, is surely almost as old as the game itself, but it remains quite tantalising. And it recurred to me vividly when, recently, within a few days, I watched Arsenal surprisingly and embarrassingly lose 1-0 to modest Fulham. Then, just four days later, I saw the Gunners at their Emirates Stadium, easily brush aside a pedestrian Twente Enschede team 4-0 in a European Cup qualifier return. The difference so evidently and emphatically being Cesc Fabregas.

He didn’t play at Fulham, promoting me to write next day that Arsenal’s theme might well have been, “The importance of being Fabregas.” Where the Gunners so plainly lost the plot and the game was in central midfield where in the absence of the splendid young Spaniard Arsenal deployed Eboue, best known as a right flank player, either in defence or midfield, and the Brazilian Denilson. They were comprehensively overplayed by the Fulham central pair, Danny Murphy and Jimmy Bullard.

What surprised me was that so far as I could see, no other report mentioned the glaring absence of Fabregas. But how they eulogised him after the Twente game. Even I felt to the extent of hyperbole. For Fabregas, playing his first competitive game of the season, was somewhat slow to get into the game and even then his swift, skilled, creative interventions were a little sporadic. But even given the mediocrity of the opposition, there was no doubt that Fabregas had rejuvenated the Arsenal midfield and thus the team.

Go back a long away in Arsenal’s history and you find another player, a midfielder, though the description was unknown then, who made all the difference in the shape of the inside-left, Alex James. The sturdy little Scotsman joined the Gunners in 1929 for £9000 — big money then — from Preston North End. The previous year, he’d been an outstanding member of the dazzling Scotland team known as The Wembley Wizards, who played England off the park, winning 5-1.

Herbert Chapman, Arsenal’s legendary manager, wanted James to remodel his game, becoming essentially the brains of the attack providing the long passes which launched one winger or the other — notably young Cliff Bastin and Joey Hulme — or sending a fearless centre-forward thundering through the middle. James, as they say, had the feet, which could flutter deceptively over the ball.

He could, with that left foot, also score goals when he wanted, as he did from Bastin’s quickly taken free-kick against Chapman’s former club, Huddersfield Town, in the Cup Final of 1930 at Wembley. But his job at Arsenal was to be the motivator, the schemer, the general. Essential.

So you can imagine the shock and dismay when almost at the last moment he was forced out of the 1932 FA Cup Final versus Newcastle United. In training down at Brighton, James collapsed in agony when, at Chapman’s behest, Tom Whittaker, the trainer, put in a hard tackle: just to test whether James was really fit. So the Gunners had to reshuffle their pack, Bastin moving to inside-left, actually his preferred position. But James and his subtle skill was all too plainly missed, and Newcastle won 2-1, albeit with the help of the notorious ‘over the live goal’, when United’s Richardson plainly crossed a ball from the right which had gone out of play.

After the last War, Arsenal had a splendid Scottish successor in little Jimmy Logie. The ebullient inside right — essentially a “one wing” player, without the power of James to give crossfield balls — was already in his late 20s when he returned from service in the Royal Navy to inspire the Arsenal attack. He had more pace than Alex James, was eager and ready to run at opponents, to commit and beat them, giving fine service from inside right to his right-winger or to the centre-forward. He helped the Gunners twice to win the League, and with his incisive passing to win the 1950 Cup Final 2-0 versus Liverpool.

Yet the whole question of what might be called the one-man team is intriguingly complicated by the history of Brazil; and Pele. Arguably the greatest of all footballers, Pele won two World Cups with Brazil, but in 1962 in Chile they had to win it without him. You will, of course, remember that Pele astounded the world of football in Sweden in the World Cup of 1958 when, as a mere 17-year-old, he played superbly and with amazing confidence and flair for his country once he’d overcome injury to appear in their third match. Playing just off his centre-forward, astonishingly and precociously cool under pressure, acrobatic, dangerous in the air despite being only 5 foot 8 inches tall, he scored three times in the semifinal against France, two unforgettable goals in the Final, one with right-foot, one with head, in the Stockholm decider against the hosts, Sweden.

Yet four years later in Chile, he dropped out with badly pulled muscles in only the second game. No one could truly replace him. Brazil at inside-left brought in a very different but effective, quick moving, player in Amarildo, who immediately proved his prowess with a number of goals. In the Final, he cleverly made one against the Czechs from the left hand side then scored another with a remarkable low shot from a narrow angle.

Yet the absence of Pele was more than compensated by the emergence of the wonderfully unpredictable right-winger, Garrincha, as an all-round attacker, deadly with his crosses and shots; even scoring from a central position against Chile in the Santiago semifinal with his left-foot. And like Pele himself, phenomenal, despite his lack of height in the air. As he showed against England.

The 1966 World Cup in England was a wash out for both Brazil and a not fully fit Pele, who was kicked out of the game against Portugal. But he was back in full glory in Mexico in 1970 with a sublime series of shots, headers and passes.

If you asked me whom I’d put second to Pele in the role of honour it would undoubtedly be Alfredo Di Stefano, the superbly versatile, tireless Argentinian centre-forward and dominant force of the Real Madrid team which won all five of the first European Cup tournaments. There was nothing this supremely talented player couldn’t do. In the last of those five finals, against Eintracht Frankfurt in Glasgow, he scored three of Real’s seven goals and Ferenc Puskas, the Hungarian hero, got the other four.

Though he froze the great orchestrator Didi of Brazil out of the team, he and Puskas somehow achieved an accommodation. But without Di Stefano, Real’s successes would have been unthinkable. A one-man team indeed.