It would be nice to think you could tell simply by watching a player play whether or not they would succeed.
You would think that the partnership of Kenny Dalglish, one of the greatest forwards to play the game, and Damien Comolli, who would like to be remembered as the French version of Moneyball inspiration Billy Beane, a partnership that seems to blend the best of the old and new schools, would be able to tell a good striker from a bad one.
Then you remember they agreed to spend £35m on Andy Carroll.
It now looks like Carroll can barely run, never mind play for Liverpool. Watching his recent performances, you have to conclude that Dalglish and Comolli bought him because he is huge and he looks like he should be eating defenders alive.
Who knows what came over them.
During a recent match, Jamie Redknapp suggested that Liverpool might get more goals out of Carroll if they aimed a different type of cross at him — instead of whipping the ball in, they should stand up a high, looping cross, thus giving him more time to figure out what was going on and get to where he needed to be.
Redknapp seemed to be implying that the game was moving a bit too fast for Carroll, but that if the speed at which everything happened could be made more manageable, then he could bring his physique to bear with potentially devastating consequences.
The theory might be sound but in the bigger picture, it is not a good sign if you have to slow the game down so your star striker can keep up.
Earlier that day I had watched a video of a series of Lionel Messi nutmegs, in which it was hard to tell in real time just how Messi had managed to knock the ball through his opponents’ legs.
Since these Messi nutmegs were clearly intentional, yet almost impossible for most people to see, never mind execute, you were forced to wonder whether Messi has a slightly different perception of time.
Anyone who has ever tried and failed to swat a fly knows that all creatures are not experiencing time at quite the same speed. The fly gets away nine times out of 10 because, as far as the fly is concerned, you are moving in slow motion. Maybe defenders are a bit like that to Messi. If it turned out that Leo Messi perceived the action unfolding in what for the rest of us is slow motion, whereas for Andy Carroll the action speeds past in a blur, it would explain an awful lot.
We don’t understand much about our brains but we can see that the development of cognitive abilities varies widely from person to person. In his early 70s, John Giles can still remember nearly every match he played. When he meets up with other Leeds legends at golf days, he has to remind them about events in their own careers. That photographic memory must have been part of what made him a great player: the ability to remember each play, analyse what happened, and do it better next time.
Jorge Valdano tells of a conversation he had with Maradona about his goal against England in 1986. What astonished Valdano was that while Maradona was running at high speed, controlling the ball and knowing the positions of the attackers and the defenders, Maradona had somehow also been able to reflect on a similar situation he’d been in six years before in another match against England.
Finding himself in a roughly similar position, he had tried to beat the keeper with an early shot towards the far post, but the ball had rolled just wide. Maradona resolved not to make the same mistake twice, so he took the ball around the keeper on the inside and rolled it into an empty net.
Valdano’s boggle-eyed amazement on hearing the story surprised Maradona. To him it seemed natural that you would have time to think about something that happened in a match six years ago in the very moment that you were dribbling through the England defence at top speed, controlling a ball that was hopping on a bumpy pitch. Couldn’t everyone do that? Valdano told him only geniuses can do that.
It is unfair to compare Andy Carroll to a genius like Maradona, but the more you learn about the very greatest players in the world, the clearer it becomes that what makes them special is mental, not physical. Nobody should ever be signed because they are 6’4” or because they can run 100m in under 11 seconds.