The Dawson's Creek Principle
Could it be that a US teen drama helps explain anomalies of football history?
I'm about to make a confession which will perhaps make me several mortal enemies, and which will certainly make me grateful that few of you know where I live. But watching football over the last few years has really made me pine for Dawson's Creek. There. I said it. And for those of you who are not currently recoiling in horror, who remain ignorant of that TV show, I should briefly recap; and then swiftly explain myself.
So, for the uninitiated: Dawson's Creek was a US teen drama, which was on air for about five years from the late nineties. Set in the idyllic fictional town of Capeside, Massachussetts, it followed the lives of a handful of photogenic youths going through the angst of personal growth. It was basically Adrian Mole directed by MTV; and I found it oddly compelling. The show was named after Dawson Leery (James van der Beek), who seemed to spend each show in a permanent gurn. The show centred around his fitful and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to win the love of Joey Potter, played by Katie Holmes; attempts which failed primarily due to Dawson's unparalleled self-obsession.
But though the show was named after Dawson, he wasn't its star. That accolade went to Pacey Witter (Joshua Jackson), the brooding underdog whose increasingly magnificent swagger eventually saw him get the girl. This programme has been on my mind recently, as I continue to think about football. After all, my favourite sport is full of what we can call "Dawson's Law"; which states that, when a team seems immediately dependent on one individual, it's most probably dependent upon someone else.
The most striking example of Dawson's Law came when I was watching Brazil win their fifth World Cup title, in 2002. During that tournament, much of the talk — quite rightly — was of Ronaldo's renaissance following the trauma of 1998 World Cup final; of his eight goals in seven matches, including the two in the final. But it seemed to me that he was playing the Dawson role; that he wasn't, in fact, the team's true talisman.
That honour, in my view, went to Rivaldo; who, that year, played Pacey Witter to perfection. My indelible memories of the 2002 tournament are almost all of his play. Not of his appalling feigned injury in the first round against Turkey — an act which lost him what few neutral fans he once had — but of his intervention every single time that the Brazil show needed someone to deliver the killer lines. In the last 16, as Belgium held them goalless, he unleashed a deflected strike that eased his teammates' nerves. In the quarter-final against England, it was his laconic equaliser on the cusp of half-time that changed the game's momentum. In the semi-final, he set the tone with three long-distance drives that served notice to Rüştü Reçber, the Turkey goalkeeper. And in the final, though Ronaldo struck twice, it was twice as a result of a Rivaldo assist; the first a shot spilled by the previously flawless Oliver Kahn, and the second a sublime dummy that made room for Ronaldo to pass the ball home from the top of the box.
The reason that players like Rivaldo stay curiously unsung is partly due to PR. Very often the footballer's persona masks the subtlety, and effectiveness, of what they are doing on the pitch: and that's why the Pacey Witter of the Premier League is possibly Benoît Assou-Ekotto. Assou-Ekotto is best known for his interviews in which he professes to treat football as nothing more than a job: which is a shame, as his outspokenness draws attention away from his considerable defensive capabilities. While there are others in the Tottenham Hotspur back four (such as Ledley King and the aptly-named Michael Dawson) who often take greater plaudits, it's Assou-Ekotto whose stats are most striking.
In the 2009-10 Champions League season, according to Duncan Alexander of Opta, Assou-Ekotto averaged more interceptions per minute — the sign of a player who anticipates, rather than reacts, to an attacking threat — than AC Milan's Alessandro Nesta, Real Madrid's Ricardo Carvalho, Chelsea's Branislav Ivanović or Manchester United's Patrice Evra. In the same season, in the Premier League, he made one interception every 23.6 minutes, which saw him sitting comfortably clear of his rivals at the top of the league table for this statistic. While these facts don't, of course, prove that he is the best defender in the division, they do suggest that he is substantially underrated.
Another place that we have seen the Dawson/Pacey dynamic in recent years is at the base of the AC Milan midfield. Gennaro Gattuso, all bustle, bristle and beard, was for many years the Dawson figure: instantly eye-catching and synonymous with the grit that drove his club side to two Champions League titles. But alongside him, in quiet but insistently effective toil, was Massimo Ambrosini, who would in time go on to captain the Rossoneri. Ambrosini's numbers, helpfully supplied by Opta, are his most impressive advocate. Since August 2006, the summer when injury ruled him out of Italy's World Cup-winning campaign, AC Milan's win ratio has been eight percentage points higher with him in the team; and over the last two seasons, the most recent of which saw them take an unexpected league title, their win ratio is twelve percentage points greater when he is in the team.
Dawson's Law, then, is something that many footballers can and should invoke in defence to criticism: they can argue that their play is silently integral to their team's success. Andrew Cole (or Andy Cole, as he then was) never recovered from Glenn Hoddle's excoriation in the late nineties that he needed five chances to score a goal for England. Though Cole could have pointed out that a conversion rate of 20% is actually pretty good for a striker, he could also have cited Dawson's Law: in this context, his contribution to a multitude of goals throughout his career due to his often-unheralded movement off the ball.
Of course, YouTube has been invaluable in helping us to apply Dawson's Law, in that it's given millions of us the opportunity to review key sporting moments in detail and work out who was really to thank for them. My favourite such moment was a brilliant goal scored by Arsenal, in the years shortly before Arsène Wenger seemed determined to his entire side into an award-winning teen drama. The goal came in February 2002, in the Champions League, during a 4-1 home victory over Bayer Leverkusen. When Robert Pires strode through to score Arsenal's opener after five minutes, latching onto a sliding tackle by Patrick Vieira that doubled as a through-ball, it looked at first as if the goal was all about Pires and his casual canter past the German centre-backs. What was most odd about the Frenchman's finish, though, is that it was entirely unimpeded; having run 50 yards or so with the ball, he then sidefooted it home from the edge of the area without a tackler in sight.
Since this goal looked too simple at first viewing, I cited Dawson's Law, and suspected that the real drama had probably occurred elsewhere, away from the protagonist. And then, having feverishly reviewed the move a few more times, I saw who it was all really about: Thierry Henry, who with his magnificent swagger had made a long, looping run to draw the attention of two Leverkusen defenders, waiting for a pass that would never come.
Now that I'm fully aware of this principle, I look for its application whenever I'm watching football. Whenever a player scores a tremendous goal, I now count back two or three passes in the move to find out who might have been covertly responsible. It's an approach that I wouldn't have taken, had it not been for watching Dawson's Creek; and so if any of you are willing to have a similar epiphany, I advise you — when no one's looking — to pick up the DVD.
This article appeared on Episode Seventy Seven of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, Soundcloud, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.