Extremely Fast and Incredibly Straight
A celebration of Jesús Navas and his capacity to do the same thing, over and over again
It was the slogan found on a million bracelets: What Would Jesus Do? To some (OK, one) of us, the question is different: what would Jesús Navas do? And the answer is obvious. Whatever the situation, a reliably predictable, endlessly unproductive, magnificently bland presence would run quickly down the right wing and put in a low cross that anyone in the left-back position would block.
After a nuclear holocaust, Navas would run quickly down the right wing and put in a low cross that a cockroach in the left-back position would block. After an alien invasion, he would run quickly down the right wing and put in a low cross that a Martian in the left-back position would block.
In changing times, there is something reassuringly familiar about Navas. Shane Warne once remarked that Monty Panesar had not played 33 Tests, but the same Test 33 times. By that rationale, Navas did not play 183 times for Manchester City; at least 160 of those games blended into one colourless display. It made him a niche interest. No one else who witnessed his City career seems remotely obsessed by Navas. Those identikit ineffectual displays made him possibly the least fascinating player in the squad, if not the country.
It meant he played to an audience of two: Manuel Pellegrini, who rarely failed to find a reason to crowbar Navas into a game, and me, chronicling his complete inability to score any goals, an utterly pointless obsession. Or a pretend obsession, in the sense that the only times I have watched Navas since he left City in 2017 were when Sevilla faced Liverpool and Manchester United. Sadly, as a prisoner of my past, I tend to be reminded whenever Navas does something inconsequential (frequently) or useful (occasionally).
And, in fairness, he has done something far more useful than far greater footballers. A personal view is that he may have the distinction of being the worst player to play a part in the winning goal in a World Cup final. Revisiting the events of Johannesburg in 2010 is to notice a few things: firstly, a man who has since appeared chained to the right touchline (Pep Guardiola, in the spirit of imagination and reinvention, once tried him on the left; Navas looked unsurprisingly lost) cut a swathe along the middle of the pitch, leaving five Dutchmen in his wake; and secondly that, unlike in England, he was not just quick but evisceratingly electric. From then on, Fernando Torres, Cesc Fàbregas and Andrés Iniesta did the rest.
Eight years on, it remains the case that Spain have won 100% of World Cups with Navas in the squad and 0% without, a warning Julen Lopetegui strangely failed to heed when selecting this summer’s squad; perhaps that, rather than joining Real Madrid, was the real sackable offence.
Start thinking about Navas and he can become ubiquitous. The revolving doors of the Etihad Stadium’s media centre prompted the thought that Navas, a man accustomed to running quickly in straight lines, would struggle with the slow, circular motion. The idea that football was not his sport and that he may be best suited to the 100m relay brought a reply that he couldn’t master the bends and would carry on running off the track.
But to rewind, Navas joined City in 2013 – they preferred to bring him in instead of the costlier Ángel Di María – and, initially anyway, he did quite well. “Navas was running the whole match,” Pellegrini said after his debut, a 4-0 win over Newcastle. Revisiting the quote five years on, the presumption is a player with a body fat percentage of about minus two was sprinting for 90 minutes, rather than controlling the game. It was not the only way that he made a swift start.
He scored after 14 seconds against Tottenham with the sort of audacious, inch-perfect chip that he never repeated and which left André Villas-Boas lamenting the way his game-plan was destroyed so early. Navas was genuinely good; for about half a season, anyway. Though still not as good as Samir Nasri, who displaced him from the team. He scored against Cardiff on 18 January 2014, which assumed a greater prominence (to me, anyway) because he never mustered another top-flight strike for City. January 18 became an opportunity to wish anyone a Feliz Navas day. The only query from a sub-editor on one match report related to Navas’s then 1146-day goal drought (in my defence, not much had happened and it was a way of filling the word count).
By the time Navas’s departure was confirmed in 2017, he had gone 1223 days and 103 games without a league goal. He had failed to score any of City’s previous 275 league goals which, for an attacker who played most games, even one whose prime responsibility was creating, is a remarkable feat of impotence. Navas managed not to score with any of his final 53 shots in the Premier League. The law of averages dictate that at least one should have gone in. None did.
Given that he played for attacking teams with fine finishers and majority shares of possession, a total of 23 top-flight assists felt unexceptional even before discovering he had delivered 683 crosses (before factoring in passes) rendered it more underwhelming.
The worst came in September 2015 against West Ham, when, after reaching the byline, Navas cut the ball so far back it ended up near the half-way line, to the bemusement of teammates who had taken up stations in the box. It prompted Gary Lineker to say that Navas could not cross a ‘t’. Yet it was the anomaly, a spectacularly awful cross. And occasionally, his crossing was so bad it was good. In one respect, anyway. In Navas’s final season, a misplaced near-post cross was turned into his own net by Chelsea’s Gary Cahill. A misdirected far-post ball was finished in inadvertent fashion by Hull’s Ahmed Elmohamady.
Yet most of his crosses were simply eminently forgettable. They just hit the opposition left-back. He was metronomic, just not in the right way. His career became Einstein’s (or at least, a quote attributed to Einstein) definition of insanity, “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Time and again, Navas would make the same run, deliver the same cross and see it hit the left-back again. His seasons could be measured in opponents: same cross, different left-back.
And had he provided a better supply line, that goal drought may have simply been a peculiarity. Instead, it became a manifestation of the way a shy character was a confidence player who lost all confidence. The most obvious example came when he missed two open goals in the space of six weeks in the autumn of 2015 – Raheem Sterling at least scored the rebound from one – which in turn followed a painful moment at Everton when, more by accident than design, Navas found himself clean through. Time stood still as he seemed to look to someone to cross the ball to, identified no one, reluctantly decided to shoot and prodded the most timid of efforts. Tim Howard, who had entered the stage in his career when saves felt fortunate coincidences, simply stood up. The ball bounced back off his chest.
Admittedly, Navas scored at Goodison Park a few months later. He also found the net in two League Cup finals, in the last minute against Sunderland in 2014 and the penalty shoot-out against Liverpool two years later. Cometh the least significant major trophy, cometh the man. Oddly for someone who could not shoot, Navas tended to excel in penalty shoot-outs.
It formed part of the enigma of a man who departed a mystery. Some of it concerned the pre-City Navas. Viewed with hindsight, there is something intriguing about Sevilla’s former right-sided partnership of Navas and Dani Alves. It seems to have too much voltage at the bottom of the ticket, the right-back boasting far more attacking threat than the winger.
This theory is that he was simply a decoy, and that it was a role he revisited in the Spain side, with that admittedly notable exception of a part in a World Cup final winner. He could stretch the game to create room for the phalanx of diminutive passers who all converged infield. Why pick an Iniesta clone who isn’t quite as good as the genuine article when you can have the defiantly different Navas?
And yet it remained remarkable just how one-dimensional a player he was. Subtler footballers move at angles, change direction and vary their speed. Not the Duracell bunny on City’s right wing, who only seemed to move in straight lines.
There was a point, a few weeks into Guardiola’s time in Manchester, when the Catalan’s coaching seemed to have made a difference. Navas appeared unchecked in the sort of pocket of space where he was neither the opposition centre-back nor full-back’s responsibility, not exactly in a central midfielder or a winger’s defensive zone. David Silva or Kevin De Bruyne would have been in their element there. Navas simply looked confused. The move broke down.
Guardiola ended up using Navas at right-back. He actually did well against Alexis Sánchez, a blend of pace, diligence and a capacity to follow orders equipping him for the task. City were willing to extend his contract to reinvent him as a full-back, forming a contrast with a more talented teammate who was exiled.
He was the anti-Nasri, rarely on the same wavelength as Silva, not as gifted or as technical, but so whippet-thin he was never likely to report overweight, so quiet he would not come out with controversial comments and so innocuous he never fell out with anyone. Navas once asked an interpreter to return and clarify an utterance he was worried would be contentious when it was so forgettable no one had noticed it. (It was also the occasion, a couple of days before the 2016 League Cup final, one of our number, to the amusement of a few others, asked Navas if he thought this had been his best season at City.)
He never learnt English; on at least one occasion, he looked alarmed when addressed in it. Muteness perhaps spared him scrutiny. It was notable that his last act as a City employee was, as part of a club initiative to thank particularly loyal fans, going to visit the Rexstraw family in Stockport. Willy Caballero, who was also leaving, went with him. The amiable Argentinian did all the talking. Navas sat, stood, smiled and signed in silence.
If it showed his natural diffidence, there was something very sane about his attitude, about earning large amounts of money without being particularly good by dint of being utterly inoffensive. Whatever could Pellegrini, a man who cultivated a magnificently bland persona, recognise in Navas? Because the Chilean seemed to think a game was not an official fixture unless the Spaniard played. He picked Navas 147 times, more than anyone else, in his three-year reign.
But here is the odd thing. Some people really like Navas. Some really think he is good. Or think he is really good. Apart from Pellegrini, they tend to have roots in his home city. Monchi, Sevilla’s famous bargain hunter of a sporting director, later tried to sign him for Roma. Alberto Moreno revealed in a Guardian interview that Navas was his hero. No wonder that he, too, grew up to be able to run very quickly in straight lines near a touchline.
And when he returned to Sevilla in 2017, the serial Europa League winners announced his arrival in a bizarre video in which Navas was kidnapped, put in the boot of a BMW and released inside the Ramon Sánchez Pizjuán. Navas has since claimed the club’s appearance record. Their official website brands him “the living legend” and declared: “Jesús Navas can achieve stratospheric and unmatchable heights.”
Which, it is fair to say, he probably did not in Manchester. While he is far from the only Spaniard with such a name, there was something fitting about another Jesus being indelibly associated with a cross; in Navas’s case, it was a painful experience for most concerned. City did not help, announcing the news of his departure with the hashtag ThankYouJesus. It turned out it tended to be used more by evangelical Christians in the United States who were presumably confused by mentions of a man few outside Seville have ever felt was their saviour. And, with endearing consistency, Navas duly recorded the lowest success rate of anyone who attempted 75 crosses or more in La Liga last season. He has remained true to himself, and perhaps that is all you can ask of anyone.