We all know about John Arne Riise’s traction engine of a left foot, but that’s not what really interests me. I watched enough Brazil games growing up to know that having a left back who can belt the ball at or beyond the speed of light is not as useful as it is fun. So while we can be sure Riise will bust a net or two with a thunderbolt at some point, this is the cherry on top of the cake, not the cake itself.
No, the main thing about John Arne Riise is that, whether by accident or design, he wins football matches. Since 2001 he’s been at Liverpool and then Roma. He has finished 2nd, 5th, 4th, 5th, 3rd, 3rd, 4th, 6th, 2nd, 6th. You might quibble that these are all well and good but that there’s no “1st” in the mix, but I think it’s a fair reflection on a good but not great player. With Liverpool he and his teammates flitted around success but ultimately weren’t as good as Wengers invincibles, Mourinho’s unstoppables or whatever Sir Alex’s United team du jour might have identified itself as. They were there or thereabouts, and Riise was a regular and important part of those teams.
Of course he was a younger man in those days, but this isn’t necessarily a problem either. If players look after themselves – and Riise has always appeared to be well conditioned – there’s no reason why they can’t continue into their mid thirties, which is especially true of defenders. True, we are trying to get younger as a side, but I’d much rather persist with an experienced back four and try to bring in some pace and youth further up the field than the other way around. The defence is where you want certainty, experience. Riise gives us that.
It also gives us a nice contrast on the flanks. The old ‘cultured left foot’ tag doesn’t really apply to Riise, but Chris Baird’s right foot fits that description well. Baird won’t break beyond the opposing back line, but is a fine passer and a good crosser from what I always used to exasperatedly call the “Gary Neville position”, about 45 degrees from the far post on the right touchline. Riise’s dominant foot is good but not what we’d call cultured, a heavy metal guitar to Baird’s violin. But it’s effective. He’s aggressive in his attacks, goes inside and outside the full-backs, and has a history of getting into the box. It’s an intriguing combination, and one that should give us our best attacking full-back pairing for a while. This could be important, as full-backs are a vital element of the modern football team. What you do with your full-backs can determine how the whole side plays, so to have two good ones, two players who can attack and defend, is very encouraging. (I am not overly worried about Riise being too attacking. He has played extensively under Rafa Bentitez and Claudio Ranieri so at this point in his career will not be tactically naive. He will know when to go and when to stay, and his team-mates are clever enough to cover for this.)
So there we are. On the surface an excellent signing. I can’t wait to see him in action.