The Premier League's unsung heroes
When Manchester United visit Arsenal on Saturday, there is a temptation to reduce one of the clashes of the season, or indeed the entire title race, to the battles of the big names. Cesc Fabregas versus Cristiano Ronaldo may top the bill, followed by Samir Nasri against Wayne Rooney while encounters on the undercard - Alex Song and Darren Fletcher, say - can generate little publicity. But in the context of a team game, they can be significant. The title may yet be determined by the marquee names at each of the major contenders, but it could be decided by rather less exciting concepts such as strength in depth or less flamboyant individuals.
Sir Alex Ferguson raised eyebrows when he described Fletcher as United's player of the season. It would have brooked less argument had he called the midfielder his most consistent footballer thus far, however; Rooney, for instance, was average in August and outstanding in October, whereas Fletcher has maintained his level of performance. With economical passing, considerable energy and well-judged forays forward, Fletcher's attributes are not those of a superstar, but it is worth remembering he ended last season United's fifth-choice central midfielder. Few have figured more often this year.
Yet Ferguson has often favoured an unflashy workhorse. Phil Neville used to be guaranteed a game against Arsenal for his industry alone, though United's lesser lights have a remarkable tendency to prosper against more exalted opponents. In recent years, Fletcher, John O'Shea, Wes Brown, Ji-sung Park and, before swapping the red of Manchester for the red of North London, Mikael Silvestre have scored in meetings with other members of the big four.
There is a chance that Silvestre will be granted a swift reunion with his former colleagues at the Emirates Stadium if he can recover sufficiently from the broken nose he sustained against Fenerbahce on Wednesday night. If he is, and such potential match-winners as Ryan Giggs, Carlos Tevez and Anderson kept in reserve by United, it would suggest Ferguson has a deeper pool of talent at his disposal than Arsene Wenger. That may be a consequence of the Frenchman's reluctance to spend when their is the option of nurturing emerging players. That approach, admirable as it is, means Arsenal's fringe players have the same characteristics as their superiors.
Flaws and gifts are shared alike.
At times, it enables them to emerge from the shadows and out-class recognised Premier League players with bewilderingly brilliant passing; at others, they appear as ill-suited to the fray as those with diva tendencies. Silvestre, Song and Nicklas Bendtner floundered at Stoke City on Saturday, but then so did more established players such as Manuel Almunia, Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Adebayor. Arsenal's alternatives will be tested still further if Theo Walcott and William Gallas join Adebayor and Robin van Persie on the sidelines on Saturday.
Chelsea's fringe players, in contrast, seem to excel in overcoming lesser opponents. In Alex's first nine hours on the pitch this season, Chelsea conceded once; Juliano Belletti's few starts seem to coincide with magnificent goals. When, minus eight of their strongest side, they won 5-0 at Middlesbrough, it was suggested Luiz Felipe Scolari's reserves could finish fifth in the Premier League. The French connection of Nicolas Anelka and Florent Malouda were in similarly destructive mood as Sunderland were beaten by the same scoreline. The striker's hat-trick made him the division's joint top scorer while the consensus is that Didier Drogba remains Chelsea's premier forward. Yet when confronted with mightier adversaries, Anelka and Malouda have been anonymous. Neither made any impact against either Manchester United or Liverpool.
The latter club's fine start prompts two possible explanations. Either the calibre of the squad players at Anfield is higher or Rafa Benitez is confining his rotation to the right games; Jermaine Pennant's two league starts, for instance, have been winnable home matches. Yet the men from the margins have played their part; Nabil El Zhar came off the bench to contribute to the comeback against Middlesbrough, as did Andrea Dossena at Manchester City and Yossi Benayoun versus Wigan Athletic. Dirk Kuyt is a regular on the right of midfield, but as Fernando Torres' understudy in attack, he has rediscovered his goalscoring touch.
Players such as the Dutchman occupy a peculiar position in the football firmament, often feared less than more fashionable players at less successful clubs, but capable of being integral for Liverpool. Attitude is a reason, the unselfish commitment to the team ethic meaning their talents are often obscured as they accept others merit star billing.
But egos can benefit from being surrounded by more grounded individuals, players who have made a conscious decision that 20 or 25 games for a top team is preferable to 40 or 50 for a mid-ranking side and men with the adaptability and temperament to capitalise on rare opportunities. It must require a certain mental strength to recognise and accept that a crowd's immediate response to their selection is one of disappointment that a more garlanded and glamorous player is unavailable or rested.
The rewards might not include public acclaim, but they are considerable nonetheless. A title-winning team can rely upon a Mark Atkins, a Gilles Grimandi or a Phil Neville. Their managers know it, even if the rest of us can forget.