Greatness begets a sea change. It is as likely as not, that with the eventual passing of the era of Ronaldo and Messi, that the broader conception of footballing excellence as it exists now will retire from the sport with them. Presentist fervour all aside, what feats the pair of them may accomplish within the context of a game have been glimpsed, speaking in terms of broad footballing geni, before: perfect lobbed passes, shape-buckling runs, ludicrous long-range finishes, are none the less exhilarating in the Messinian or Ronaldo-esque signatures for having been seen, in some way, before.
What is unprecedented of the two is their rate of productivity. Where product ratios are concerned, and though the numbers themselves are only a dull hint of those players’ two astonishing stories, there have been few players to trouble them and, in a comparable era, only Marco van Basten approaches their eye-watering game of ratios and statistics. This is not a pace for history to sustain, even if history straddling behemoths themselves, against all rational prediction, have. It is more likely, inspecting the graph of transformation in the contents of the centre-forward’s playbook since the 1990s (a style that Messi and Ronaldo, for all their widemen pretentions, stand as the apotheosis of), that we will see in the face of this inimitable reign of the Divine Producers, a new way of thinking about the precepts of the world class talent, especially given that, of the pair’s successors in forwards positions, none of the prime candidates – Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, Paulo Dybala, with Neymar standing as a possible qualified exception – look to have the bloody-mindedness that emulates such ruthless acquisition of footballing goods. The figure of the future does not resemble the outline of the sublime forward.
The future, to my mind, looks like Raphael Guerreiro. The Portuguese’s elegant creativity as a wide-defender was one of the redeeming factors of the desertous Euro 2016. He came into that tournament firmly shaded by the firmament of the fee for Renato Sanches’ impending transfer to Bayern Munich; Sanches, in his way, epitomises every bit as much as Paul Pogba the celebratory value of transfer hyper-inflation and how it allows ostentatious displays of onanistic financial potency by clubs. Sanches was coveted because much like Pogba – if to an appropriately lesser degree of accomplishment, given the Portuguese’s age – he was of a style and grace both fairly smooth and fairly brutish, and of a roundedness of player profile as much presumed as exhibited. Although it was and is Guerreiro who has actualised a breadth of capability that would justify his being ladled with the ‘Full Potential Package’ as Pogba and Sanches were, Guerreiro is not physically imposing, nor is his station a primarily central one; he does not seem to lord over proceedings, as Pogba and Sanches seem to at their best. Guerreiro was unremarked upon, by-and-large, because of a perceived lack of symbolic value. Symbolic value that he is, in fact, replete with.
His boyhood apprenticeship, as we may be saying of many making new star-turns in the near future of football, was in France; he cut a figure so hard of local language that he barely uttered a word to his team mates when part of the landscape of Rennes. From there it was full-speed to Lorient. Ligue 1 is perhaps an ideal incubatory environment for a player of Guerreiro’s width of promise; it is a league as much in the midst of developing the fibres of its core identity as many of its youngest players, being tithed to dogma so much less assiduously than England or Italy’s, both of their cultures oak thick and mahogany dark. Guerreiro would not be chastised there for the lack of physicality (though he shows no such lack), for flights of indiscipline, for wanting to keep his footballing education and ambitions broad.
It is not purely that he has a single element, or a conventional skillset, that demarcates him as a player of world-class promise, but that he looks to be capable of excelling across such a broad range of technique, in such a vast number of positions. He is a masterful direct runner, a beautiful dislodger of balls in-field from a touchline made sticky by opposition pressure; his free-kick technique is not suggestive of a pure striker of a ball but of the finesse and reliability of a technician not only gifted, but diligent. In a way suggestive of his countryman Ronaldo, in his dead ball United days, he seems of cultivation as much as raw ability. It is he, viewing the way he spread his dominance through so many elements and instances of his Borussia Dortmund’s group stage CL clashes against Real Madrid, who looks as though he could take Ronaldo’s mantle of he who stands most tall in his nation’s footballing landscape. He was averaging a shot a game as a defender. When Tuchel moved him, it was not a local switch to a defensive middle area; he went from low-wide, left, to a number 8 berth. These are not the peregrinations of a regular footballing intelligence. It is not, either, as though Guerreiro was raw and untested, unproven in his original role; as previously noted, he was one of Portugal’s truest performers at Euro 2016, one of the finest performers in a team who were, if nothing else, hard to question defensively.
Luminous as a wide defender, Guerreiro has transferred to the very different confines of the very charged, competitive midfields of the Bundesliga with an ease, elegance and unanticipated depth of capability familiar from his own playing style. The joy of his Dortmund side is the very thing that makes their flanks soft and susceptible; they are young, and like a young side (not least a young side whose primary tactical approach is predicated on their squad’s staffing with independent technicians): all of them like to take the game on, on their own. Guerreiro suffers from such a folly from time to time too. But time is something the 22-year-old has plenty of, and in his immense favour, and probably to his immense chagrin in the choosing as well, he is a player who no less of a man than his coach sees as “far too good to be pigeonholed to one position”. We might hope, necks craned nostalgically to the annals of intermittent masterworks of footballing discipline so often forged when the spaces on the pitch are deliquesced by players fine enough to combine competencies in each, that this is something we may say of the very best in the near future. Guerreiro is one; Keïta is another. Look at Lionel or Cristiano, and you believe that once they find themselves in the right position, the right region, the right situation, they can do anything. The players who may succeed them, though they may not do everything, could very well do anything.