For so long, and to largely positive
effect, Australian football has been defined by the sinewy, the indefatigable,
the strong and the fast.
Over the last 15 years, most of the
Australians garnishing the leagues of Europe have been hard-hitters or
hard-runners, from Mark Viduka, to Matthew Leckie. It’s sort of a blushing
pride we have, furnished as we are with a partially unjustified reputation of a
country that primarily produces players that are euphemistically described as
being ‘physical’. Yes, only partially unjustified.
It is true that the endless endurance of
Brett Emerton, the salmon-leap of Tim Cahill, the flying pace of Harry Kewell,
and more recently, the respective muscle and swiftness of, say, Mile Jedinak
and Tommy Oar have been the most vigorous pistons keeping Australian football
motoring along. Football has been, unwillingly, shaped by its rugby and Aussie
Rules-dominated circumstances. Our paddocks are yawning, hard expanses, and our
domestic league is still often decided in purely concussive terms. Lately, Melbourne
Victory have charged ceaselessly, never stopping, never relenting, overpowering
every other team with a particularly frightening brand of buffeting, physical
This is the situation we’ve become
accustomed to, and it’s not surprising; a soaring Cahill header feels just as
good every time (and we’ve had the opportunity to get bored of them, there have
been quite a few). Of the current crop, Leckie stands, constructed, it seems,
from 100% twitching muscle, as the latest refined example of this footballing
archetype. His 5’10’’ frame makes him a purpose-built, multitask athlete, able
to change direction with a sort of shocking suddenness, or suddenly accelerate,
bursting through a blockade of opponents. He can jump, he can run, and he does,
with a brutal energy. In Leckie, the Australian-footballer-as-athlete paradigm
has crested, fizzing and sparking, once again.
So, with all of this withstanding, it makes
the precious existence of Massimo Luongo all the more distinct. The QPR
midfielder is not blessed with any supreme physical virtues to speak of; he’s
not very tall, and a little soft around the edges. He isn’t very quick, not by
the standards set by those around him, and rarely ventures into the airspace of
the elite headers. And yet, in spite of this, he might just be our best player.
When the national nursery that forges these
athletic titans gets to the point that the cradles become white-hot crucibles,
the exquisite qualities that exist in Luongo can be burned away, regrettably so.
Certainly we have no other player who resembles Luongo playing at senior level
at the moment. Tom Rogic has a silken sublimeness to him, but he still
exercises it in a very upright, muscular manner. Luongo, diminutive and
cerebral, was raised as a footballer away from here; perhaps this has something
to do with it. It’s difficult to imagine Luongo evolving into the player he is
today, had he been brought up in the churning cauldron of the A-League.
He is a footballer of rare poise, with an
innate sense for locating those ephemeral pockets of space, the same pockets
that David Silva fills for Manchester City. His swiftness occurs in his mind,
calculating countless variables in order to turn away from a defender, in one
fluid, perfect shimmy. Where his colleagues, upon receiving the ball,
transition into a head-down, bloody tunnel-vision mind frame, ready to charge
snortingly, Luongo raises his head, scanning for promising runs. His passing is
deliciously subtle, often laying off balls mid-hesitation, on the back-foot, a
technique that bamboozles any hopeful interceptors. There are no quicker feet
in the national team, particularly when ensconced in a snapping midfield maul.
Of course, he is able, as all professional
footballers must be, to compete physically too. He can run away from people,
albeit in a way that involves shielding the ball and riding challenges, rather
than pure ground-speed. He tackles diligently, levering players off the ball
with his own method of low-centre-of-gravity sidling. As it happens, that
stocky frame gives him unexpected strength, both on and off the ball. But these
supplementary qualities don’t make up the thrust of his talent.
Watching his Asian Cup
highlights, there are moments where you find yourself thinking “Cross it
now, go on, put in the mixer!” only for Luongo to calmly swivel and make an
infinitely more thoughtful, careful pass than the one we brutishly had in mind.
His two goals and four assists in that tournament added a newly glinting sparkle
to the lad, and he has since shown at QPR that even the thuggish reputation of
the English second division can’t stop him from gliding around, flummoxing
defenders. He has assisted more goals than any of his Rangers team mates so far
this season, three in 10 games. Rangers manager Chris Ramsay – Luongo’s youth
team coach when he began his career at Tottenham – evidently had not forgotten
about Luongo’s gifts when he bought him from Swindon Town during this last
off-season. Playing in a team that, with Charlie Austin up front and Matty Phillips
on the wing, is very cross-heavy, Luongo has carved out a pleasant notch for
himself in the starting XI.
In Luongo, Ange Postecoglu has a gem to
build around for the next decade, a player to knit all those runners on the
flanks together. As such, Luongo must be protected, as Mesut Ozil is by Arsene
Wenger at Arsenal. We must decorate this player with others who will enhance
Massimo, who will support him, because he is the most unique talent we have.