As with most great relationships between player and manager, my partnership with El Emperador Maissel Sabgh resulted from pure coincidence. As I started my career with Junior Popular de Barranquilla FC, or just Junior FC for short, we lacked a proper strike force. As it happens, a young forward has just been released by his club. He looked decent enough, and he was a product of Juniors youth academy, so he was quickly snapped up and re-joined his boyhood club. It was the start of a journey that lasted two decades in-game, an epic adventure that frustrated many a defender and goalkeeper and brought much joy and jubilation to the Junior faithful in the pixelated stands.
Even a journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step. In this particular case, it all started when I left Houston Dynamos in the MLS to try my luck in Colombia. Unlike previous instalments of the game, I have ditched the eponymous style I generally employ; we had been using actual forwards for a while now. Sabgh slotted into my formation as an Advanced Forward.
Upon his return to the Estadio Metropolitano Roberto Meléndez, Sabgh had a stellar season for Los Tiburones, netting 50 goals in 53 appearances as he linked up with another academy graduate up front, the burly target man Kevin Caicedo. We were playing middle to low block formation, where Caicedo used his powerful physique and aerial presence to bully defenders and create space for others, whilst Sabgh used his pace and sublime sense of spatial awareness to prowl the space between the lines and get into goalscoring positions. One could safely argue that he was quite adept at this.
Yet as more and more talented forwards graduated from the academy, I decided to move Sabgh back a line and slot him into the Shadow Striker position for no other reason as he was the only player in my forward line who could play as an attacking midfielder. This decision was the catalyst to a bona fide torrent of goals for nearly two decades.
While it’s true that Sabgh was an exceptionally fast player, especially in his younger years, it feels like I am doing him a disservice by shortchanging him as a speed-demon type of player. All things considered, Sabgh was a superb all-round player. Elegant and strong, equally proficient with either foot, powerful in the air and highly mobile, Sabgh was a constant handful for every defence he came up against. What truly made him special, though, was his sublime sense of positioning.
As many teams in my Football Manager universe sought to employ a counter-pressing setup and compress space and try to regain possession as quickly as possible, it becomes increasingly important to locate pockets of space and rapidly do something productive when the ball is played into these pockets of space. Sabgh excelled in both aspects of the game. He seemed to be in the right spot at the right time so often and consistently that it can’t be considered a coincidence.
It reminds me of a trait once attributed to Xavi Hernandez; space-time. I’m going to quote the man directly here.
“Football is a sport in which you have to watch what is going on around you to find the best possible solution. If you do not relate to others, you do not know anything and you cannot do anything. There is the space-time thing to apprehend in this game…it is the possibility of controlling what you do and what others do, because you play with your head and not only with your feet. ‘But how can I find spaces if there are not any?’ There are always some. You have to move the ball from one side to the other, move, move again, and there you go, there is space. I spent my life searching for it, finding ways. Ask where is there space? How to make it happen?” – Xavi Hernandez
Sabgh seems to have a knack for finding the right time and space, which is an absolutely vital skill to possess with the growing importance of counter-pressing and other restrictive tactics.
Space in football can be identified by determining the position of the ball, other players (opponents and teammates) and unoccupied areas of the pitch based on four parameters: width, depth, opposition defensive lines and offside line. Time in football refers to how long a player has in possession of the ball to make a decision and perform the correct action. Obviously, more space equals more time.
Sabgh had an instinct for being in the right spot in the right time, a natural ability to perfectly time his runs to surge into that one pocket of space everyone else neglected to notice. Maissel was far from the most elegant player, and outside the area he often took the simple solutions, playing short and easy passes, maintaining possession, and waiting for his moment to pounce.
However, as soon as he entered the zone in and around the penalty area, he transformed into a completely different player. He possessed positioning that suggested he had eyes all around his head, a first touch that was almost robotic at times and an eye for goal like few in my FM universes ever had. He was still playing simple football, but he was unsurpassed in the way he was clinical in front of goal, needing only one or two touches to score a goal or provide an assist.
For all the noise around football, for all the discussion of tactics and systems and philosophies, ultimately the only things that really matter are the goals. Sabgh was not only just good at the only thing that really matters, but the only thing that really mattered to him was the only thing that matters; scoring goals.
He was remarkably unselfish in that regard; an assist seemed equally important, as that led to a goal as well. Over the course of his illustrious career, he racked up over 500 assists as well. Especially in his later years, as I dropped him from the more explosive role of Shadow Striker into a more conservative role in central midfield, he transformed from an outright goalscorer into a prolific creator-scorer. He still contributed his goals with well-timed surges into the box, but he used his unrivalled mastery of time and space to set up goals for others as well.
Quintessentially, he was football pared back to its most elemental and basic parts. No frills, nothing fancy, nothing extraneous. Sabgh was an everyman, a wildly successful footballer who didn’t have otherworldly technical gifts. If you watch a flamboyant genius do things with the ball that few others can, you admire them but can’t relate to them. Sabgh on the other hand was incredibly relatable, the sort of footballer you could kid yourself into thinking: yeah, I could do that. He wasn’t in love with goals, goals were in love with him. As I was with him.