Frustrating? Laughable? Whatever your perspective, there is little doubt that Bébé was less than impressive against Wolves yesterday. Seven missed crosses were met with groans from the United faithful, and jeers from the two Wolves fans tucked neatly in the corner of my chosen hostelry, while the player himself suffered the ultimate ignominy: the substituted substitute. But what, apart from the fact that his game clearly needs work, can we learn from Bébé’s early steps?
Judging young players is always a delicate operation. A good friend who shall remain nameless once told me that there was no way ‘that skinny Ronaldo with stupid hair’ was ever going to make it, while more recently Nani and Darren Fletcher have been written off by some United fans as being well short of the class required. Patience is the rarest of attributes in modern football, and it is important to remember that Bébé should not, at this stage of his United career, be anywhere near the first team.
It took long-term, short-term and inevitable injuries to Valencia, Nani and Hargreaves — plus a minor ‘flu epidemic — for Bébé to end up on the field yesterday, and there’s a world of difference between playing from (almost) the start against fresh opposition, and the late-game lesser-fixture cameos that his season has comprised so far. Add to that the patchwork nature of the team, and his less-than stellar performance starts to acquire some context.
Not only is the lad only twenty; in footballing terms, he’s a very young twenty. To pluck a random comparison from the air, Chelsea’s new midfield hope Josh McEachran is, at 17, three years younger than Bébé. But McEachran has been attached to the Chelsea academy since the age of eight, meaning he’s had nine years at a top-flight academy to learn his game. Bébé, by contrast, was playing amateur football until he was eighteen, has had one season in the Portuguese second division, and has suddenly ended up at the greatest club in the world. It’s a wonder he can clear his head enough to put his boots on.
In some ways it was encouraging to see the crosses keep disappearing into the crowd. Nobody could have blamed the lad for choosing to play a simpler, safer option, rather than risk another public failure. The fact that Bébé was willing to keep betting on his erratic crossing ability shows that, while he may not always get it right, he is willing to try. For myself, I would rather United were represented by footballers that take risks, that try things, even if they don’t come off.
Sometimes, a safe footballer is a cowardly footballer, and crossing can be taught. Yesterday’s performance showed us just how far Bébé has to come if he is to become a Manchester United player, and it’s a long way. Encouragingly, it also showed that he might just have the character to make it.