Underestimated: Vivianne Miedema

Vivianne Miedema for Arsenal FC

Underestimated is a 10 part series exploring underestimated, tenacious and occasionally misunderstood players. Written by Zito Madu and brought to you by WeaselsFC.

Vivanne Miedema’s first goal of the season was a long range strike against Reading. It was an incredible, if atypical goal. The strike could be seen as a direct rebuttal to one of the last remaining criticisms of her and her ability, which is that she doesn’t score or have the ability to score from outside of the box. As a rebuttal goal, and as a long range shot in general, which are always fun for their power and precision, as well as their inherent surprise, the goal is great. As a Miedema specific goal, it’s less enthralling.

When I think of Miedema, I think of the word and concept of graceful. Words like poise, composure, and fluidity might be great generalizations and jargon in the athletic world now, but she does contain the little bit of truth left in those attributes. Her movements are refined, but seem effortless, even though they’re not. She seems to know much ahead of time what she plans to do, and it mostly corresponds to what the defender doesn’t expect. Everything she does seems gentle, even as those actions are entirely destructive to the opposing team’s defensive game-plan.

In Readings, Hélène Cixous talks about the concept of grace, as written by Heinrich von Kleist, where he contrasts the human with a puppet, and concludes that it’s near impossible for humans to truly be graceful, weightless, because they simply have to think before they act. So no matter how refined the movements, there is an unavoidable constraint:

“During dance exercises, we respond to the calling of a weight with another weight. What does the puppet do? It responds to external constraints by giving in to them and without tensing its muscles. We arrive at a paradox, which is that the puppet has no inner constraint. This can be understood positively or negatively. Negatively, because it implies that it has no inside; positively because it has no constraints. The puppet does not really dance. To dance is already to want to dance. The puppet is simply in harmony with external constraints. Humans can never get there except in brief moments, in hundredths of a second and quite exceptionally. We live the tensing of our muscles as spontaneous. Slaves to the spirit that keeps us upright, we are struggling against external constraints.”

Back in January, I went to watch Arsenal play against Chelsea in London, in what was a comprehensive Chelsea victory. Miedema didn’t score or have much of an impact, but I was mesmerized by her throughout the match. She sauntered around, shoulders slumped most of the time, and seemed to be overwhelmed by the physicality of the Chelsea defenders. When she’s having a bad day, she can look unimpressive.

Miedema contains a dynamic that I find fascinating: she is one of the best strikers in the English league and in the world, but often looks so ordinary that if it wasn’t for her height, she could easily be described as meek. Barring the height, she’s not physically imposing. She’s not visceral fast or strong, and even with her height, defenders can often climb over her to win balls in the air. She’s tall, but she’s spiritually much shorter and plays like it. During the Chelsea game, it seemed as if there was nothing that she could do against those defenders since she didn’t have the physical qualities that could help a player break out of a bad game, simply by overpowering or outrunning their opponents.

Those games where she struggles are rare, and thus whatever physical qualities that she lacks aren’t much of a detriment. I was mesmerized by her then and usually whenever I watch Arsenal because I believe that she is one of the exceptional few who come so close to true gracefulness and gentleness that the quality gives her both an aesthetically pleasing game, but also the ability to create space and slow down time. The goals of hers that I love, the ones that I think of as wonderful Miedema goals, are those in which she scores in the box after almost magically creating a stillness in the action.

Those are the goals where she gets the ball in the box, and with defenders and the goalkeeper scrambling to close her down and prevent a shot, she takes a touch that misdirects everyone, maybe she fakes the shot, forcing her opponents to commit, before gently slotting the ball into the back of the net. When she collects the initial pass before the subsequent goal, she’s so relaxed in a situation where most forwards would be scrambling to get a shot off, that there’s a sense of almost-stillness that radiates from her and covers her surrounding area. Things move in slow-motion.

There’s no rush to take the shot. No reason to hurry, or to take the initial shot out of a fear that a defender will win the ball. She already knows where the defenders are at, how much space the goalkeeper has given her, and the other possible angles to score from. So she deceives her opponents, pretending to shoot and creating more space by manipulating the nature of the defenders and goalkeepers. And after the space is opened up, there’s no need for a hard or even precise strike. She can simply pass the ball into the open net. All of it is done in such light fashion that it feels as she floats on the ground. Miedema isn’t the only player that scores these kinds of goals, but she’s one that does it so much that it’s become a signature.

After Miedema was named FWA women’s footballer of the year in July, Jen O’Neill, chair of the FWA’s women’s sub-committee, said:

“Vivianne’s clinical efficiency in front of goal and her seemingly effortless poise can mean her all-round ability and footballing intelligence are sometimes overlooked. She is a worthy winner and a world-class performer.”

Her ability to create time and space where there should be none, her combination of intelligence, awareness, technique, and talent, and the fact that she has fused all those qualities with a supreme understanding of her body, brings her so close to the ultimate idea of gracefulness that she’s always enthralling to watch, even in the rare times that she’s playing badly. But when she’s in form, as she tends to be, she gives the impression that she’s floating on air, unbothered, even as she scores goal after goal and sends the opposing team into despair.

Resources:

Photo https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vivianne_Miedema_20191016.jpg

https://www.theguardian.com/football/2020/jul/01/arsenals-vivianne-miedema-named-fwa-womens-footballer-of-the-year

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