A Closer. If you’re an NBA fan, you’re probably familiar with that noun. In basketball, a closer is a player (usually a scorer) who helps the team ensure its lead is protected during the last few minutes of a game otherwise known as crunch time. One of the things that made the Cleveland Cavaliers so unique over the past couple of seasons was the on-court chemistry between LeBron James & Point Guard, Kyrie Irving. LeBron James has never really been much of a force in crunch time but boy, could he destroy teams in the first 3 and a half quarters. Kyrie Irving, on the other hand, was an assassin during crunch time so it’s no surprise he was Cavs’ Closer. This formula brought the Cavs 3 consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, one of which they won.
Since a Closer’s job in a team is to ensure its lead is protected during crunch time, the football application of this concept varies a little bit. While in basketball a closer is a scorer who can get points on the board, in football a Closer doesn’t necessarily have to (score goals). He could be a midfielder who controls the tempo of the game and kills off any momentum in the opponent or like Jose Mourinho, the coach himself is the Closer by tactically setting his team up in double-blocks or as we like to call it, Parking The Bus.
One of the many reasons why Saints FC have been able to dominate The SociaLiga over the last 2 seasons has been their understanding of this concept. They’re by far the most ruthless team in the league and their ability to finish off opponents is often overlooked. For their opponents, there is a certain fear that comes with Saints FC scoring first in a game and justifiably so. In 6 of the games they’ve scored first this season, they’ve gone on to win all 6 which is impressive to say the least. In contrast, in 3 of the games they conceded first, they drew one, won one and the last was a loss to Guns FC that saw their unbeaten run snapped. A pattern in those 6 wins, you will notice, is them taking advantage of opponents seeking to grab an equalizer. It’s no surprise that a team throws caution to the wind when desperately pushing for a goal and this has been when Saints have perfected the art of landing a death blow with midfielder, Kunle Ibaru playing the Closer role for the defending league champions in these situations. Surrounded by equally talented and perhaps, more ‘flashy’ players, there’s a high possibility to underestimate Ibaru’s influence in Saints. Nurudeen Olusesi, Robert Odu & Tolu Benson have been the standout performers for Saints this season and their memorable comeback against Cubs FC on Matchday 6 showed just how dangerous the trio could be.
Kunle Ibaru doesn’t possess the ability to always beat a man, neither is he really a threat in front of goal. He isn’t exactly known for being a ball winner in the middle of the park either. Lacking these abilities mean opposition players naively fail to close him down which is the first step towards their own failure. What Kunle Ibaru does possess, however, is a brilliant passing ability which is arguably the best in SociaLiga, coupled with an unmatched vision. Also, he he reads the game like no other could. Think of him as Saints’ answer to Andrea Pirlo but without the majestic beard & fine hair. With the ability to pick apart any defense, the underestimation by opponents by not closing him down & the opponents pushing high up the pitch in search for a way back into the game, Kunle Ibaru is a perfect weapon for the Saints FC to close a game. Take the game against Reds FC at the tail end of last season:
3 Goals up in the first-half, Reds FC threw caution to the wind in search for a goal to get back into the game. They pushed high, leaving acres of space behind their defense line. With just a swing of his boot after a Reds’ attack broke down, an unmarked Kunle Ibaru played Samuel Morala through on goal for Saints’ 4th goal of the half which ended any hope, if ever there was any, of a Reds FC comeback.
1-0 down in the second-half of the Super Cup on the opening day of the season, Knights FC tried to claw their way back into the game. As expected, they pushed high & left Kunle Ibaru all alone. A break down in attack for the Knights FC saw Kunle Ibaru play Nurudeen Olusesi through on goal with a perfectly weighted out-side the foot pass. Regardless of the questionable goal-keeping, this was a brilliant knock-out move & it sealed the (2-0) victory for Saints.
Definitely the hardest to pull off. Guns were down 2-0 in the Island Conference finals just last month and, again, they pushed for a goal. Having been recently exposed to this move (next video), Guns FC had a defensive midfielder in place to shield the defense. However, with more than enough time to think, Kunle Ibaru opted to play the ball over the top rather than on the ground to release Tolu Benson & the red hot striker made no mistake with the cheekiest of flicks. Game over & a second consecutive Island Conference title in the bag.
This was just a couple of hours after the Super Cup on the opening day of the season. (Kunle Ibaru was rested for this game after his masterclass against Knights FC). Guns FC had come from 1 goal down to pull level but Saints went ahead once again. With the belief that they could get a second equalizer, they went in search for a goal & Samuel Morala, who found himself in the “Kunle Ibaru position”, played Tolu Benson through for one of the best finishes you’ll see all see to put Saints 3-1 up. Game done.
A couple of things you would notice in these key moments. First, all 4 assists came from Saints’ own half which is strange but shows you just how dangerous their attack can be from almost anywhere on the pitch. Secondly, at the moment the pass is played, the opponents have at least 7 players behind the passer which emphasizes the need for a high press if you must push up (otherwise, you leave your defense at the mercy of the opposition strikers). Lastly (and this isn’t shown in the clips), going behind Saints shouldn’t be a cause to throw the original game plan out the window. One of Saints’ toughest battles this season was a Matchday 3 encounter with Alphas FC. Despite going a goal down in the first half, Alphas seemed to stay true to their game plan which was to hit the Saints on the break while remaining compact at the back. Alphas were unlucky not to get the equalizer due to some poor finishing while Saints, on the other hand, searched for that killer second goal but thanks to some solid defending & a fine display from the goal-keeper, it never came. Saints eventually won the game but it was, perhaps, their toughest 3pts this season.
While Saints are a well-oiled machine, they are not without their flaws. A little crack in their defense is one their opponents have surprisingly not exploited as often as expected. Saints often play with a 3-man defense which sees them gain advantage in the midfield. This formation may have brought about some of their finest victories but it has also left a crack defensively.
3 of the 5 goals Saints have conceded this season (against Guns FC on Matchday 1, Alphas FC on Matchday 4 & Cubs FC on Matchday 6) have been down their flanks, with opposition wide-players exposing the little gap behind the Saints wing-backs. One interesting goal conceded was Guns FC’s Gilbert Ekugbe’s winner (above) to end their unbeaten run. Gilbert had started the move in Saints half by passing the ball to the middle, but had drifted away unmarked by any Saints defender. Seconds later, he had intelligently moved into the Saints box with all the time in the world and finished off the ball to complete Guns’ historic comeback. A little worry for the Saints Army & a few things to note down by their opponents this Saturday, Raineri Ghost.