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What is an absolute unit? Big beefy boys of the World Cup, explained

I sing my song to the brawny lads.

Russia v Egypt: Group A - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

Come gather round me World Cup fans,
and praise our beefy boys. — W.B. Yeats*

*Don’t look this up.

Today, I sing my song to my favorite players at the World Cup: The brawny lads themselves, the absolute units.

An absolute unit, for those of you who don’t know, is an expression used to describe a very large man. That’s about it.

I’m not sure of the origin of the expression, but I know it’s been around a while, at least in the UK — I remember I was playing soccer in Scotland back in 2004, and my teammate put his arm around me before a practice game, pointed at a player on the other side who was about 6’3, 230 pounds, and told me, “Look out for that one there. He’s an absolute unit.”

So it’s been around, but the expression was made popular in the United States recently from this tweet, which is one of the five or so times that Twitter has been perfect:

While that man is pushing the upper limits (if such exist) of what an absolute unit is, the word can be used to describe anyone who’s a lot larger than those around him. And it is a sliding scale. In the NBA, for example, you have to basically be Timofey Mozgov to be considered an absolute unit. In soccer, anyone over 6’2 with some meat on him can earn that title.

And what units we have had at this World Cup.

There are defenders who are absolute units across the board, from Spain’s Pique to Panama’s Roman Torres (who plays club for Seattle Sounders and is a perennial first-team All-Burly-Boy member of MLS), to basically the entire Iceland team, which has a whole roster of well-fed lads.

Norway v Panama - International Friendly Photo by Trond Tandberg/Getty Images

Just about every goalie in the tournament is an absolute unit, at least by soccer standards, from England’s Jack Butland to Brazil’s Alisson Becker.

And while defenders and goalies who are absolute units are great, I have to admit that it’s hard for me to get as excited about them, because they should be absolute units. Like defender Andreas Granqvist of Sweden is objectively a burly fellow, and at 6’4, his unit-ness is not in doubt. But my heart doesn’t flutter when he steps on the pitch. Defenders are supposed to be big guys, and he thumps around back there and kicks strikers and does his job and that’s all well and good. It’s fine.

Sweden v Korea Republic: Group F - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

But things get very exciting when teams play an absolute unit at striker, preferably lone striker, and you get to watch as the big lumbering lad runs around and tries to take touches and dribble and you get to stand up in front of your TV and scream — “GO ON THEN, SERVE IT IN TO THE BIG FELLA! PUT IT IN TO THE BRAWNY LAD AND LET HIM GET HIS BIG OLD NOGGIN ON IT!” — until your coworkers file a complaint and you have to have a meeting with human resources about maintaining a respectful work environment.

That’s when it gets really good.

And, hoo buddy, has this World Cup had its share of beautiful burly boys running around up top. Artem Dzyuba, one of the breakout stars of the tournament and a World Cup First-Team All-Absolute Unit lock, is a galloping Russian workhorse who occupies at least two defenders at all times and keeps scoring goals.

Then there’s Kim Shin-wook, all 6’6 and 214 pounds of him (!), who South Korea chose to start at lone striker in the first game. It was a disastrous strategy that didn’t work at all, and Kim SW struggled to keep up with the pace of his teammates, and they probably won’t go back to it, and I’m heartbroken because you should have seen the big fella running around up there.


But here’s where the real debate comes in: Can one be an absolute unit if one is extremely good at soccer?

For example: Harry Kane, Diego Costa, and Romelu Lukaku all would fit the definition of an Absolute Soccer Unit, as all are 6’3 and above and not exactly slim. But in my head at least, all three of them are too good at soccer to be characterized as Big Beefy Boys. To be a unit, to me at least, that has to be your main attribute. It has to define who you are as a soccer player.

To put it another way: I think Kane is a brilliant soccer player who happens to be 6’3. Artem Dzyuba is a 6’4 brawny lad who happens to play soccer.

However, this theory of mine sent several of my SB Nation colleagues into a rage, and they’ve made a pretty strong argument to the contrary that is forcing me to rethink my position. As Graham MacAree put it: “If Lukaku is not an absolute unit, what the fuck are we even doing here? Man’s an absolute unit.”

Graham brings up a very compelling point here, because while Lukaku is excellent at soccer, he is an absolute unit. Defining characteristic or not, he is 100 percent a brawny lad.

Iran v Spain: Group B - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images

And the more I think about the play of Diego Costa, I mean, if he’s not an absolute unit ... what is he? He scored his opening goal of the World Cup by elbowing Pepe in the neck, then sort of trundling with the ball past two defenders and firing home. It was the goal of a beefy lad.

So maybe skill is not a defining characteristic one way or the other when it comes to absolute units. Maybe a unit is defined ... absolutely.

I don’t even know what I’m talking about anymore.