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The future of the ‘Playmaker’

Juan Roman Riquelme, only last week, announced his retirement from the international stage. It is a somewhat cruel, albeit fitting end to a man who is most probably, the last of his breed. As an emphasis on multi-functionality within the game becomes more prominent, the traditional ‘Number 10’ has been cast aside, into the shadows as more flexible, dynamic systems are created for individuals of similar nature.

Diego Maradona recently expressed his vision for the future of his Argentinian side: ‘Mascherano plus ten others.’ Under any of the previous managers, the quote would have been: ‘Riquelme plus ten others.’ Quite simply, the conventional style of a number ten roaming within the final third, caressing the ball, splitting defences with deft touches, slick passes and the like, is gradually diminishing from modern football – managers seek players who can provide similar creative prowess when on the ball, yet also offer stability to the midfield.

Where does the playmaker go from here? The creative fulcrum of any side is vital in exposing defences, and creating oppurtunities. However, the exact role of this fulcrum, and the future it possesses within the modern game, provides the talking point of this article.

12th of November, 2005. Ledley King trudges off the field, with around half an hour to go, as Argentina lead England by two goals to one. That night, King had been terrorized by a an individual unlike any other he had played against in his time, and unfortunately, unlike any other he was likely to play against in the future. Juan Roman Riquelme had exposed the English midfield, his display magnificent, showing the English midfield of King, Lampard, Beckham and Gerrard just how technically inept they were. His performance had not involved raw pace, brutal strength or powerful screamers from long range, yet ingenious touches of the ball, elegance, and a level of precision rarely seen among English players. As brilliant, and as consuming as his performance was, Riquelme is most probably the last of his kind and he now plays for Boca Juniors in Argentina. Why is it, that such a prestigous, brilliant talent has been disregarded be Europe’s top coaches? It is obvious Riquelme possesses the talent to succeed at any on of the Europe’s top clubs. However, rather bluntly, football has moved on.

The notion of building a midfield to allow one single player to perform, despite the fact he will not track back, is now old and not to the preference of top coaches, who all seem to agree that universitality within players is essential. Had Riquelme been a player of the ’70s, or 80’s, in which individuality was crucial to sides, then his name may well be held among the pantheon of the world’s elite midfielders. Unfortunately, his stint at Barcelona was hindered by a manager who failed to recognise the talent Riquelme possessed, and the Argentine was deployed scarcely, and when he was, it was as a winger.

A playmaker is essentially, any player which provides a creative fulcrum within a side, an individual whose ability to manufacture oppurtunities for his team mates, is above that of any other. Traditionally, two variations of the playmaker have existed within the game: the first is simply a player who drifts in between the opposition’s defensive and middle lines, provides the central figure through which all chances are created, aided by technique, great precision and elegance. A perfect example is Riquelme himself, Pablo Aimar, Valeron, Scholes or possible even Zinedine Zidane.

Riquelme: An example of the traditional playmaker

The second, possibly less recognised style of playmaking is the deep-seated playmaker – a man who remains deep even when his side attacks, and acts as his sides creative hub – picking out team-mates, controlling the flow, and rhythm of a game from a much deeper position than the ‘number 10’. Examples include Andrea Pirlo, and Xabi Alonso.

The latter style seems to have come to fruition within recent times: Pirlo having performed the ‘regista'(deep-seated playmaker) so effectively for AC Milan and the Italian national side in recent times. Xabi Alonso has become crucial to the system Rafael Benitez employs at Liverpool, while Xavi, aided by Senna, helped Spain clinch the European Championships while being deployed in a similar, deeper fashion. Why is that the deep-seated playmaker has almost super-seeded the role of a traditional creative fulcrum? For one, there is more space to manouvre, to create from a deeper position, as opposed to roaming within the lines, where a tenacious defensive midfielder – so prominent in modern times – will be waiting. Modern football simply does not allow for a player to simply sit in one position, while never venturing deep to help out his side defensively – sides look for players who can offer balance, and even guile to a midfield, a player which will track back – in the deep-seated fulcrum, via the very nature of positioning, that is almost naturally provided.

Pirlo: The deep-seated playmaker

The vision of a deep-seated stance providing a new home for the playmaker however, has been somewhat clouded, as an almost new style of playmaker becomes more evident within the modern game. Cesc Fabregas is a prime example – an individual who is deployed initially as a central midfielder, and works forth and back in synchronisation with the flow of play.The advantages of this, are that the player can dictate the tempo and fluidity of a game from a central position, and yet also venture forward, in order to provide creative flair directly behind the strikers which thrive of it. What could almost be described as a ‘hybrid creative fulcrum’ seems to have been formed, with players such as Fabregas himself, Modric and Iniesta all being deployed within this role, while the slightly more mature generation of Xavi, who of late in the Spain side, has played centrally, alongside Iniesta in a Brazilian like ‘box-midfield’, and Lampard of recent times at Chelsea, also have been positioned, such that both the dictation of tempo from a deeper stance, as well as the injection of flair provided behind the frontmen, can be used within a side, from the playmaker.

Another use of a playmaker, is to have the individual begin the game from a wide position, though have the freedom to roamand create while not stifling the balance of the central midfield area, something seen in Deco and even Luka Modric in recent times. Zidane, at Madrid was often deployed on the left, with the freedom to drift inside and influence play, and this alternative could certainly become more prominent as time progresses.

Modric: The future playmaker?

Whatever the outcome, the role of the creative fulcrum, the cheif instigator, the magician of the final third, is evolving. However, the time of a Riquelme or Valeron controlling a game, not via speed or brutality, though with elegance and technique in the final third, with sides being built to accomodate such as player, seems to have passed.



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