Subject to the same fleeting fashions and continually being reinvented and repackaged, player positions are little bit like clothes. Take fullbacks, for instance, whose job was once to defend and stay back at all times, but who have now become virtual attackers. And then there are wingers, who went from indispensable to dispensable and back to indispensable again.
Scan the obituaries today and there is another type of player who seems to be a dying breed: the traditional playmaker, the creative presence tucked in just behind the forwards, with the brief to organise, dictate the play and move the ball around.
The supposed disappearance of such artists begs an obvious question, especially in the wake of Brazil 2014, the highest-scoring FIFA World Cup™ of all time: if there truly are no more Gersons, Zinedine Zidanes and Juan Riquelmes around, then just where are the front men getting their service from?
In conversation with FIFA.com during the World Cup, former Brazil idol Zico had this to say on the subject: “What we’re seeing more and more of are midfielders with different types of attributes to each other – some might be faster than the others or be better on the ball – but who all have one thing in common: they cover more of the pitch, from the edge of their own box, and organise things between there and the front line. I’m thinking of the likes of (Andrea) Pirlo, Xavi, (Paul) Pogba and the Germans in particular.”
What Zico meant by them is that the midfielder playmaker is still very much alive. The only difference now is that these creative masterminds have taken a step or two further back down the pitch, adopting the position once occupied by holding midfielders. The best examples of this shift are the last two sides to hoist the World Cup Trophy aloft.
The midfield generation
By "the Germans”, Zico was referring to Low’s varying formations and in particular to Sami Khedira, Toni Kroos and Bastian Schweinsteiger, the trio of first-choice midfielders who engineered the dismembering of hosts Brazil in the recent world finals.
Given their natural ability, in the past all three would have been stationed closer to the opposing goal. In line with modern trends, however, they are very much box-to-box midfielders, helping to start moves back in their own half and then pushing forward to keep them going.
“The most important thing is that players like Schweinsteiger know exactly when to bring the team forward to press the opposition and when to drop back between the two centre halves to defend and then start moves,” Dunga told FIFA.com during the tournament, prior to his reappointment as Seleção coach.
“Qualities like that are essential, as is the ability to read the game well,” added Dunga. “Another thing Germany have got going for them is that he [Schweinsteiger] and Khedira have a perfect understanding. One of them is always positioned on the edge of the area, protecting the defence. Most teams play in a line, which means that a good pass can draw four or five players out of position.”
Low’s Germany are far from the inventors of such football. The development in the role now performed by midfielders has evolved gradually and has much to do with the recent success enjoyed by Spain and Barcelona, success built in the main on the ability of both sides to pass their way from defence to attack and encapsulated by the gifts of one player in particular: Xavi.
“I knew the first time I saw him that he would be the brains of Barça for many years to come,” Josep Guardiola once said. Himself a precursor of the new-style midfielder combining defensive and creative functions, Guardiola would later be Xavi’s coach in Barcelona’s golden era of 2008-2012.
It was during that very same period that Spain – first under Luis Aragones and then Vicente del Bosque – became two-time European champions and won the World Cup in between, all courtesy of a possession-based game that pivoted around the deep-lying schemer Xavi.
“I sometimes say that we should all feel midfielders to some extent and have that desire to want to defend, build and attack,” said Del Bosque in an interview with the German press agency dpa after his strikerless side had beaten Italy 4-0 to win UEFA EURO 2012. “If we had ten midfielders, we’d be even better,” he added.
An evolutionary process
Founded on their innate ability to nurture possession in the midfield despite the lack of a traditional playmaker sitting in behind the front line, Spain’s stunning successes proved a turning point in the development of the midfielder’s role and of football as a whole.
“I think we’ve seen more changes in the last five or six years than we saw in the 20 or 30 years before that,” former Italy defender Giuseppe Bergomi, now a TV commentator, told FIFA.com.
As someone who played for his country with distinction between 1982 and 1998, Bergomi is well placed to comment on the changing pace of the game’s evolution.
Expanding on those developments, he added: “Football has become much faster and deeper in a short space of time. Any player with skill and the ability to adapt to that speed – regardless of whether they are fast runners or not – can make much more of an impact.
“That’s why it makes more and more sense to have technical players in more withdrawn positions, like Pirlo for example. We played together at Internazionale when he was a kid and I could see that he had potential. He only became a star, though, when he dropped 20 metres back, just in front of the defence. It’s a position from where he can control the pace of the game, without having to get forward to try and get on the ball.”
So there you have it, the modern creative midfielder, a player who sits in a holding position but is blessed with the skill to create play from there and push forward. But as is the case with fashion, there are some who say that the today’s hottest trends are nothing but reworkings of the vogues of yesteryear.
One man firmly in that camp is Zito, Pele’s skipper at Santos and a World Cup winner with Brazil in 1958 and 1962, who told FIFA.com: “In my day we didn’t have players in holding positions. Midfielders were midfielders and they had the freedom to attack and defend.”
Whatever the case may be, there is one thing that has clearly always held true in football: any midfield made up of talented players who can pass the ball is bound to be a successful one.