Recently in England there’s been an obsession with the playmaker. Every side has one or more, even teams fighting to avoid relegation like QPR and Southampton. The recent infatuation with creativity and technique is a classic case of sides copying success. Barcelona have won everything with small, technical players, so leading Premier League sides mimicked the Catalans, to be mimicked in turn by clubs lower down the table.
This recent love-in has had some interesting effects on the league. Due to the very nature of a number 10, a trequartista, whatever term you affix to him, games involving this type of player get more exciting. This is a role that rarely tracks back or runs hard, but focuses on playing risky passes with the highest possible reward. Since the influx of number 10’s to England, score lines have grown dramatically, often in favor of the big teams. Not only do they have the money to buy the best creative players in the world, their forwards and defenders are often better equipped to take advantage of having such a player in the side. Relegation-bound sides often can’t afford to have a Taarabt or Gaston Ramirez wasting the few opportunities a game where they have the ball and are not working hard without it. For sides scrapping to stay in the league with less gifted players, securing every point possible is paramount. And that means being hard to beat first and foremost.
For that reason it may be better to abandon the fixation with a trequartista and go with a different solution, ironically coming from one of the playmaker’s spiritual homes. Michael Cox has recently written about Italy’s falling-out with the number 10 just as the rest of Europe has become enamored. No team better explains his point than Milan.
This season AC Milan have normally lined up in something resembling a 4-3-3, where the side is connected not by a playmaker and not through creativity, but through energy. None of Ambrosini, Montolivo, or Kevin-Prince Boateng are exceptionally tricky players who can spot miniscule gaps to send forwards behind the defense. But they don’t have to be. Top class playmakers are expensive and in cash-strapped Italy they’ve had to create chances to score in a different way. (Fiorentina being an honourable exception.)
Like any strong side Milan bosses possession, with well over 50% on average. However, their offensive style of play can easily be adapted for smaller teams. Essentially when their central forward, normally a big strong player like Pazzini or Mario Ballotelli, drops away from a deep defense he receives the ball to his feet. The trio of midfielders and two wide forwards run around and beyond him and the striker lays the ball off. The team is still fluid and the tempo high, but the ball isn’t being sent into the final third with cute passes, but through aggressive movement.
For an English example, Newcastle United have never bought into the playmaking fad. Their most technically gifted player in Yohan Cabaye who sits slightly deeper than expected, retaining possession and playing the ball to the flanks, but he rarely springs offside traps. The Magpies have always relied on the strength and aggressive running of their forwards, whether it be Ba, Cisse, or Ameobi. This January window Newcastle also bought several strong midfield runners, such as Moussa Sissoko.
It’s far easier and cheaper to make a style such as this work because there is no need for extraordinarily talent or technique, although it’s doubtless that Milan will have more of this than most sides. For a rich side, able to afford the likes of Mata and Oscar, it makes sense to invest in the highest quality playmakers. But for smaller clubs, perhaps it’s better to try something different.