Let’s be honest here: you’re a bit lost if you’re using the traditional 4-4-2 formation at the top level of football. And if you are, there’s probably a really good reason for it—some sort of tactical masterstroke at the very least. But the modern game doesn’t need it; instead it’s leaning towards inverted wingers, false 9s and deep-lying defensive midfielders who also take on a huge responsibility in the attack. Roles are not clearly defined in the game anymore, with players needing to take on more than one duty in the ever-changing formations of modern tactics.
There’s no denying that the quarterback in (American) football is the most important role in any sport. The quarterback doesn’t have to wear an armband or a ‘C’ on his jersey for the rest of the team to know he’s running the game. Take Drew Brees at New Orleans, for example. A player who is taking on a great deal of responsibility in the absence of head coach Sean Peyton, but one who is more than capable of running the offence for the former champions.
But reference to the ‘quarterback’ is no longer limited to Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and the other elites who are sending heat seeking missiles across NFL airspace. The NHL use ‘quarterbacks’ on the point of a power play, while Xabi Alonso and Andrea Pirlo are bringing those attacking plays into the European equivalent of football.
It’s not “long ball football” because it has a little more thought to it than just lumping the ball aimlessly up the field with more hope than anything else. Counter attacks are launched with the deep-lying player finding his receivers in the attacking half with precision and pace. It’s risky, just as it is in the American game, but it’s far more useful than just using a running game to quickly get the ball from one half of the pitch to the other.
Xavi Hernandez is one of the elites at finding his regular receiver and outlet on the right of the attack in Dani Alves. The Brazilian gave (and yes I’m purposely using past tense) Barcelona added width but also used Xavi’s aerial passes to get past the wall of opposition defenders. How many times did we hear commentators laud Xavi’s accuracy as he completed a 40-yard pass across the pitch?
It’s a role that England has been crying out for since Paul Scholes emerged as one of the finest passers in the country and following Andrea Pirlo’s handful of clinics at Euro 2012. It shouldn’t just be about unlocking a defence with a cheeky 10-yard pass; the pace, power and battering rams in forwards also needs to be pushed to the side.
Quarterbacks in the NFL are often found picking up rushing touchdowns to compliment their aerial threat. But the Alonsos, Xavis and Pirlos are not known for their pace, instead they’re the dictators of the tempo of the game, allowing others to do the leg work as they launch precision attacks into the opposition half.
They’ll do their share of defensive work, as all three of the mentioned midfielders are or have been known as defensive players. They’re not tough tackling, and in Paul Scholes’ case he really should leave the tackling side to others. But they are vital in taking up both an attacking and defensive role; modern football simply doesn’t allow them to be passengers until their team regains possession.
Maybe we should applaud Spain for bringing this position of the game to light. More often than not, players who are able to harness these skills and who possess long-range passing abilities are compared favourably to the Spaniards. The ‘quarterback’ is often one of three central players, doing away with the two man central midfield and allowing for variations of the now widely used 4-5-1.
It’s another weapon in the arsenal for teams who can deploy missiles that are akin to those of Brady and Manning. It’s another nudge to the idea that football is no longer one dimensional and as simple and direct as it used to be. Xabi Alonso’s passes to Cristiano Ronaldo are not Hail Mary’s—a better comparison to the hit and hope, long ball game of a number of teams. It’s a thrilling aspect of a fantastic sport that has been brought to light and greater use by another.