If I were to ask many current football fans if they have heard of Gianni Rivera I would probably be met with silence. Rivera played a ridiculous twenty seasons for Milan between 1960 and 1979, making over 500 appearances, and represented the embodiment of everything we call the ‘number 10’. Italian football has curiously always had a home for these polarised figures of vision and creativity, the apogee of such a player in the contemporary game is perhaps Zidane, but a shift from attacking orchestrator to a deep lying playmaker has definitely occurred.
It is certainly strange how a football culture defined by its stubborn, intelligent, defensive proclivities would become so enamoured with the role of a creative midfielder – not quite a forward but not quite central midfield. Yet Italian football has had its number 10’s before Rivera, though he is undoubtedly the exemplar, and continues to boast similar figures at present (Francesco Totti a prime example). Even in the height of Rivera’s powers there was a fractious debate citing the tactical deficiencies incurred by fielding a regista (‘director’ of play) compared to the fleeting moments of inspiration that he may or may not produce. The argument against him was simple: he was slim, weak in the tackle, and did not cover nearly as much ground as his team mates. The argument for him was simpler: his skill was unparalleled.
On a tactical basis success with a regista lies in building a team around him; the players surrounding him must work harder, the team’s instructions are to provide him with the ball at every opportunity, and he must remain the fulcrum of every attacking play. This creates a dichotomy within the tactical makeup of the team because the presence of an individually gifted regista necessitates the deployment of a specialist to counter the attacking imbalance. This is where the tandem successes of Davids-Zidane at Juventus and Makelele-Zidane at Madrid should be highlighted as case in points. Such an approach to football was evidently fruitful, famously at Madrid, but ex-Milan coach Arrigo Sacchi commented:
“In my football, the regista – the playmaker – is whoever had the ball. But if you have Makelele, he can’t do that. He doesn’t have the ideas to do it, although, of course, he’s great at winning the ball. It’s become all about specialists. Is football a collective and harmonious game? Or is it a question of putting X amount of talented players in and balancing them with Y amount of specialists?”
The question is based on an ideal that football and its tactics should not be reactionary. The aim should be to create a system of play that emphasises collective harmony instead of reacting to the brilliance of individuals. He asks us why have only one regista whom the team must adhere to when there is the potential to have ten? Sacchi transformed Milan by introducing the Dutch influence of versatility, mentality and technique. The idea was that tactical competency lay in the marriage of positional intelligence and technical excellence (it can alternatively be argued that the wealth of talent at his disposal is precisely why such a strategy could be implemented – Gullit, Rijkaard, Van Basten, Maldini, Baresi, Costacurta and Tassotti all played under Sacchi).
Irrespective of the reasoning behind each approach the truth remains that, as with Rivera, the pattern remained for top teams to employ a playmaker behind the forwards with a specialist in front of the defence to counter his lack of defensive exertion. Since Zidane’s retirement the orchestrator of play has certainly moved deeper on the pitch (someone like Totti is on the verge of being an anachronism) and into the position of deep lying playmaker. There is no finer example at present than Xavi at Barcelona.
It is Xavi who is responsible for the style of the Catalan club’s play. I would argue that Barcelona exhibit a middle-ground between the Rivera/Zidane model and Sacchi’s mentality. It is true that their ideal midfield consists of three technically proficient players (Xavi, Busquets, and Iniesta) but there is still a telling need to balance the team as Toure and Keita are frequently asked to offer a degree of defensive bite to the line-up. A significant admission was made by Rubin Kazan manager Kurban Berdyev and it exposes the same failing of the regista in Barcelona’s system as it was all those years ago for Milan and Rivera. Berdyev explained that his team took advantage of Xavi and Iniesta’s lack of defensive tracking. Mourinho commented on the same issue for Wesley Sneijder’s equaliser at the San Siro in the first leg: he was Xavi’s responsibility and found himself unmarked at the far post. So although the orchestrator of play and his domain has shifted twenty yards backward on the pitch there still exists a similar problem in tempering individualism with responsibility to the team.
Whilst the tradition of the number 10 has diminished starkly in recent times there remains players like Totti – nostalgic throwbacks to what has been a very long history of success in Italian football. The need for a playmaker tucked in behind the forwards has certainly lost its appeal and instead a distinct shift of football’s creative epicentre to the deep lying playmaker has occurred. I can’t label Rivera and Zidane as relics because I believe we’ll see a revival of everything they represented. In fact we are already seeing it with talents such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi transmogrifying the regista’s role: funnily, these players are not quite playmakers, not quite midfielders, and not quite forwards – they seem to be all of them simultaneously.
If you enjoyed this, you can follow me on Twitter
Calcio: a history of Italian Football by John Foot