Time for Italy to move with the times?

Barcelona legend (and current manager), Pep Guardiola, became an anachronism at the young age of 33. His passing skills were unmatched, his physical condition was as good as ever, and he had already achieved unfathomable success under Johan Cruyff in the Dream Team of the 1990s. So what happened?

“I became a regular at Barcelona aged 20 because I had a manager, Johan Cruyff, who played a certain way and who believed in me and because football was different back then. If I were a 20 year old at Barcelona today, I would never make it as a professional. At best I’d be playing in the third division somewhere.”

Europe’s obsession with tough tacklers and playmakers facilitated Guardiola’s diminished importance to the game; the tandem utilisation of destroyer-creator partners such as Davids-Zidane and Keane-Scholes were the tactical imperative for many sides. The need to deploy these partnerships was borne out of a need for balance (Arrigo Sacchi was at pains to state his qualms whilst at Real Madrid, ‘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?’) i.e. Makelele’s importance as a ball winner who would shield the back four grew only because players like Zidane and Figo had no intention of tracking back. How does this concern Guardiola? Well, at just 33 – only 6 years ago – he wondered if an emerging talent with all of his technical and positional proclivities could even have a future at Barcelona. When he said those words Xavi was just 24 and Andres Iniesta was just 20; both were ever presents in the 2004-2005 title winning campaign.

Guardiola’s sentiments are now being applied in many quarters to the traditional number 10, especially in Italy. Where has all the creativity gone? The re-emergence of the deep lying playmaker – the Guardiola – has been facilitated by the shift away from 4-4-2 in the early 2000s. Dropping a forward for an extra man in midfield has led to the natural need for a linking distributor. The tandem characteristics of destroyer-creators have now been supplemented by a ‘link man’ between the two; destroyer-passer-creator (Mascherano-Alonso-Gerrard in 2008/2009, Busquets-Xavi-Iniesta at Barcelona, Gago-Alonso-Kaka at Real Madrid, Mascherano-Veron-Messi for Argentina, Busquets-Alonso-Xavi for Spain, and De Jong-Van Bommel-Sneijder for Holland). The tactical shift has simultaneously reduced the desire for a traditional number 10 and Italy, a country renowned for its ability to churn out players in that position, seems to be suffering from a noticeable dearth.

Players like Francesco Totti and Alessandro Del Piero are in the twilight of their careers. But even a fleeting glance at the contemporary game sees an absence of their types. Why? The widespread use of two deep midfielders means that a central playmaker will inevitably be marked out of a game and have much less space to manoeuvre in. This is also why inverted forwards/wingers have become more fashionable: the increased options lead to more variation in attack e.g. cutting inside from wide positions, the ability to switch wings, and interchanging in a fluid forward line. And the arguments against a regista – the old school ‘director of play’ types – become far more damaging in today’s game. The same debate has raged since Rivera to Baggio to Totti regarding the tactical deficiencies incurred by fielding a regista. The argument against him is simple: typically he is slight, weak in the tackle, and does not cover nearly as much ground as he should.

But this is the argument against the old school regista. As with everything to do with football, roles evolve and react to varying influences and it is clear that the central playmaker does exist but his responsibility to the team has markedly increased – there is much less flagrant disregard to defensive duties now because the best teams are frighteningly efficient. Taking a look at Inter Milan’s system last year we see the contemporary playmaker represented by Wesley Sneijder; his role is at once a throwback to the Baggio/Totti central director role but it is also highly systematised and conforms to the rigours of modern tactical imperatives. Sneijder has managed to marry instances of nostalgic charm and outrageous vision with positional sense and defensive responsibilities to his team. There are moments of magic (just how many miraculous through balls did Sneijder manager at Stamford Bridge this year before one was converted?) yet he is willing to cover ground for his teammates and hustle for the ball.

Just as Guardiola had thought the evolution of football – its tactics, tempo and ideologies – had morphed into a sphere where everything he epitomised had become obsolete, two young players who were slight of build, not particularly quick nor strong had established themselves as regulars at Barcelona. Whilst I think there is a definite dearth in the Italian number 10 position, what cannot be ignored is that the role has evolved along with the tactics that almost supplanted it.

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