In recent weeks I have found myself drawn toward the various leagues of Europe, as seasons across the continent reach their climax. Always being a fan of other football cultures, taking a break from the hustle and bustle of the Premier League is refreshing, looking at the game from a more tactical and technical perspective. One thing that I have noticed to be abundant across league and club set-ups is the sheer amount of creativity in the midfields, and the increased importance of the deep-lying playmaker.
Since the departure of Xabi Alonso from Liverpool in 2009, there have been very few Premier League players in this mould. Many have tried, with varying degrees of success, but the fast tackling, instant passing world of domestic English football can make it particularly difficult for this type creature to survive. In the likes of Italy, Spain, Germany and Holland, where the game is approached differently, creative midfielders are produced regularly, making for easy on the eye, attractive football.
Jack Wilshere is probably the closest we have come as a nation to creating a Xavi Hernandez or Andrea Pirlo, with his style not truly fitting the typical British box-to-box central player. He instead prefers to sit a little deeper, dictating the tempo and picking the right pass to build an attack. Aside from the Arsenal man there are very few players adopting this style to a successful level. Leon Britton of Swansea plays in a similar way, but rather than playing the killer-ball and creating chances, the midfielder provides more of a link between the defence and the midfield, transferring possession rather than laying on opportunities for his attackers. But why is there such a shortage, of what in my opinion, is a key necessity in the modern game? Looking below the surface it could be a case of the British ideals when it comes to football.
The roots of the absence may lie in our youth level football, where brawn is often selected ahead of brain. Anybody who is familiar with amateur youth football across out nation will have seen a team of 13 year olds rock up in a Sunday afternoon, with at least one huge lad within their ranks. There’s often a correlation between success and physical maturity at younger ages, with the larger, more developed players able to intimidate smaller opponents and essentially hit the ball very hard. When the kids are thrust onto full size pitches with regulation sized goal-frames this beast flourishes, with sheer size and strength often proving to be a decisive factor. As a result teams are inclined to choose this kind of boy ahead of somebody who is more ‘football intelligent’, but gets bullied off of the ball easily. Such is our demand for constant success at every level of the game, with spectators resorting to some pretty drastic measures, a midfield player who may not be quick, strong or successful at tackling will often be phased out early on or discouraged from playing their natural game. The continental approach is a little different when it comes to the development of youngsters. Youth football is, more often than not, celebrated for skill rather than physical attributes, as young players are kept in smaller sided matches on pitches of reduced dimensions. When this is considered its no wonder nations such as Holland create players in the mould of Wesley Sneijder, while we are left with various strong but creatively inept midfielders.
Another root lies in the hallmark 4-4-2 formation employed across the British Isles. The creative deep-lying midfielder rarely enjoys success in this set-up, with ball winning skills and attacking drive being down their list of priorities. The 4-3-3 or 4-5-1 line-up favours the ‘quarter-back’ as they are often placed alongside a tough tackling holding player and a team-mate suited to breaking forward and supporting the attack. One of the most successful demonstrations of this was Liverpool’s title contending side of 2009, where Xabi Alonso was employed in the deep-lying role, partnering Javier Mascherano and Steven Gerrard. The club’s success was built on this solid foundation, in which the Argentine would break up the play, distribute to Alonso who could then pick out his attacking colleagues to build forward thinking moves. A similar set-up exists at Arsenal, with Arsene Wenger selecting the kind of formations that favour a player of Wilshere’s skill ahead of the traditional 4-4-2.
With the successes of Germany and Spain on the international scene, and the way they play the game, it’s only a matter of time until England adapt to make up the lost ground. To an extent the wheels are already in motion, as the flaws of 4-4-2 become increasingly obvious, when compared to their modern counter-parts. If clubs at all levels adapt accordingly, the next Xavi or Pirlo may hold a British passport.
Will we ever produce top quality deep-lying playmakers? Have your say by commenting or follow @Alex_Hams on Twitter