European
April 19, 2017

The playmaker: a guide to the role and how it’s evolving



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The playmaker, or number 10, is the link between the midfield and attack. They control the flow and rhythm of the team’s offensive play and are usually positioned between the midfield and forwards making incisive passes to the forwards, seeing them through on goal or to deliver killer crosses. These kind of players are involved in passing moves that leads to goals, assists, pre-assists (the pass before the final pass that leads to an assist) which makes the assisters job easier in making the right decision. This is all done by the playmaker’s exceptional vision, technical ability, passing range, dribbling skills and creativity.

That’s the basic role. You’d think that every side needs one, but still, playmakers are seen as a luxury in some parts of the world. In England and Germany, they are not really liked as they are seen as players who don’t work hard enough for the team, however in countries like Argentina and Italy they are adored. For instance, players like Juan Romàn Riquelme and Roberto Baggio come into mind. The latter loved to play behind the striker but could play across the front line demonstrating his wonderful dribbling skills combined with his acceleration who also had an eye for goal but could create chances for teammates. Today Baggio would be considered a “nine and a half”. Riquelme acted as the enganche in a 4-3-1-2 system between the three midfielders and two strikers. He went to Barça after he broke through at Boca Juniors and was a victim of the system, as he was played out of position under Louis van Gaal in his first season and a result he didn’t show his undeniable quality. He went on loan to Villarreal after one season and had a very successful time under Pellegrini who built the system round him; they subsequently reached a Champions League semi-final in the 2005-2006 season, losing to Arsenal while Riquelme missed a decisive penalty in the second leg.

Euro 2000, the first international tournament in the 21st Century, was one of the most open and attacking in the new era of football. Semi-finalists France, Portugal, Holland and Italy had classic number 10’s who operated in central areas, the heartbeat of their respective teams. But as the 2000’s progressed, the classic number 10 started to die out as coaches started to realise if you put two destroyer-type midfielders to man mark this type of 10 they would have no effect on the game. As the mid to late 2000’s progressed the 4-2-3-1 system came into vogue with the 10 acting like either a central winger or as a 3rd midfielder with creative abilities. The role was changing. 

A prototypical central winger is Mesut Özil. He is an attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 formation who loves to drift laterally across the midfield looking to create overloads in wide areas. When he was at Real Madrid, the fullbacks knew they had to prevent Di María and Cristiano Ronaldo from running diagonally to get through on goal; this gave Özil the space he requires to inflict damage and as a result of this he provided over 70 odd assists within three seasons at the Santiago Bernabéu.

Classic playmakers like Riquelme loved to stay central and look to create from there. The central winger must also be able to run in behind and stretch the defensive backline. The 4-2-3-1 system with the double pivot allows the number 10 in this system freedom to operate, just as Özil did.

In today’s game finding space is harder than ever before. As a result, the playmaker must be able to adapt to this and move laterally to make space for themselves to make a positive impact for the team. The other type of playmaker discussed is the type who acted like a 3rd midfielder with creative abilities, and the best example of this type of player is Wesley Sneijder when he was at Inter Milan when they won that historic treble in the 2009-2010 season. Inter lined up in a 4-3-1-2/4-5-1 system with Motta/Cambiasso in a pivot, and Sneijder was given a free role: he didn’t have the responsibilities in the team to help Inter progress up the pitch but to create havoc in the final 3rd. That’s what he did: he dropped back into midfield giving Inter balance and won the ball back against opponents. He created so many chances for his teammates, found space between the lines, thread clever, intricate through passes and play with both feet. A stellar season with 23 goals and assists in 46 appearances.

However not all playmakers/number 10’s have to play centrally: they can also have an influence from wide areas. These kind of players are known as wide playmakers. This is a player who drifts into the half space looking to receive on the half turn. They usually play on the opposite flank similar to an inverted winger who can cut in and shoot, but are also are able to play the reverse pass at a 90 degree angle or make an inverted cross in the box. There is less space in wide areas compared to central areas, so these players need ability in 1v1 duels.

To explain this more clearly, I will give the example of Lionel Messi’s right wing role when Barcelona won the treble in 14-15. In January 2015, Barcelona started to pick up peak form and Messi went from false nine back to the right wing. He took more creative responsibility in the team, as Luis Enrique changed how Barcelona built play: usually it was the midfielders (Xavi/Iniesta) going between the centre/full backs and dictating play, with the wide men pushing forwards to support Messi, but he changed tac to give the defenders more of a role during the build up, letting the interiors and Messi drop deeper to build up play. As a result of this Messi was making more passes than usual and creating more chances than ever. He had his best season in terms of assists, with 23 assists in the league and creating nearly three chances per game. In the Champions League final against Juventus, he demonstrated how dangerous he was in this role. Juventus lined up in a 4-4-2 diamond system, and with Messi on the right wing he found himself between Pogba and Evra countlessly; they didn’t know who was going to pick Messi up as he always drifted in-field, finding a pocket of space between the Juventus LCM/LB.

The first screenshot shows how lateral he was in receiving the ball to turn and face the goal, the second screenshot shows how willing he was to break the lines with his incredible close control and dribbling skills: his 62.5% success rate is a phenomenal return. The third screenshot shows how in that game how direct he went to break Juventus’s diamond formation looking to find Alba/Neymar and they would have space in the final third.

Lately a trend has developed, in that there are two types of #10 this this season, the first being roaming #10’s that like to take part in build up/middle and final 3rd play. The other type consists of forwards/wingers who drop deep and attack space, and receive the ball on the half turn run at backlines using their dribbling/close control. Both need to maintain the system’s shape and put high presses when the defence tries to build from the back.

Two players who match the first type are Thiago Alcântara and Cesc Fàbregas of 2007-2011. The former is enjoying the best season of his career and managed to stay relatively injury free: Thiago has 15 goals and assists in all competitions, he is currently averaging 1.8 key passes, 89 passes and a 91.1% pass completion rates, making 2.8 tackles ans 3.7 interceptions per game, and only being dispossessed 1.3 times per 90 too, showing how press resistant he is. He truly is the link between the attack and midfield; his main strengths lie at bringing the ball out of his own half of the pitch and helping Bayern progress up the pitch to reach the final third. He does this by making passes towards a runner or by using his dribbling ability to beat the press; when he is the most advanced midfielder the way he receives the ball between the lines disrupts defences and with his creativity it causes attacks to occur. Like all great playmakers he scans for teammates that are making runs looking for what gaps to exploit. Because, he’s so complete he provides balance to the team.

Cesc Fàbregas at Arsenal was similar, and he really came into his own when Arsène Wenger switched to a 4-2-1-3 system; in the 07-08 season Wenger played a 4-4-2 system with Flamini covering the space Cesc left behind, which over a 40-50 game season, wasn’t physically sustainable. With this 4-2-1-3, he always dropped deep to pick up the ball which makes into a three-man midfield. He loved to turn and face towards goal playing long, vertical passes towards a player looking to break the offside trap. He could also play one-twos with fellow teammates which created gaps for others to exploit. He could make 3rd man runs looking to break into the box and get on the end of things too, and as a result, he had his highest goal scoring numbers in his career, with 19 goals in all competitions in the 09-10 season. As good as he was offensively, I feel his defensive output is quite underrated too, as he made 5.06 tackles and interceptions per game in that same season. He was virtually a complete midfielder at 22.

The latter type of #10 of forwards/wingers who drop deep and attack space, receive the ball on the half turn run at backlines using their dribbling and close control are now really changing the game. Players like Ousmane Dembélé, Christian Pulisic, Paulo Dybala and Emil Forsberg embody this new era of playmaker.

Ousmane Dembélé and Christian Pulisic, teammates at Borussia Dortmund, both are extremely quick and dominant in their 1v1 duels. Both dribble like how a classic winger does but they both can patrol the halfspaces and look to create chances for teammates and run at the defenders from central areas, causing the opposition backline to come out of position and the spaces to open up for others.

Paulo Dybala is reveling in the number 10 role in Max Allegri’s 4-2-3-1 system. His link up with teammates provides numerical superiority in midfield and attack, and his link up with Higuain is blossoming by the week. If one drops, one attacks the space and vice versa. He can receive on the half turn on a sixpence, and drive at the backline with his phenomenal dribbling at pace, not to mention his excellent vision and ability to pass very smoothly across the pitch.

Emil Forsberg of RB Leipzig is Europe’s top assister with 20 assists, and he plays on the left wing in a narrow 4-2-2-2 system that look to play on the break, which maximises Forsberg’s strengths. Like most of his counterparts I’ve listed here he can receive on the half turn, and win 1v1 duels. His main qualities for me are his agility, speed, vision, passing and his dribbling, but one thing I feel he can improve on is his decision making. At times he does get caught between two minds in either dribbling or making a pass to a teammate in a better position. Over time, this can be ironed out.

Football is an ever changing game, where tactics, positions are always changing. Whoever finds this trend, I feel has the advantage. The playmaker is changing due to coaches wanting to be more compact in order to be in the best shape to compete for titles.

Number #10 isn’t dead. It’s evolving.

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