April 24, 2017

Marek Hamšík: how has the talisman reached his peak?


14 goals and 13 assists Marek Hamšík so far this season, all coming from central midfield, say a lot about Marek Hamšík’s pedigree. To put this into perspective, Thiago Alcântara has scored 7 and assist 9 in 37 games this season. But this season isn’t an anomaly for the Slovak international. In 446 appearances for Napoli he’s scored 112 goals and assisted further 106.

These numbers are staggering in itself but when it comes to light that Hamšík is just three goals away from overtaking a certain Diego Maradona as Napoli’s all time goalscorer: that’s when you realise how great he actually is.

Marek Hamšík has predominantly played as #10 throughout his career, however since 15\16 season he’s been deployed a bit deeper than that. Gone are the days when Hamšík would occupy the space vacated by the likes of Cavani and Higuain and attack the box almost like a shadow striker, now he’s more interested in making incisive passes and linking the midfield to the attack by participating more in the buildup phase rather than the final phase. Since Sarri took over the reigns in Naples, he’s changed the formation to a fluid 4-3-3, which meant there was no room for a #10.

So, Hamšík had to drop deeper to play as a 3rd CM or #8 in the new set up, and he did that with style. He now plays with Allan and Jorginho as the most advanced player in the 3-man midfield. This transition from #10 to #8 is one of the most difficult transitions in football, because both of these positions are demanding physically, technically, tactically and mentally in different ways. Astonishingly though, his direct goal contributions didn’t take a hit even after his transformation.

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Since dropping deeper to a #8 role, Hamšík has been a revelation. He’s been outperforming the veterans of the position, adapting the position like it was his from the day one.

Since the start of 15/16 Hamšík has scored 22 goals and assisted 24 in 89 games, that’s over 0.5 goals and assistsa game. In a similar time, Toni Kroos has 3 goals and 26 assists in 82 matches: granted their playing styles are different but Kroos’s numbers are the closest a #8 has gotten to Hamšík’s output and it’s still not close. Hamšík, I believe, is the most undervalued midfielder in European football.

Change in position resulted in a change in his style of play. Hamšík became more and more efficient with his distribution, increase in key passes and in his defensive contribution. He became less direct and more involved in the build up, a requirement of the role. From a last phase player, he became a box to box “needle player”. Someone who can attack, link the defense and midfield to attack with his impressive vision and intricate passing, along with his 3rd man run makes Hamšík as close to a complete midfielder as they come.

Hamšík’s transition from #10 to #8 is not an isolated case at all, but a part of a bigger trend that’s been going around for some time now. Traditional #10’s are now becoming a sort of rare breed now, most of them are making a Hamšík-esque transitions to #8, with Thiago, Kroos, David Silva, de Bruyne and others making the switch, and the likes of taking up Thomas Lemar, Bernado Silva, Draxler, and others becoming wide creators. Managers now tend to want more control in the midfield, hence want to operate with a 3-man midfield with a deep-lying playmaker (Regista), a box to box midfielder and a more advanced 3rd CM.

This leaves no space for a traditional #10 who would roam between the lines of the opposition defense and midfield, rather now a team has an advanced midfielder who is more positionally disciplined, is more involved in the build up and has a higher defensive contribution as opposed to a #10. Managers like Sampaoli, Sarri and Guardiola have purposefully helped develop players from #10s to 3rd CM’s or wide playmakers, and the new breed of managers – Tuchel, Nagelsmann, Jardim etc – are working on a similar philosophy. Tuchel has moved Kagawa deeper, and Dembélé wide for example.

Leoardo Jardim moved both Lemar and Bernado Silva out wide to use their creativity from the wings. This allows the team to develop more intricate positional play which results in better possession and incision. All in all, possession-dominating teams have always been able to do that by controlling the midfield and by replacing a #10 with a #8, as it enhances the positional play, thus resulting in higher quality of possession.

In the case of Napoli and Hamšík though, it’s the case of the most simple solution being the most devastatingly effective. For the Slovakian to still be as effective deeper as he was being a striker shows just how influential he is; he’s a player who doesn’t need to drift out wide to develop and raise his game.

The game is developing, and Hamšík is just getting better and better.

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