Normally one assumes that the central attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 is the most influential player. No longer necessarily so – this might be so in terms of assists and/or goals but not so if one is to canvass the game as a whole. Possession is not a luxury, but a necessity and in the modern game, teams gets nowhere without keeping the ball.
Indeed, the front three could consist of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Lionel Messi but the team will not score if they can’t get the ball and feed the front three. Crucially, the opposition can’t do anything if you have the ball. Tiki-taka, as played by Barcelona, is as defensive as it is aesthetically pleasing.
Arguably, the player who harnesses the most possession is the most influential. The idea of a playmaker stems from this school of thought. Possession without intent is just as useless as having no possession at all. After all, football matches are won with goals, not possession statistics.
But the theory behind playmakers is to have an intelligent player, such as Zinedine Zidane and Xavi Hernandez, direct possession and take advantage by channeling possession through him; to provide the team’s direction. Because most of possession goes through him, the playmaker often ends up receiving and making the greatest number of passes in his side.
With an abundance of players like Claude Makelele and tactics that are geared to stop the playmakers, the playmakers of the late naughties have been pushed away from their traditional hunting ground. Some, like Messi, found refuge on the flanks. Others such as Andreas Pirlo and Paul Scholes shifted their trade deeper.
But things just aren’t the same as the past. On the wings, the playmaker naturally became more of a winger. As a modern winger , the playmaker became more of a goal scorer than a creator. Deep-lying playmakers briefly flourished – they found their job easier for they had more time and space to pick out passes. These players also found their job harder for they were stationed further away from their colleagues in attack. In essence they had bought few extra seconds on the ball with impact.
This change also required another player step into the hole and links the midfield with the offense. Playmakers made a comeback but they weren’t of the old ilk. The modern playmaker still looks for the killer ball but, unlike his predecessor, leaves the possession maintenance to players behind him. In essence, the traditional playmaker has split into two – the deeper player recycles ball out of defense and the advanced player deploys the killer ball.
Indeed, a modern central midfield trio is often composed of a passer, a destroyer and a creator/dribbler. Think of Barcelona’s trio of Xavi (passer), Sergio Busquets (destroyer) and Andreas Iniesta (a creator/dribbler).
The further specialisation of midfielders has made the job of countering them harder. Stop Iniesta the creator, then Xavi the passer just directs the play towards the wings. Some argue it is more important to stop the passer. Cut off the supply, and the destroyer and creator become disjointed, ending up with two sub-teams each specialising in defense and attack but with little linking between.
Tonight’s match is a case in point. Jack Wilshere is Arsenal’s passer. To ‘break’ Arsenal, Manchester United must stop Wilshere. Arguably, the young English midfielder is more important to the current Arsenal side in the absence of Cesc Fabregas. The Spaniard is a phenomenally gifted player who has a fine sense of geometry on the pitch and naturally roams to make full use of the space. Without him, Robin Van Persie will fill in but the Dutchman is more of a second forward than a midfielder and he will not be able to make Arsenal the cohesive unit to the extent that Fabregas does. Thus Wilshere must shoulder the greater creative burden.
Which of course pushes Wilshere to the top of United’s ‘to stop’ list. If United lines up as expected in a nominal 4-4-2, Rooney or Dimitar Berbatov will have to drop deep and pick up Wilshere when the Reds don’t have the ball. Should United line up in a variant of 4-5-1 – be it 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 – the most advanced midfielder will mark the Englishman. Ji-Sung Park did a similar job on Pirlo last season in the Champions League. The South Korean could also play the defensive attacking midfielder role with Rooney filling in on the left, where a more draconian option would see Rooney spearhead the attack alone and play Park, Anderson and Nani as United’s attacking midfielders.
An intriguing option – and very unlikely – is to use Javier Hernández, enabling United to line-up deep with Rooney, Park and Nani supporting the Mexican. After all, the Arsenal backline remains extremely vulnerable to the counter-attack that the pace of Rooney, Nani and Hernández could bring.
However, Arsenal has been undone twice by more or less this same tactic in recent seasons. Will Sir Alex Ferguson so again? After all, the current Arsenal side remains predictable tactically and has little palpable defense against United’s counter attacking system.
All that remains is for United to get the ball.