Nowadays you probably hear sometimes that playmakers like Zinedine Zidane, Juan Roman Riquelme or Diego Maradona do not exist anymore. While that is partly true, it’s difficult to compare these legends with one of the players we see playing today, there are still playmakers in football, and they are probably many more than ten years ago. Now, playmakers play all over the field.
The main breakthrough in that change was done during FC Barcelona apogee, already seven years ago. Before Pep Guardiola system, mainly inspired by Johan Cruyff, playmakers played generally as an attacking midfielder, in center of the pitch just behind the striker.
One of the tactical change coming from Pep Guardiola and Johan Cruyff mentality was adding a player to this zone to disrupt this midfielder.
Since these days there is no more player playing in this position (or maybe a few). Playmakers are now all over the field and it’s probably a blessing in disguise, so much there are many different profiles of playmakers these nowadays.
Going deeper in playmakers definition
Making chances isn’t what a playmaker is about, just like creating chances isn’t what a full back is about. A full back offers width and makes overlapping runs and a byproduct of that is chances created. Same with playmakers. They pass in a manner that the team sets into their best rhythm and the chances are only a byproduct, not the main objective.
This playmaker label is actively harmful to a lot of teams trying to play by being on the ball. Like Arsenal with Alexis Sanchez sometimes, Liverpool with Philippe Coutinho, PSG with Neymar, etc…, because the player themselves and their teammates believe in it so they keep giving them the ball and they force move after move, destroying all rhythm.
For examples : Wayne Rooney in Manchester United during bad years, Ross Barkley in Everton or Dele Alli in England are sometimes inadvertent sabotagers. They mean well, but they will destroy your team if you give them the ball and call them Xavi.
Real playmakers should not be harmful, do not make mistakes positionally, do not make mistakes about where to pass, don’t pass to players not in a position to receive safely, etc…
If you look at Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, David Silva, Cesc Fabregas or Marco Verratti, they have like 2 bad games a season.
Another problem with attackers with an incisive ball on them, acting as playmakers is that they have strong preferences for certain angles. Antoine Griezmann, Neymar or Lionel Messi are very good in specific situation or angles and when they move in certain zones.
With real playmakers, it’s hard to tell what they actually prefer. What pass does Toni Kroos like? Seems to play all types of balls in all angles. Luka Modric, David Silva, Xavi: No real signature move for them. You shouldn’t have favourite angles or prefer a certain range of pass as a playmaker.
The more advanced playmakers like Andres Iniesta, Mesut Ozil, Cesc Fabregas or David Silva have a few more traits maybe because they have to often play from a wing but still no real obvious pass or movement they rely on. Mesut Ozil maybe likes to go left and cross but does he? Not sure. All angles are open.
Whereas if you watch Philippe Coutinho or Alexis Sanchez, they follow a set pattern of movements and passes which they repeat over and over. That’s not a playmaker.
PSG are very good this season – they score more than 3 goals each game – fans and expert are dazzled by Neymar and company. But they are also waiting for a real construction into the game. Actually, there are lacking real playmakers : Marco Verratti come back from an injury and Thiago Motta is out of breath. So PSG rely on Neymar, some runs from Kylian Mbappe and the finishing skills of Edinson Cavani. This is working in Ligue 1 but they would have some difficulties in Champions League if they don’t find a way to manage Neymar “addiction” furthermore with their “possession-like” tactic which needs a real playmaker to achieve its best performance.
Severals playmaker styles
Well, we saw that playmaker is not just about keeping the ball and making chances. Therefore, there are a lot of styles of playmakers :
- The old one, which is the “classic number ten”. Able to score a lot of goals, he is just behind one or two strikers (at the time teams often played with two strikers). This role was reaching its best when the team played in 4-4-2 diamond. Today there are few players playing like this : Wesley Sneijder, Juan Mata (in Chelsea) or Marek Hamsik are good examples of this style which disappears little by little.
- Winger style : Christian Eriksen is probably the best example of this style. He takes advantage of his pass and vision qualities to give breaking balls. Nevertheless, it doesn’t touch the ball a lot, illustrating the fact that playmaker is not just about making chances but also open spaces by intelligent positioning. It’s a bit like chess players, who need to see one or two steps ahead. Today it’s maybe the most present playmaker role with players like Christian Eriksen, Kevin De Bruyne, James Rodriguez, Henrikh Mkhitaryan or even Mesut Ozil (playing also like a classic ten sometimes).
- Dribbler nature : players above have strong skills, but dribble is not their best one. There are players like Isco or Thiago Alcantara who break lines thanks to destructive runs, feet close to the ball. They are very interesting in specific cases, but sometimes they have difficulties to change their register, explaining the small number of players that can play this way at a very high level.
- Deep-lying playmakers : Sometimes a low on the field, this kind of players are known for their ability to switch the play or provide long passes that pick out players making attacking runs, as well as their striking ability from distance. They are probably the real playmakers we talk above because they are the ablest to understand the game, thanks to their position and vision. Toni Kroos, Modric, David Silva or Marco Verratti are examples of this kind of playmakers.
Some should note that I don’t put Messi, Paulo Dybala or Antoine Griezmann in these categories because they are not really playmakers. For sure they participate in the game of their team but not like real playmakers who have a lot of automatism with their teammates and a deep understanding of positions and runs on the field. These strikers are assimilated sometimes as a playmaker because of their height and their skills (extraordinary). They have good vision but not the same as Toni Kroos or Fabregas have, which is more a forecast talent allowing them to give breaking passes and to know when they have to keep or to release the ball.
Furthermore, there is also another kind of playmaker, especially nowadays. Matt Hummels or David Luiz are also playmakers in some cases. Their vision and their passes skills allow to skip the first pressing line and sometimes to give key passes.
Of the same kind, you can watch Austria formation playing with David Alaba as a playmaker in the heart of the midfield or remembered Gareth Bale evolution in England, starting left-back to play finally as a right midfielder and sometimes playing like a playmaker (his last season for Tottenham).
These examples show it’s not only a question of skills but it’s mostly about player understanding and vision.
Spanish football has changed the way playmakers played a role in tactics. While the “classic number ten” will disappear, it seems that now the playmaker is not only limited to a position.
This evolution is natural in the sense that early player development in youth academy allow players to develop much more vision and game understanding skills than the older generation while keeping the same physical abilities.
Football is becoming more complex and it makes the show more and more interesting.