Return of the Trequartista

Written by  //  October 28, 2010  //  Sport, Uncategorized  //  4 Comments

More than two years back, I had written on the death of the trequartista – the conventional number 10 who looks to operate between the lines of the opposition’s midfield and defence. The position’s demise was a product, chiefly, of formations incorporating straight lines, and the emergence of spoilers in midfield. As the impressive Zonal Marking website points out, one of the predominant trends of the noughties was the declining role of the classical ‘number 10’. Lionel Messi, and Wayne Rooney, two players who in previous eras may have been perfectly suited for the role, either attacked from the wings, or played in more advanced positions. But with the emergence of the 4-2-3-1, the prototype made famous by Spain, with its World Cup triumph, the trequartista has returned from its grave, albeit with a more varied function. Players donning the role are now required to be more versatile, and to not merely act as the creative fulcrum of their team, but also to perform a more complete task.

This year’s World Cup finals in South Africa saw, at least, three of the semi-finalists, Spain, the Netherlands, and Germany, play with an old-style playmaker, even if as more complete versions. Each of them employed a 4-2-3-1, albeit, in their own unique fashion. Xavi Hernandez, although deployed, sometimes, in a deeper role by Barcelona, played ahead of Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets for Spain, while an unusually cynical Dutch team, utilised Wesley Sneijder in a role not too dissimilar to the one he plays for Inter Milan. The revelation, though, was Mesut Ozil, who used his dazzling technique to superb effect for Germany, supported ably by Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira, who helped dictate the tempo of the game from deeper positions in midfield. Even Uruguay, the fourth semi-finalist, who employed a formation largely akin to a 4-4-2, used Diego Forlan as a withdrawn striker. Forlan looked to combine the role of a creator with the goal-scoring that he is now renowned for.

In many ways, the Argentine term for the playmaker – the enganche – describes the task of the player better. The enganche is the one who acts as the hook, between the midfield and the striker(s). The term, though, could be just as applicable to a player operating deeper in midfield, looking to link the defence to the midfield. Most modern teams tend to play with a double hook – one operating between the defence and midfield, and another between the midfield and the frontline, with a third central midfielder remaining largely static. Without going into excessive detail on the roles of individuals, it may be said that there is one central midfielder operating as the hook between the backline and the defence, one central midfielder remaining largely static in the centre of the park, and one central midfielder tying the midfield to the frontline. The latter is the one, commonly referred to as the playmaker, the heart-beat of the team if you please. But such a categorisation is anachronistic, for the responsibility to create play is far more spread out in the modern day scenario.

The additional responsibilities of the playmaker are also a result of the phenomenon of using inside-out wingers – playing right footed players on the left wing, and vice-versa. This calls for greater attacking verve from the full-backs, who are the only source of attacking width for the team, causing one of the central midfielders to often drop into the backline. Consequently, if the designated playmaker fails to drop deeper, considerable space could be conceded in the middle of the park. Sometimes though, the numerical demarcation of a formation fails to paint the entire picture. Last season’s treble winning Inter Milan side shaped as a 4-2-3-1, but the defence sat deep, and the anchors in midfield looked to operate more as play-breakers than playmakers. And with Samuel Eto’o and Goran Pandev used in wide positions, a huge chunk of the responsibility to create rested on Wesley Sneijder, much like it did, on conventional playmakers of the years gone by. No doubt, he excelled at the role, but the alignment is more of an exception than the rule in modern-day football.

In England, the prevalence of the 4-4-2, with both the central midfielders adopting a largely box-to-box role, was exploited to great effect, first by Eric Cantona, and later by Gianfranco Zola and Dennis Bergkamp, who slid deeper into the gaping hole between the opposition’s midfield and defensive lines. The natural progression should have seen teams place one of the midfielders in a withdrawn position, with the space made vacant by such a midfielder filled by one of the central strikers. But the development didn’t occur until continental styles began to enjoy greater influence in the country.

It is fair to say that the Premier League lacked in tactical sophistication for much of its existence. In fact, for most of its time, positional categorisations did not include a ‘second striker’ or a ‘playmaker’. But in the last decade, the league has progressed significantly, so much so that even revered exponents of the 4-4-2, Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger, have tweaked their systems to suit the needs of the time. No doubt, Manchester United continue to use the system for a lot of their Premier League games, but a lot of their success over the last four years has come on the back of an adaptability to various tactical systems. Wenger seems to have more or less settled on a 4-2-3-1 of sorts this season, with Cesc Farbegas acting as the modern-day playmaker, a lynchpin of sorts for the team. Alex Song looks to offer the muscle, and either Denilson or Jack Wilkshire play from deeper in midfield, but as ball-players. Fabregas is given greater freedom to operate closer to the front three, a position from which he can make maximum use of his artistic vision. The difference, though, from playmakers of yesteryear is that Fabregas, while not particularly renowned for his tackling, is a player vested with far superior responsibility.

Carlo Ancelotti, who used a unique system – one involving two advanced playmakers, in Kaka and Clarence Seedorf – during his time at A.C. Milan, has tended to operate with a similarly wing-less system at Chelsea, but one devoid of particularly inventive playmakers. Three of his midfield four look to shuttle up and down the pitch, while Jon Obi Mikel acts both as a defensive shield, and as a hook between the defence and the midfield. Nicolas Anelka, more often than not, used as a second striker is given freedom to drop into the hole, or to run the channels. The team therefore, lacks a designated Number 10, but the vitality of Florent Malouda, and Michael Essien, sees the pair perform dual roles for the club. Ancelotti hasn’t yet had the time to shape his squad to suit his style, but ultimately I see a more stereotyped Number 10 operating ahead of Essien and Mikel in the middle of the pitch for Chelsea.

Tottenham Hotspur’s tactical set-up this season is quite fascinating, in so far as it showcases the contemporary prototype very well. Against Everton, last Saturday, they lined up with Peter Crouch as a lone striker, and Aaron Lennon and Gareth Bale as traditional wingers. The key though lied in the central midfield, where Wilson Palacios and Sandro played a half each as the defensive shield in midfield, and Luka Modric operated as the hook deep in midfield, and Rafael Van der Vaart was used as the advanced playmaker.

Interestingly the World Cup also saw the return, albeit fleetingly, of systems involving a back three. This would normally entail a corresponding trident in midfield that includes a more conventional playmaker. Chile, under the enigmatic Marcelo Bielsa, shaped up in a 3-3-1-3, utilising either Jorge Valdivia or Matias Fernandez as the playmaker. No doubt, their tactics were at times reactionary – shifting to four at the back, when up against teams that played a single centre-forward – but viewed independently, it proved revelatory, and offered considerable viewing pleasure. Europe though remains quite obsessed on four-man defences. Napoli, perhaps, represent the greatest exception. Paolo Cannavaro, Hugo Campagnaro, and Salvatore Aronica line up at the back, with Edinson Cavani, and Ezequiel Lavezzi constituting a fluid attack, that has Marek Hamsik operating in the hole. Hamsik, again, belongs to the newer brand of playmakers, ones who are just as comfortable tracking back, as they are dictating the flow of the attack.

The Egyptian national team has been another exception in this regard. They may not have entered a World Cup Finals since 1990, but they’ve won the last three editions of the African Cup of Nations deploying a three man backline. Egypt boasts two tremendous wing-backs in Sayed Moawad and Ahmed Fathy, which allows them to play narrow in midfield, with both the second striker, and one of the three central-midfielders looking to operate in the hole. Their three man backline also means that the central midfielders are not required to drop deeper than normal, allowing them to both out-muscle teams in the middle of the park, and to utilise the skills of their playmakers fully.

The decline of the classical playmaker also saw the emergence of ball-playing holding midfielders, as opposed to pure spoilers in the Claude Makelele mould, as pointed out by Zonal Marking. This recent resurgence of creators competent to play in the middle could also be seen as a direct consequence of the decline in spoilers. But that would mean tactical changes have been merely oscillating back and forth. Such an analysis oversimplifies the issue. Besides, the versatility of the modern-day playmaker has made it that much harder for teams to field a pure spoiler. Someone like Sneijder, who is as much at ease operating behind a centre forward as he is playing from the left, can easily float into spaces left unoccupied by the spoiler.

In the final analysis, there is no doubting that the central playmaker has returned to the fore in recent times. But as a consequence of attacking full-backs, inverted wingers, and the presence of a midfielder operating almost as a third centre back, (which in itself may be consequence of the earlier two trends) the trequartista, while continuing to operate in an almost indefinable position, is a far more complete package.

4 Comments on "Return of the Trequartista"

  1. Arghya October 30, 2010 at 11:22 pm ·

    Incredible. Your attention to footballing detail Suhrith, never ceases to amaze me. Loved the piece!

  2. Suhrith October 31, 2010 at 3:32 am ·

    Thanks Arghya. That’s very kind.

  3. footie November 26, 2010 at 4:22 am ·

    incredible piece of work mate ! can i have permission to share this on my website ?

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