Simon Smith contemplates the sudden reemergence of create-and-destroy midfield partnerships…
Ah 2003, was it really a decade ago? I suppose it seems long enough ago that we can feel a twinge of nostalgia. Certainly Arsenal fans will do in light of the north London derby that has all but guaranteed Tottenham Hotspur will finish above them this season. More than a few of them will have been casting their minds back to the previous teams and players that would have fared better against their bitter rivals. But Gooners should not be the only ones to get a little misty eyed this weekend because in several games there was more than a few examples of one of those forgotten tactical features of yesteryear fans so often lament the demise of. I am talking about the so called “creator-destroyer” partnership.
Yes, the turn of the millennium was awash with central midfield duos combining all action tackle masters with creative attackers who had little or no defensive responsibilities. Keane-Scholes is often touted as the classic example but Keane’s ability to pick a pass is perhaps neglected by this (and Scholes’ notoriety in the sliding tackle somewhat disproves the theory that he didn’t do his work off the ball). Davids-Zidane is probably the best example of two highly contrasting players working together in the engine room with clear responsibilities, with the Xavi sort of player completely absent. Not all teams worked like this of course and certainly it has become a little exaggerated in people’s memories, but contrasting players in central midfield were definitely in fashion before 2006.
Those days died a long time ago, and in spectacular fashion. Many of the best teams in Europe from the late 2000s had neither a true creator or destroyer in this one dimensional sense. Barcelona in their Guardiola era are the obvious example, with Busquets much more possession minded than a tackling obsessed holder and Iniesta much more involved in the entire team game than a real creator might be expected to be. As well as the players, the formation changes of the mid 2000s killed the creator destroyer partnership – think of the massive impact Mourinho had on the Premier League when he would use a three man midfield to completely dominate weaker side’s 4-4-2 line-up and imagine now whether Chelsea would be likely to go a full season where they had such a luxury of playing such open opposition most weeks.
The midfield trio may have been the death of the two man attack-defend pairing but recent matches show that it has returned anew. Madrid have managed to defeat Barcelona twice in the last week and what makes this feat all the more remarkable is that the Catalans played their typically fluid three man ballet against a more rigid create-destroy organized midfield. While this would have worked perfectly were we to go by the 2008 script, this time around things didn’t go to plan.
Admittedly Madrid did not play a 4-4-2. The create and destroy pairing has had to evolve to reemerge in a new guise, but emerge it has. With Kaka operating as a fluid third man to bolster whichever of the two needed support and add a degree of stability that a midfield pairing cannot offer, Pepe was deployed with very much a remit of breaking up the play while Modric was charged as the sole instigator of attacks. Why did this work where previously the system was redundant?
Newcastle United show the answer most clearly because this season they have had two different create and destroy pairings, one of which has failed fairly badly and the other of which has received rapturous applause. I refer of course to messrs Tiote, Cabaye and Sissoko.
What had proven so successful last season seemed not to be working at all this year, and although there are numerous reasons for this there does seem to be an element of Tiote and Cabaye getting “found out”. There is no chopper more one-dimensional in the league than Cheick Tiote, except perhaps Lee Cattermole. This means Cabaye has less defensive work to do but a great creative burden rests on his shoulders and if the opposition midfield spots this it becomes easy to mark against because Cabaye can be doubled while Tiote needs very little attention on the ball.
Sissoko is not the same player as Tiote in that he has a more rounded box-to-box game, so comparisons are a little unfair, but in a similar way to the classic Mancini switch where Toure is pushed higher up midfield, an advanced deployment of the “destroyer” player gives markers a nightmare: to mark and allow the player with better passing range to have time on the ball, or to ignore and leave an unmarked man dangerously free and close to the back four? The superior ball technique of a destroyer is essential for this, as is a three man midfield to bridge the gap between the two when deployed like this.
Much like Alonso-Khedira has achieved all season, the huge contrast in Pepe’s style with Modric’s worked brilliantly because in a counter intuitive manner it is the Portuguese who had the license to roam and create space for Modrić behind him. Of course Pepe is no playmaker but Kaka compensates for this, and his raw power means he cannot be discounted entirely as an offensive threat. The result? The formally easily spotted creator destroyer pairing has a new dimension because the option to swap positions exists.
Juvetus-Napoli on Friday showcased the same phenomena: Pirlo offers very little defensively and while Vidal offers a lot more going forward than a truly defensive midfielder it is certainly his responsibility to break up opposition attacks. And yet watchers of Serie A will know that he is often the furthest forward midfielder and a useful provider of goals when he can, and the rest of the time creates important space deeper for the regista to pull the strings.
In fact I would go as far as to say that, as a result of this positional switch, this season has been the first season of create and destroy dominating once again. Mohammed Diame has been pushing higher than Mark Noble regularly this season at West Ham; Wanyama has been a prolific goalscorer despite being Celtic’s supposed defensive midfielder; Dembele has been a revelation in deep midfield at Spurs. Ah… Tottenham…
It seems we have arrived back on the subject which I would like to discuss least! There are so many reasons why Arsenal lost at White Hart Lane and I’m not about to list them all, but one interesting feature was the “create and destroy” versus passing trio battle in central midfield. Arsenal epitomised the switch towards a fluid central midfied system more than anyone else in English football and continued that trend against Tottenham by starting Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta – perhaps their most indefinable three when you consider that they could have started the obvious creator types Rosicky and Cazorla or the tacklers Coquelain and, were he not out on loan, Frimpong. Surely against the admittedly adaptable but certainly clearly defined roles of Scott Parker and Moussa Dembele the more sophisticated approach would triumph?
In layman’s terms the ability to swap the creator and destroyer in Spurs’ midfield stopped this happening (I’m not saying this is why Tottenham won, I think shambolic defending is maybe the better answer to that question, but it explains why Arsenal did not look technically superior in the centre). Is the fluid three dead as a system now then? And has create and destroy reappeared and established itself as the go to plan for winning teams?
Probably not and we shouldn’t get too sensationalist about all this. All the players talked about here are more adaptable than a one dimensional tackle machine (except Cheick Tiote) and it’s easy to read a pattern into a few results that isn’t really there. The reverse positioning system certainly is nothing new either, especially in Italy where it never really died in the first place in quite the same way, or to the full extent that it did in England. However the prominence and success of central midfields that have sharply contrasting players do suggest there could be an epic power shift in European football about to occur in the next few seasons – think of it as an almighty pendulum coming back round.
The last six, seven or maybe eight seasons have been dominated by words like “identity” and “philosophy”, teams like Guardiola’s Barca – who had midfields of similar players who had an understanding greater than the sum of its parts. This did not suit Real Madrid because they could not simply defeat their rivals with a world class defensive and world class offensive midfielder.
But clever thinking from Mourinho, Villas-Boas and Conte has lead to more of a hybridisation of this method that works better than a pure create and destroy pairing: a unification into a multidimensional system with fluidity and options of players that have highly contrasting styles. Surely if a team with players possessing a variety of strengths can combine the midfielders to become more than the sum of their parts it will be better than a team of similar individuals? If the trend continues to spread we might see a decline in clearly defined team identities and a return to a blend of styles within the same squad.
As a note to end on, it’s worth remembering how Pep Guardiola ended his glorious playing career at Barca. Unable to get in the starting line-up often, Pep looked out of touch with a world dominated by hard tackles and dazzling runs, a quiet and unimposing player who had no place in the creator-destroyer pairing of his late career era. And yet barely three or four years after his retirement, the very players that had made him seem redundant were being made obsolete by a revolution in Barcelona and the rise of the midfield passer, possession football and team pressing.
In this system Yaya Toure was a perennial bench-warmer for the now manager Guardiola, unable to get a look in ahead of a very specific type of player nurtured carefully at La Masia. He was a throwback to another era, not a player for current tactics. Only now, a few seasons later, Toure has reinvented himself as a stand-out performer for the Premier League champions. Might we look back on Toure’s late career as a time when his style of football reintroduces itself? Only time will tell.