Making his triumphant TFN return after a summer spent away, Simon Smith explores the rationale behind the recent recruitment of creative players…
It was 2nd September and I was walking to the train station in Milan when I came across a crowd of Rossoneri singing Kaka’s name outside a restaurant. This impromptu chorus line, decked out in the famous black and red stripes of Milan, had gathered hoping to catch a glimpse of their returning hero inside enjoying a meal. Watching the fans jostle for position to welcome the prodigal Brazilian home, I couldn’t help but wonder why his arrival had received so little coverage outside of Italy whilst clearly meaning so much to the those within the city. Though Kaka is certainly past his best years now – his transfer will likely become more famous for his massive pay cut and dispensing of the usual signing bonuses and fees that made the move possible – surely such fluff stories about a name as huge as his is exactly what the English red-tops thrive on? Perhaps the problem for Kaka’s PR team, and the cause for the general lack of interest in his homecoming, is that even with his profile he wasn’t the biggest playmaker to move this summer; he wasn’t even close.
Willian, Ozil, Mkhitaryan, Gotze, Erikson, Isco, Lamela, Thiago, Kevin Prince Boateng; it was an uncharacteristically active season for playmaker deals throughout Europe. In a busy summer all round, with such highly sought after stars as Tevez, Cavani, Falcao and Bale sealing big moves, and the protracted transfer sagas of Rooney and Suarez dominating the back pages, it remains rare to see so many so-called number tens change clubs at the same time. The playmaker is such an ambiguous term that it has become difficult to pinpoint what sort of player the word describes in the modern game; the general use means an attacking player who can unpick the opposition defence, somewhere in between more metronomic passers like Michael Carrick – midfield managers rather than playmakers – and players who operate more like second strikers, such as Stevan Jovetic.
If the playmakers of the present can be so diverse in their role and make up, why do teams remain so tentative about bringing them into their side? Arguably it may well be variety and the lack of standardisation that can make clubs hesitate over their number tens.
Take Ozil for example. I agree with the majority of Arsenal fans, Madrid players, neutral commentators and Joachim Low when they responded with surprise that Madrid were willing to let such a gifted player leave. Clearly there was a large political element to his isolation but to play devil’s advocate, there is perhaps some logic in removing him from the starting lineup in order to change the nature of the team.
While Ronaldo, Benzema, Di Maria and Alonso were so often highlighted as the key players in Mourinho’s set up at the Bernabeu – based on fast transitions and ruthless counter attacks – it was Ozil who was perhaps the most crucial to this formula and vision of how to win football matches. Instructed to run to the flanks to double up on full backs and be prepared to receive a quick ball to run onto, his contribution to the possession battle was minimal compared to say Luka Modric, but pivotal to applying the pressure and penetration Mourinho demands.
The Ancelotti era is likely to involve an attempt to create a more proactive side, and so in replacing Ozil with Isco, they have changed the dynamic of the team by changing one player: the playmaker. Depending on how advanced Isco positions himself, Madrid could look less like a front four and more like a front three this season. Meanwhile Arsenal, a team well stocked in attacking midfielders like Rosicky who are keen to drop into the engine room when required, have gained a player who will offer the kind of persistent threat the team often lacks. Unquestionably a coup for Wenger, Ozil’s departure could yet prove to be a successful gamble for Madrid too.
Interestingly, Mourinho’s new club have done the opposite. Juan Mata was Chelsea’s star last season, performing a link up role between the other creative talents in the attacking third while attempting to single-handedly to rescue Torres’ career with custom-made services to fit his needs. The media has inevitably, and rightly so, questioned why he has found himself dropped for the more underwhelming Eden Hazard. Not that either Hazard or Ozil could really be described as direct players, but for such outrageously gifted creators, they certainly are more so than Mata and Modric who provide a more calm and measured interpretation of their roles. As the stronger, quicker and less complicated of the two, it shouldn’t really surprise anybody who has followed the career of the now “happy one” since he left Stamford Bridge that Mourinho has a new favourite.
This sort of dynamic exposes the flawed manner in which we often reflect on the transfer window. If Chelsea and Madrid had earlier in the summer organized a swap deal for Ozil and Mata, sensational though it would have been, neither side could have expected criticism: and yet this is, in essence, exactly what they have both done. And this is a trend that has been replicated across the rest of Europe too. Gotze and Thiago, deeper and less incisive than the other players discussed, were classic Guardiola signings. He has come under criticism for dismantling an excellent Bayern side that were lauded as the best club side in the world last year, and yet if he wishes to impose his new vision on the team there will need to be changes to reflect this in the squad; the likes of Robben will need to learn quickly if they are to prove they can adapt to the new system.
Is the large number of high profile managerial changes the reason for this sudden swapping of playmakers? It may be not only the quantity but the difference in tactical ideology between many managerial successors and predecessors that have caused a rethink of the clubs’ creative hubs. In other words, Europe’s elite and sub-elite have decided to change tact in 2013.
Manchester United are the exception. Though they have changed manager they have not, so far as anyone has been able to tell so far, drastically changed style. Bizarrely, this has been a huge source of criticism for the new leadership duo of Moyes and Woodward. For several seasons there has been speculation that Ferguson would sign a creative midfielder without him doing so (the anomaly of the underused Kagawa aside), and yet it was only his replacement with Moyes that has unearthed a criticism of the failure to do so. Once again, I do agree with a proportion of this criticism and do not think the champions had a good transfer window. Either Kagawa needs to be promoted, or a signing needed to be made. Nonetheless, there is a degree of method in Moyes’ madness. Despite their clear efforts to sign Herrera indicating to everyone that not bringing in a creator was no strategy, if it has been a deliberate strategy there is a degree of logic behind it.
If Rooney can establish himself in his number ten role, he will fit nicely into the more direct and wing based play that Manchester United are famous for, whereas a new signing would be more of an unknown quantity. Though far from an unqualified success at Barcelona, Fabregas does at least clearly understand the style of play and system from his youth at La Massia. How he would adapt to a different method of play, faster and more direct than both Barca and Arsenal, would remain to be seen, as would how this would change the rest of the team. If the example of other clubs this summer has shown that the playmaker is the man to swap if you want to change your style of attack, then surely if you want to continue in the same manner he is the man to consider sticking with.
This is not to say that I consider Rooney to be the playmaker; that role is perhaps Michael Carrick at United, albeit in a more withdrawn role as a regista. If Fellaini can demonstrate his ability as a shield, ballwinner and general dogsbody partner to Carrick, perhaps it will free him up for a more advanced role that gets more assists out of him. In which case, surely it was a more sensible acquisition? Perhaps and perhaps not. In time we will see whether the signing has worked and whether a more creative signing would have been useful, but for now we can speculate that by not doing so Manchester United will play in a familiar way that the current squad will know and replicate more consistently.
Which brings us back to Kaka. Underrated at Madrid and forgotten on the international scene where unfavourable comparisons to his best years do him no favours, Kaka can yet offer Milan something new to their attack. Or more accurately, offer them something old; if the playmaker has the biggest impact on the style of a team, then it might be noted that since he left, Milan have played like a worse version of themselves, unable to change to the counter attacking side they have the payers for but incapable of signing a replacement for Kaka who could provide the same languid central dribbling that he once did. In the slower Italian game, with a new role as creator in chief following Kevin Prince Boateng’s exit, with a supportive club and dressing room he has long missed and without the £60m millstone around his neck following his free transfer, Kaka might surprise everyone.
If Milan are looking to revert to the system that won them success in Kaka’s first stint, then who better to base this around than Kaka himself? His return lacks the sensible early planning of Dortmund’s replacement of Gotze, the drama of Willian’s hijacked deal, or the surprise of Eriksen’s cheapness. What it does have is history on its side; the last time Madrid allowed a floundering playmaker to leave for Milan on the cheap, he won the treble. Not that I think they will win the treble, or even that the move will work out, because this type of deal is hopelessly difficult to predict. But while the rest of Europe are undergoing revolutions in the position, Lancashire and Lombardy are quietly going about their usual business.