Paul Smith

In modern football it can be argued central midfielders are the most important players on the pitch due to the importance of their role both in defence and attack. When out of position they leave the defence open and vulnerable, and can leave the striker(s) isolated if they fail to move up the pitch in support.  Therefore how to utilise a central midfielder is possibly the key tactical decision a manager has to make.

A recent phenomenon is the emergence of a deep–lying playmaker that will sit in a pocket in front of the defence and begin attacks using a wide range of passing. Historically a deeper midfielder would be an enforcer, someone who would protect the defence, break up play and give the ball to more creative players around them. This type of player would be someone who wasn’t the best natural footballer, but had a good sense of tactical discipline, was strong and could tackle well. On the other hand a deep-lying playmaker has excellent natural ability but isn’t renowned for tackling and breaking up play.

The type of team that likes to play with a deep-lying playmaker is generally one that likes to play possession football. Typically the goalkeeper would be instructed to roll the ball out to a defender, who in turn will pass the ball to the playmaker sat just in front of them. The playmaker will then set the attack in motion.

Andrea Pirlo and Michael Carrick are the best two examples of deep-lying playmakers currently in world football. Pirlo started his career at Brescia before moving to Milan’s bitter cross-city rivals Inter. At Inter he played in a more attack-minded role but could never cement a place in the team so was sold to Milan. Milan’s coach Carlo Ancelotti saw that Pirlo’s extensive passing skills would be well suited to a deeper role and opted to play him further back in midfield alongside Gennaro Gattuso, the archetypal midfield enforcer. Gattuso has become Pirlo’s wing man, getting about the pitch and winning the ball, thus allowing the Italian to work his magic. 

Since his move to Milan, Pirlo has won one Scudetto, two Champions League titles, and was pivotal in Italy’s 2006 World Cup triumph. It’s not hard to make a case for him as the best player in the world in the deep-lying role and it’s not surprising that there are rumours that Ancelotti would like to take Pirlo to Stamford Bridge.

Michael Carrick came through the ranks at West Ham United alongside Joe Cole and Rio Ferdinand. He quickly gained a reputation for his accurate passing, earning a PFA Young Player of the Year nomination in the 2000/01 season. Following West Ham’s relegation from the Premier League, Carrick was keen to ply his trade in the top flight again. Subsequently the Geordie was sold to Tottenham where his reputation blossomed as his wide range of passing was instrumental in Spurs’ assault on the Champions League places in the 2005/06 season. His standout performances caught the eye of Sir Alex Ferguson who proceeded to spend £18M on him in the summer of 2006. 

The one thing on which many would agree regarding Michael Carrick is that he has not made the most of his England chances, although an impressive performance in Berlin alongside Gareth Barry in England’s 2-1 win over Germany showed signs that he was getting to grips with the international game.

In the recent 2008/09 English Premier League both Xabi Alonso and Stylian Petrov played a key role in their clubs relatively successful campaigns as deep-lying playmakers. At Liverpool, Gerrard and Torres made the headlines as they caused attacking chaos high up the pitch. However, the duo relied on Alonso to begin attacks from a deeper position, feeding the ball into Gerrard and playing the ball over the top for Torres. There are even statistics to back up these impressive performances; the stats company Opta announced in December that Alonso was the first player in the league to complete 1,000 successful passes. It is ironic that the Spaniard played such a pivotal role in Liverpool’s season after a summer of speculation centered on Rafael Benitez wanting to sell the midfielder to fund a move for Gareth Barry.

Petrov earned the supporters player of the year award at Villa Park for a series of consistent performances which contributed to Villa’s flirtation with the Champions League places in the first half of the season. His vision and long range passing ability complemented his team’s counter-attacking style of play. The 2008/09 season proved to be a huge turnaround for Petrov after two seasons of inconsistent performances playing in a variety of positions across the midfield. The jury was out over whether the Bulgarian could make the step up from the Scottish Premier League where he earned plenty of plaudits at Celtic. On the evidence of the last campaign it seems as if Petrov has found his niche.

In Italy, where the aforementioned Pirlo is undoubtedly king in the deep lying role a pretender to the throne emerged last season; Udinese’s Gaetano D’Agostino. Similar to Pirlo, his early career was played in an advanced role just off the strikers, and he was the main creative force in the Italian side that won the European Under-21 Championship in 2004. After failing to make the grade at Roma where the likes of Totti stood between him and first-team football, D’Agostino eventually ended up in Udine via a spell at Messina.
D’Agostino had a slow start at Udinese; the turning point was the appointment of Pasquale Marino as coach. And Marino soon thought D’Agostino’s passing ability would be best served playing deep in midfield. During the 2007/08 campaign D’Agostino slowly but surely adapted to the role and by the start of last season he was ready to hit the ground running. Early season form was impressive and he managed to consistently carry this through for the remainder of the campaign. The midfielder’s long range passing caught the eye of Marcelo Lippi who called him up to the full Italian squad for the first time in November 2008. D’Agostino capped a fine season by making his first appearance for the Azzurri against Northern Ireland in June 2009. It can be argued he had a better season than Pirlo, and the Udinese player will surely end up moving to one of Italy’s big three before too long.

It’s not just in Europe where the role of the deep-lying playmaker has developed, the position has travelled transatlantic. A number MLS teams have implemented the deep lying role into their systems. Kansas City Wizards have built their midfield around close season signing Santiago Hirsig. A similar pattern has unfolded with the Argentine midfielder as he too was an attacking midfielder for San Lorenzo back in his native country, but has now been moved deeper to try and dictate the play, making use of the skilful passing and vision he possesses.

At New York Red Bulls former Read Madrid and Barcelona midfielder Albert Celades operates as a deep-lying playmaker alongside Seth Stammler who takes on the role of midfield enforcer. While down in Texas US Under-23 international Dax McCarty looks at home in a 4-1-4-1 formation sitting and dictating play from a deeper position whilst two attacking midfielders push on to support the lone striker.

The striking thing about the role of the deep-lying playmaker is that not many players begin their careers in that position. As portrayed by the likes of Pirlo, Petrov and D’Agostino a number of players who now call that position their own were attacking midfielders whose careers had stalled. Therefore there must be a number of players with the ability to play in the position but don’t know it, and more importantly their managers don’t know it. Playing a creative player deeper can give the player that bit of protection he needs in order to have a positive impact on the game. Very much like a quarterback in American Football.

The role can clearly play a big part in Italy where the pace of the game is slower and the ‘stop at all costs’ mentality of Italian defenders can prevent the fantasisti from making much of an impact. 

In England, where the game is played at a frantic pace and midfielders get little time on the ball the role of the deep-lying playmaker can be utilised to allow players such as Petrov and Alonso that extra second to pick out a pass. And as their clubs have seen, these passes can be those crucial ones which provide goalscoring opportunities.

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