Who isn't inspired by Xavi....or Sid Lowe? Here's Dan Leydon on a conservation success story.
(This article is set six years ago with the footballing world at the time as a backdrop. After reading Sid Lowe's interview with Xavi, I was inspired by this quote - “I'm happy because, from a selfish point of view, six years ago I was extinct; footballers like me were in danger of dying out. It was all: two metres tall, powerful, in the middle, knockdowns, second balls, rebounds … but now I see Arsenal and Villarreal and they play like us”)
Path of the Playmaker
At dusk one evening, deep in the confines of La Masia, a young male playmaker rises from his slumber, stretches, and silently makes his way to the training pitches. The floodlights are on, as they always are in the evenings. He takes a football and after effortlessly doing keepy ups for a minute or two begins to do laps. He keeps the ball at his feet and his head up. He always keeps his head up...
There’s shelter here at La Masia. Shelter for that rare breed of footballer, the playmaker. Fears have been stoked over recent seasons for the survival of these delicate athletes. With scouting academies more persistently opting for taller, stronger, faster players, the smaller, incisive playmakers are in danger of losing their place in world football completely. However, hope is not gone yet. There is a conservation project taking place at La Masia, (which translates as ‘The Farmhouse’) that aims to ensure the survival of these endangered players.
“Playmakers won’t survive without isolated, protected habitats like here at La Masia. They need a place where their unique footballing gifts are given game time. They need to mature. The sad thing is managers of youth teams need to produce players so cosistently that they won’t dedicate time to smaller players, even though studies show it would be in their best interests in the long run. If we write off these players that operate between the lines, they are as good as extinct. Facilities like this are the best hope for keeping playmakers from joining sweepers on the endangered species list” says playmaker conservationist and La Masia technical director, Rodolfo Borrell.
It is hard to argue with his points. The man speaks passionately and knowledgably about the path of the modern playmaker. He believes football is at a crossroads and that it needs to choose the route that embraces finesse and skill rather than that of brute force. The game is becoming more dynamic, a more welcoming home to large, steam engines of players. Instead of evading a tackle with a delicate feint, or threading a pass through the eye of a split second needle, these new players just bulldoze through in a thundering bluster. The beautiful side of the game is on the way out along with its heralds, the playmakers.
Iconic names that currently occupy this endangered position chime like lyrical cathedral bells across the collective minds of the game. Scholes, Pirlo, Riquelme, to name but a few. All purveyors of fine passes, with an almost psychic reading of where the play is headed, their habitat is falling prey to new breeds of midfielder. The playmakers value to a team exceeds that of pace, or strength or height. Exploitative talent like they have can unravel a previously impenetrable defense with one flick of a boot, a body feint or even a purposeful flick of the eyes to throw a defender off the scent of the next pass. They operate between the lines, the ones that confine the pitch and the ones that define expected movement in the oppositions head.
Stationary, with a foot on the ball and their head up, they are at their most lethal. With a knack for being well ahead of play and popping up just at the right moment in the right place, players attempting to mark them often find it a challenge. Nowadays they forage for scraps, not getting playing time as coaches view their lack of brute force as a weakness. Bereft of time on the pitch, the playmaker falls down the pecking order and may eventually fall out of the game entirely. This sad story is being played out with greater and greater frequency, much to the detriment of the game as a whole. Rampaging hulks have colonised the playmakers natural habitat and as a result they might not survive.
The dedicated staff of La Masia hope for a different ending to the story. They dream of a world where the playmaker is the central cog around which a team will be built, complimented by the force of modern behemoths, not forced out as a result of it. For the young playmakers currently honing their skills in Catalonia, the future is an uncertain thing. Borrell dreams of a world where they can spend hours a day training, not worrying if managers will find a place for their unique skills. Eventually, once deemed mature enough to make that leap up, they will progress from the facility and roam the world looking for a suitable team. A team with space for a player who can make things happen. If forward looking conservationists like Borrell at La Masia succeed in their pipe dream, these delicate footballer will find those teams and they will flourish.
The playmaker currently enjoys a healthier standing in the game. With his natural habitat partially reclaimed, he can once again roam between midfield and the oppositions box, free to sate his appetite for picking passes and making goal scoring opportunities. Always with his head up. Always looking for spaces...
You can read more from Dan at the exquisite ‘Footynews’ and follow him on Twitter @blastedfrench