At times he trapped the ball with his instep, sometimes he cushioned it on his barrel chest. Some passes he fizzed whilst others he flicked with delightful nonchalance. He looked one way and passed the other. If space was limited, he switched play effortlessly over to the opposite wing. If there was more room to play with, he rolled the ball invitingly for a teammate to run onto, pegging his opponents further back. He saw his devilishly curved free-kick spectacularly tipped over the crossbar. He shimmied here and feinted there, leaving the opposition chasing his shadow. Every touch was majestic and yet very rarely self-indulgent. Then, in the final minute, as his side defended the visitors’ attempts to snatch a late winner, he stole the ball in his own penalty area with a two-touch drag-back pirouette, charged away to safety with the ball at his feet before being fouled and relieving all pressure on his side. The verdict was unanimous: he was the best performer on the pitch.
This was just another match in the season of Dimitri Payet, West Ham’s summer recruit from France, as West Ham held Manchester City to a 2-2 in a pulsating and frantic evening at Upton Park. Payet’s importance was clear: in the 16 league games he had played for West Ham at that stage of the season they had won half and scored 31 goals. In the seven he had missed through injury, they had suffered, recording just one win and managing to score only a paltry five goals. However, his importance to his team is nothing new; Payet is a playmaker who delivers not sporadically but rather with a thrilling regularity. Last season at Marseille, under tactical mastermind Marcelo Bielsa- who smartly moved him into a more central position on the pitch- he made 17 assists and created 175 opportunities for his teammates. This was more than any other player across Europe’s top five leagues. In the weeks since he has continued to bedazzle as the face of a revamped West Ham United under the watchful and reassuring eye of manager Slaven Bilic. Not so much the sprinkling of stardust as simply the genius behind the Hammers’ assault on the prized top-four Champions League positions. In the games since that January clash with City, West Ham have lost only two of the thirteen matches when Payet has been present, scoring twenty-five goals along the way. Payet scored six of these goals himself and directly set up another five. He has also made everybody aware of his outstanding ability with a dead ball, with a staggering five free kicks scored in 2016 alone. To be a dead-ball specialist is a particularly desirable trait for the quintessential playmaker- as anyone who has ever witnessed Juninho Pernambucano, Jay-Jay Okocha or Juan Riquelme strike a free kick would attest.
Earlier this week, Payet was named amongst the nominees for the PFA Player of the Year. Also amongst the nominees was Leicester’s wiry and electrifying magician Riyad Mahrez who, of course, has also enjoyed a marvellous season and would be completely deserving of the player-of-the-year crown should he be awarded it, particularly if Leicester City can claim an astonishing first league title in the upcoming weeks. Mahrez, although often officially named on the teamsheet as playing out on the right flank, in reality flits about to devastating effect wherever his mood takes him. When Mahrez has been on song, Leicester, almost without fail, have won. And this season he has been on song very often. Another, more decorated name amongst the nominees is Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil: he has been wonderful this season and has provided a remarkable 18 assists in 38 matches. If Arsenal had been able to truly sustain their title challenge, Ozil would have been the natural claimant of the Player of the Year gong.
Something has happened in English football. It has not happened overnight- although the arrival of players with the artistry of Payet, Mahrez and Ozil has significantly helped the cause- but in recent years the process has sped up. And that something is this: English football, finally, cherishes the playmaker. More specifically, the player that operates ‘in the hole’, drifting ahead of the midfield but hanging just off the strikers. The player who controls the ball with a swagger and represents the true ideology of the “number 10”- regardless of whether or not he indeed wears the number 10 shirt on his back. Or, to use the fashionable, Italian term- for it was a valued role in Italian football long before the English got to grips with the concept of it- the trequartista.
Arguably, the seeds were sown for the integration of the playmaker into English football as far back as the late seventies at Tottenham Hotspur with Osvaldo “Ossie” Ardiles, who arrived all the way from Argentina. However, it is only in the last few seasons that the stock of the playmaker has risen exponentially.
Other areas of the world have enjoyed and idolised this sort of playmaker for a long time. Just in recent times, South America can offer Rivaldo, Riquelme and Juninho Pernambucano as near-perfect models from the last decade or so. The young Argentine Paulo Dybala has emerged as a supremely gifted playmaker in Serie A, leading the way for Juventus. France, of course, had the maestro Zidane. Italy has had Francesco Totti and, before him, Roberto Baggio. Spain has had Juan Carlos Valerón, Iniesta and, more recently, Isco.
As it happened, English football’s trailblazer, Ardiles, could have thrown in the towel as early as his Tottenham debut after being on the receiving end of a particularly vicious chest-high tackle from then-Swansea hardman Tommy Smith in the form of, you know, that snarling, welcome-to-English-football-let’s-see-how-quickly-it-is-before-you-run-home-crying sort of welcome. However, Ardiles persevered and in doing so paved the way for other like-minded footballers to follow his lead. They didn’t all jump at once, though, and most English coaches were not of the mind to cultivate these sort of luxurious players themselves. Indeed, England’s very own Glenn Hoddle felt he ought to move abroad to France to properly realize the potential of the technical and tactical side of his own game, safe from the merciless pursuit of the likes of Wimbledon’s Crazy Gang. Later, of course, Steve McManaman moved abroad to seize the opportunity to play for the near-indomitable Real Madrid, but he also recognised that the it was a way of showing the English public that there was more to his game than simply being a leggy workhorse out on the wings.
Until very recently English football never provided an obvious platform for the magicians of this mould. Of course, there have been examples of playmaking magicians plying their trade in English football.
In the nineties, some immensely creative players arrived in England. Middlesbrough fans were thrilled watching Juninho, a Brazilian wizard with tiny boots, strut his stuff at The Riverside Stadium every other week, protected by the likes of the much bulkier frames of Paul Ince and Juninho’s own compatriot, Emerson. Meanwhile, at Maine Road, Manchester City supporters, in those days accustomed to more modest successes than those of the current setup, idolised Georgi Kinkladze and delighted in his mazy dribbles. The West Ham faithful, who can now revere Dimitri Payet, in the nineties embraced the Israeli playmaker Eyal Berkovic and his unpredictable ways of thinking- with and without the ball. These players delighted the supporters on the terraces but part of the thrill was their sheer novelty- not every team could boast a Kinkladze or a Juninho. And very, very few teams had such serendipity as Southampton, who saw a homegrown magician rise from their youth team and give such fine service for so many years in the form of the Guernsey-born, exotically-named Matt Le Tissier. In more recent times, Luis Garcia was so successful with Liverpool that he now proudly owns a European Cup winner’s medal after that famous night in Istanbul and yet, for all his trickery and happy knack of scoring crucial goals which mean he is now remembered extremely fondly by the Anfield faithful, he was often subject to irate groans of derision, as many supporters were frequently resentful on a Saturday afternoon if a backheel went awry or he was caught attempting a needless nutmeg.
To look at the homegrown playmaker candidates offers something of a mixed bag. Whilst Aston Villa’s floppy-haired, boy-band product Jack Grealish has disappeared off the face of the football world after his various exploits on and off the pitch last year (maybe he is looking for his shinpads?), Dele Alli has brought a fearlessness and undoubtable quality to Tottenham which helped them to shed any inferiority complex complex which has inhibited them from ever really challenging for the top spots. a club which previously never really had anybody convinced that they could be capable of seriously challenging for the league title any time soon. With Le Tissier now firmly part of the terrace folklore down on the South coast at Southampton, nowadays there is James Ward-Prowse, whose diminutive build brings to mind graduates of La Masía however, for all his dead-ball prowess, he is yet to consistently impose himself in open play as one of the top flight’s serious playmakers. Meanwhile, not so long ago, whilst only a bairn at his hometown club Sunderland, Jordan Henderson was deployed predominantly in the playmaking role. However, when that role appeared too prestigious for him at Liverpool following his big-money transfer, he recognized the need to bulk up and channel his considerable stamina and graft into making him a trustworthy central midfielder.
Meanwhile over on the other side of Stanley Park, at Everton, there is Ross Barkley. Despite his imposing build and tough-lad cropped haircut which lend him the air of something of the playground bully, Barkley is a player who in reality is much more inclined to opt for deft touches which in years gone by would have widely been labelled something along the lines of ‘one of those fancy foreign flicks’ rather than a crunching full-blooded slide tackle which was typical of a young, circa-1999 skin-headed Steven Gerrard. Barkley is an intriguing player in many ways; perhaps he offers an insight into the effects of growing up in an age of Youtube videos and game consoles which scream out in their desire for displays of individual brilliance, when trickery and golazos are prized above team-focussed graft, physical battle and industry.
For a couple of years, in the prime years of his career, Steven Gerrard himself was used in an advanced role, playing just off Fernando Torres. The results were often spectacular and yet it always felt as though Gerrard was just pretending to be a playmaker in order to carry through a team which might have lacked a goal threat otherwise, and that his true game really lay deeper on the pitch; in the heat of the battle, dictating the game and inspiring his teammates from the heart of the midfield. Now, however, Liverpool possess in Phillipe Coutinho a more natural magician to operate in the hole.
So Leicester has Mahrez and West Ham has Payet. Arsenal has Ozil and Liverpool has Coutinho. Tottenham emerged in the early stages of 2016 as the most realistic contenders to Leicester’s unlikely quest for the title and, alongside the more combatant style of Dele Alli, possess a truly gifted playmaker in the form of Christian Eriksen, a Dane educated in the distinguished Ajax school of football. Meanwhile, up in Manchester, David Silva’s form has been rather indifferent during Manchester City’s indifferent domestic season but he remains a role model for any wannabe-playmaker; his deft touches and vision for a pass are key to City’s success and surely Aguero will always be a happier striker when David Silva is in the side providing the ammunition.
Eden Hazard, though technically gifted and bearing the number 10 shirt on his back, operates more from the wing so is not really an ideal example of the ‘Number 10’ footballer, pulling the strings from a more central. Hazard, too, has of course had an startlingly indifferent season and Chelsea have suffered for it. None of Chelsea’s other attacking midfielders, of whom Oscar might appear the most likely candidate, have managed to stamp their authority in the playmaking role and this has resulted in a season they will be keen to erase all memory of when August rolls along. If this is indeed the time of the playmaker, then, it seems apt to be speaking of Chelsea. Chelsea’s success has been built around the structure of a disciplined and powerful 4-3-3 implemented by José Mourinho and yet they have found themselves off the pace as other teams with playmakers orchestrating play from a central birth have helped their sides to outperform the reigning champions- this time around, at least.
It is also noteworthy that City’s old rivals Manchester United, a team struggling to demonstrate any real sense of attacking identity at the moment, have in their possession one of the league’s most creative footballers in Juan Mata and yet their fans are largely resigned to believing that, for all his undisputed talent and genuine character, Mata will simply never be a true success at United because he is ‘not a United player’. He is of course, a United player, so, what actually do they mean when they say that he is not? United supporters were able to bask in glory during the trophy-laden Ferguson era, when wingers ran riot, central midfielders got stuck in and there were always plenty of strikers more than capable of finding the net. In Van Gaal, however, they have a manager who, though one of the most decorated managers in the game, has struggled to inspire in the Old Trafford crowd a belief that the current team possess a genuine ability to thrill- whilst also making many question whether the Van Gaal blueprint is anything other than rigid formations with players deployed out of position and an ambitious reliance on the exuberance of youth players. It is notable that Mata appears suited neither for the swashbuckling wing-focussed attacks of a Ferguson side nor the lower-tempo sides of Van Gaal, in which Belgian beanpole Marouane Fellaini has frequently been hurled up front when the sideways passing game has failed to put the opponents’ penalty area under significant threat.
Like Ferguson’s United sides, Arsenal’s Invincibles side usually played a 4-4-2. As we all know, their football was often delightful, as Thierry Henry and Robert Pires combined time and time again down the left flank, Dennis Bergkamp’s limitless craft made nervous wrecks of opposition defenders and, between the two of them, Gilberto Silva and Patrick Vieira covered practically every other blade of grass on the pitch. Of course, the side possessed quality in abundance and it is still thrilling to re-watch the highlights of that era, but there was not a bonafide trequartista playmaker in this side. Now, however, there is in the form of Mesut Ozil.
So now we are in a moment where such players are not only accepted and enjoyed, often as a luxury, but instead they are now embraced, and thoroughly in demand. There is no doubt Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea will be linked all summer long to the Dele Allis, the Dimitri Payets and the Riyad Mahrezes of this league. Because, quite simply, the teams sitting highest in the table each possess their own champagne playmaker who has contributed in no small part to their league position. So, without wishing to claim that these sides’ successes are all down to these eye-catching, free-kick-bending, pass-feigning, goal-setting, goal-getting footballers (to promptly dismiss this notion, one name springs to mind: N’Golo Kante), let’s all raise a glass to the playmaker in 2016. Hail The Playmaker.