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Does English Football Lack The Deep-Lying Playmaker?

Wednesday 28th March 2012

Watching Juventus play, it can be easy to compare their players to those in England who have similar playing styles. There are plenty of similar or lesser quality, who play like Mirko Vucinic, Arturo Vidal and even Alessandro Del Piero. However, looking through the Premier League, there are very few players that resemble Andrea Pirlo in either playing style or ability. In other European leagues, these players are present, but there is a distinct lack of notable Premiership players in this position, entrusted with distributing the ball to the forwards from deep whilst protecting the back line from being overwhelmed by opposition attacks.

English teams have struggled in Europe this season. They have been beaten by a sheer inability to get out of their own half (Man United v Bilbao), being punished on the counter attack (Man City v Napoli) and simply playing against a side with better individuals (Arsenal v Milan). Disregarding Chelsea's heroics against a strangely poor Napoli side, there has been little to celebrate in Europe this year for Premier League sides.

This is due to a number of factors, but one of the most glaring flaws of the English game is the inability to control possession. The question is not one of possession percentages, as Premiership sides generally play at a high tempo and the ball is quickly regained due to intense pressing. The downfall is in having the ball but never really controlling it. English sides always leave themselves exposed, with midfielders preferring to get ahead of the ball and create a scoring opportunity as quickly as possible rather than retaining possession.

We have defensive midfielders, but they are more tough tackling, physically intimidating specimens than intelligent players concentrated on protecting the defence and creating from deep. Michael Carrick is an Englishman who fits this role better than anyone else, but his form is so inconsistent that he can rarely be relied upon and his positioning can be questionable. The two most obvious examples, and probably the two best holding midfield playmakers in world football, are Andrea Pirlo and Xabi Alonso, who dictate the tempo of the game from the halfway line whilst continuing to provide protection to the defence by positioning themselves correctly, preventing quick counter attacks.

This control over posssession, this midfield balance, is something that has been present in a few sides in the English game and more often than not has brought success. Chelsea had the not-so-underrated Claude Makelele holding the midfield under Mourinho and wound up breaking the record for the most points in a Premier League season in 2005. Rafael Benitez's Liverpool side of 2009 pushed one of Alex Ferguson's greatest Manchester United sides all the way in the title race, despite significantly more modest resources, with Alonso at the base of a five-man midfield (albeit alongside the combative Javier Mascherano).

None of the current top four teams contain a quality deep-lying playmaker: Manchester City have Gareth Barry, weak and uninventive with the ball and United have Carrick. Tottenham have Scott Parker playing deep, but he is more of a box-to-box midfielder than a defensive one. Arsenal have Alex Song, one of their most important players this season, whose passes to Van Persie have created numerous goals, but defensively he is often caught too high up the pitch, a positional flaw he has failed to address.

The Premier League is obsessed with attacking football and this has led to some incredibly entertaining games this season. However the lack of quality in this key area is costing English teams in Europe. This open style of play simply leaves them vulnerable to any team with a manager astute enough to exploit it. If they do not address this, the recent trend of the Premier League greedily taking up Champions League semi-final places will soon become a distant memory.

Jonny Chadwick

Total articles: 4

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