It would appear that the top sides in English football are seeing the value in the "little" playmaker.
This summer saw the three sides seeking to compete with the current champions Man City spend big money on the same type of player. On viewing these arrivals, it would appear that the top sides in English football are seeing the value in the "little" playmaker.
In the past six seasons unquestionably Barcelona have influenced the way football is played and the type of players playing top level football. Players such as Iniesta, Xavi and Messi have made Barcelona the world’s best side. All these players has been developed through the famed La Masia school at Barcelona.
As success often leads to replication the Barcelona model and through that the type of player synonymous with the club, has become the ideal of many clubs and managers around Europe.
In many countries such as Argentina, Holland and Italy, the number 10 is a cult figure. Often named the trequartista, the 10 resides between the forwards and midfield, dictating play, showing skill. creativity and vision. In the past decade there have been players like Riquelme and Del Piero who have lit up world football with their class. In English football we have been blessed with the class of Bergkamp and the dimuitive Zola. Our best homegrown has been without doubt Paul Scholes, who although has become a regista in recent years, was an excellent playmaker in his prime.
However although the Premier League has been blessed with the diminutive talents of Paul Scholes and Gianfranco Zola, it has never really being a place for "small" players of the type that Barcelona develop.
However in the past few seasons however there has been a change based on the emergence of Spanish football. Sides like Arsenal have sought to buy the smaller, technical players such as Fabregas, Rosicky and Arshavin in order to improve the quality and creativity of the side. Chelsea have sought to bring in players like Juan Mata in order to alter their style and we have seen modern playmakers such as Modric arrive and show his class.
Yet there is no better club than the league champions Man City at showing the changes which have come into the English game. Roberto Mancini sought to lay the foundations of his side by solidifying and strengthening his defence first. After that his intentions were clear, in attack he would possess small, technical playmakers such as David Silva and Samir Nasri. He already possessed the small Argentine Carlos Tevez yet sought to enhance the side even more with the acquisition of Sergio Aguero. Clearly City’s ambition and intention to win the league was based on the importance of the “little man”.
We have seen the changes in the league through sides like Wigan who seek to play the "Spanish" way and who have sought to bring in smaller players who possess the technical skills required to play that style. Last season we saw the emergence of Swansea, whose style of play was very similar to that of Barcelona, and their players even more so; Leon Britten, Joe Allen and Nathan Dyer were some of the smallest players in the league last year.
And so over the past several seasons a change has occurred; a change which has been followed by all the top sides this summer. It is a sign that the English style is changing, that tactics are altering and that the quality and type of player being sought is different to that of before.
The quest for the little man
This summer the top sides in England have sought to enhance their sides with the “little man”. The lessons learnt from Barcelona and Spain with the quality of football and success has brought to England the French player of the season Eden Hazard, German player of the year Shinji Kagawa and Santi Cazorla,arguably the best player outside of the Real and Barca in Spain last season.
These three playmakers have arrived at Chelsea, United and Arsenal respectively. They have seen what players like Silva and Aguero have given Man City in England and have seen the world's best side Barcelona possessing "little" playmakers. Ultimately these sides have seen the importance of possessing the modern trequarista, the small, creative playmaker.
Added to these top players have been Oscar, Marko Marin, Fabio Borini and Joe Allen. All have arrived for big money because sides like Chelsea and Liverpool have owners and managers who seek to want to play like Barcelona.
There is no doubt that seeing the impact that Barcelona’s Xavi, Iniesta and of course Messi have had on the success and style of the side as well as the impact that Silva, Tevez and Aguero have had for Man City and it is no surprise that coaches are seeking to replicate this model. The desire of clubs therefore is to add quality and creativity to their attack.
Why are smaller players seemingly better in these positions? For me it has to do with their speed and agility. Watch Messi or Iniesta pick up the ball and glide past players with ease, cutting in and out to get through. It has to do with their centre of gravity, where as they are smaller have a better balance and torque when turning and running at speed.
The advantages that the “little man” has over the bigger one is clear when you look at the effectiveness of the top players in world football. The ability to dribble, run at speed, turn and create goals are all important characterisitics of the “playmaker” and it would appear we are entering a new era of the trequartista.
Is there something in having a small creative playmaker in the side then? It would appear without doubt that the “little man” has become an almost essential necessity for success. Looking at the successful sides in recent seasons you see obviously Barcelona and their little playmakers, as well as Man City’s. Yet look at Inter Milan who were so successful in 2010 because of the splendour of Wesley Sneijder. Dortmund have being successful through the creativity of Kagawa and in the Premier League sides like Spurs and Newcastle have used the creativity of Modric and Ben Arfa respectively to push higher up the league.
In the modern world of football, with restricted space and time, the importance of players finding and exploiting space and possessing excellent technical ability, poise and vision are essential when attempting to unlock defences. It is not surprising therefore that sides are looking at the smaller players to fill their attacking roles.
Problems of replicating Barcelona
Success leads to replication, which is what we have seen in the past few seasons in England. The Barcelona model has been replicated by many top sides in search of success. Yet it is surely not as simple as buying small players and expecting to produce a Messi.
The success of Barcelona has come from the development and nurturing of this type of player. Technical excellence and speed of thought and movement clearly take precedence over other characteristics such as height and power.
While clubs and managers such as Rodgers at Liverpool and AVB at Spurs seek to replicate Barca’s style, they should be aware and conscious of how the side they admire have spent a decade with these players refining their skills, building their tactical understanding and through playing together created an almost single minded, telepathic unit.
Clearly you cannot just put players of a similar type into a side and expect to see Barcelona style football. Managers are not wrong in seeking to bring in these type of players, yet it is important to be pragmatic and idealistic.
Key is balance, cohesion, understanding of the league
As I was in the process of writing this article, Everton were in the process of outperforming Man Utd in the first game of the season. United had purchased the creative Kagawa, an indication of United's intentions to play more creative football. Kagawa is the type of player who has been missed since Scholes has aged and taken up a deeper role.
His class on the ball was evident and along with Cleverly, Rooney and Nani United retained possession superbly. Yet they could not penetrate Everton’s defence and their possession was seemingly wasted. Possession is a means to an end, not an end in itself and United were guilty of over passing and resembling their unsuccessful rivals Arsenal.
Everton’s success came from using what would be the anti-thesis of the Barcelona type, Maroune Fellaini. While United played pretty football, Everton played a more direct style, playing balls up to Fellaini. Quite simply he was unplayable; his ability to hold off defenders, receive the ball in the air and bring in his team mates was both impressive and effective. It showed that while sides are seeing the value in possession football and through this style using smaller, creative players there was clearly a role and importance for a player of Fellaini’s type.
It is not the first time we have seen the importance of a big target man. For the past several seasons the English league has been dominated by the strength, power and skill of the Ivorian Didier Drogba. Drogba’s ability to hold up play, create and score goals meant he was the most effective forward in England for many seasons.
While sides are looking at bringing in players to replicate Messi & co. there should be an understanding that in England, a bigger player can cause many problems for the opposition and having the option of this player. The famed “plan b” would not be a bad decision for sides wishing to replicate Barcelona. Even Barcelona remember saw the value in a bigger man which led them to the purchase of Zlatan, however this was ultimately flawed because of his unwillingness to be just a “plan b” option.
As managers wish to change their style to a more possession based Barcelona type, they would be smart to realise and understand the league they are in. Lessons should be taken from the current champions Man City in regards to their mix and balance of height, physicality and strength. City’s success came from being strong defensively as well as being effective in attack.
Unlike Arsenal they did not just fill their side with “Barcelona” players, instead their manager was smarter. City are the perfect blueprint of how to develop a winning side. A strong defence possessing intelligence, height and power, along with a strong, powerful and technically efficient midfield, provides the foundation and solidity for the creative players further forward to interchange, combine and create. Added to the ability to bring on the “plan b” option of Dzeko and Ballotelli and City have the perfect formula for success.
Will England begin to develop more "little playmakers"?
The rise of the little man is not surprising. In fact it is expected. As Barcelona have excited and entertained they have shown that height is not essential for success. With their skill, technical ability and speed they have outplayed nearly every side they have encountered in the past several seasons. It has been quite extraordinary. Yet in fact it is not.
Barcelona have developed these players based on the Dutch totalfootball model. Through their patience and quality of coaching players like Xavi and Iniesta have been nurtured through their system, being taught not just football but of being part of the culture of the club.
If clubs therefore wish to become Barcelona they will need decades to produce the cohesion, understanding and culture of which Barcelona has become famous for. Thus what will be essential for clubs in England to do is change their belief of youth development.
The single most important change of which needs to happen in the majority of English clubs is to dismiss the misguided judgement of “small” players. The lessons learnt from Barcelona and their success should indicate that size is not important in certain positions.
Imagine the impact that Barcelona’s stars like Xavi, Iniesta and Messi will have on the future generation, not just of Barcelona fans, but of kids all over the world who have become household names the world over. Their success along with their mesmerising skills ignite a passion in young footballers like Maradona did Argentina and where now we see Saviola, Messi, Aguero and Tevez showcasing their "Maradona-esque" skills. The hope therefore one would imagine is to see more smaller, technical players being produced in the coming decade in the mould of the Barcelona type playmaker.
However the the clichéd “not big enough” mantra coming from academies and scouts are restricting the development of our own Xavi’s and Messi’s. Buying in talent like Hazard, Kagawa and Cazorla is great for the league as it brings skill and creativity and it shows that the top sides are seeing the value in skill over size. English youth development will need to adapt to the changes seen in the senior level and seek to develop the creative “little man” of which England has been too often deprived.
If England wish to compete with the top sides then our attack needs more creative “little men” to find space, be creative and allow England to retain possession. Only two “little men” have been effective for English football in recent years and in both cases have been under-used or not used effectively for their national side. Paul Scholes and Joe Cole could have been very special players for England and yet were not deemed as important as Gerrard and Lampard.
The “little man” has certainly risen in England and for fans this will provide excitement and class. Top sides have decided that in order to achieve success they need to possess the modern playmaker; possessing skill, creativity and vision. The league is most definitely stronger and has more quality with the players brought in. Let's hope that in the coming years we start to see our own "little men" coming through.