Originally written for Sabotage Times.
Andrea Pirlo’s elegant masterminding of Italy’s Euro 2012 campaign won the veteran midfielder a clutch of new admirers and reminded those who had doubted him just what he was capable of as he approached the twilight years of his career. While Pirlo benefited from facing opponents either unable or unwilling to press him effectively, the regista’s vision and skill lit up the summer tournament.
While his existing fan base looked on bemused, many treated the Italian’s performances as a wake up of sorts, questioning why such player aren’t more widespread or available to their clubs and national teams.
English pundits bemoaned the absence of a Pirlo type player in Roy Hodgson’s squad, singling out Paul Scholes’ decision to stay at home and turn down the opportunity to come out of retirement as he had for Manchester United. For both his club and his country, Scholes was seen as the perfect player to sit deep, take control of the passing game and orchestrate the play. Upon his return to action at Old Trafford he retreated yet further downfield, dropping back to sit in front of the defence in the so-called “quarter back” role, spraying diagonals and through balls forward from his rearguard pocket.
While hardly a physically gifted player in his prime, Scholes game is now focused almost entirely on his passing ability and whole-pitch awareness, compensating for his declining mobility and stamina. Ryan Giggs has taken a similar approach, although his transition has been more lateral than vertical, coming inside to play as a central attacking midfielder from the wing with more mixed results.
Legs may be the first to go for aging players but football intelligence and technical ability endure.
Two of the Premier League’s more explosive midfielders in recent years must now face up to their own graduations to the veteran-hood. Last season, Frank Lampard began to fall back into a deeper lying and more disciplined midfield position for Chelsea. With his trademark stamina and penetrating acceleration beginning to fail him, Lampard, like Scholes before him, was forced to explore the other potential applications of his talents and soon found himself as his club’s possession retaining passing hub. Steven Gerrard is now facing up to a similar issue surrounding the necessity of transition, as his once feared box-to-box energy drains away. Gerrard is yet to cut his losses and abandon his failing attribute, often looking like a player struggling and off the pace with the technical aspects of his game suffering as a result. The clear way forwards for Gerrard, and other ageing attack minded players, is to adapt, otherwise their new physical limitations will mask and constrict their quality and on-the-field worth.
In many ways it’s never been easier for fans brought up on half-understood tactical notations and fantasy football to slip into the trap of seeing rigidly defined positions rather than multi-skilled, modern players. On-the-pitch roles have arguably never been more fluid and ambiguous with the tiki-taka of the Spanish and Barcelona bringing Lobanovskyi and Sacchi’s ideal of “universality” – a system of intelligent and complete footballers able to take part in every phase and position within a game as required – to life. In many ways, it is the conception of a trend that has flowed through football from the early “systematic” Scottish passing game via the Danubian School, The Magic Magyrs, totaalvoetbal and beyond. The idea of attackers able to defend and defenders capable in attack could perhaps even be considered rather mundane today. As clubs seek to take advantage of ever more effective and sophisticated systems, intelligent and adaptable all-rounders are increasingly being preferred to narrow specialists.
Just as the positioning of veteran midfielders is adjusted to emphasise their mature abilities and lessen the impact of emerging weaknesses, the futures of today’s most versatile forwards may lie down in the other half of the pitch: Pirlo’s world.
The ability to score goals is no longer enough. Modern forwards are relied upon to produce chances for themselves and others, instigate link up play, create space when off the ball with their movement, possess excellent technical skills and have the work rate and stamina to press from the front.
The diminutive forward’s intimidating array of skills are only likely to improve and develop further with maturity and age, but his physical qualities will decay. An older Messi, whose goal threat could be dulled by a decrease in fitness, might be better deployed further back to coordinate and feed younger, more dynamic players with his vision and technical wizardry. Messi could be a future heir to Xavi’s role in the Barcelona side, assuming he does remain at Camp Nou.
In England, it has already been suggested by some midfield starved United supporters that Wayne Rooney could make for an interesting proposition alongside the likes of Carrick and Cleverley. Compared to Messi, Rooney is far more reliant on his inconsistent physique – not helped by his off-field lifestyle – and a move down the spine of the team could be beneficial in the future. The hectic atmosphere of the midfield engine room could allow the striker to make the most of his work rate and well-rounded game without straining to hold onto the unreliable cutting edge of his erratic fitness.
As the football world continues to digest and respond to the stylish supremacy of Spanish football it’s likely that young forwards will also be trained in the disciplines traditionally associated with midfielders, and vica versa. In the meantime, the multi-skilled, universal attackers of today could one day find their abilities in demand and easily translatable to a playmaking berth in midfield.