Chelsea FC – An Exhibition on the Evolution of the Playmaker
Whether you’re a full on obsessive tactical guru who’s infatuated with the tiny strategic details in a game of football, or if you can barely name half the players on your own team, the joy we get from watching elite ‘playmakers’ on the pitch is the same.
The term is one that drove me insane for quite a while. During Ancelotti’s second season, the number times it was said/written that Chelsea needed some ‘playmakers’ or ‘creative midfielders’ went miles beyond excessive. What annoyed me wasn’t the accuracy of the statement; of course we did in fact ‘need some’, but the vagueness of it. A playmaker isn’t a type of player, rather than a category of player, and two players who might fit within the category may be completely different/would’ve brought completely different things to Chelsea at the time.
We’ll never know if all of those fans demanding playmakers were asking for a Trequartista, a second striker, a classic #10, someone who can dribble or play long passes from deep positions, or maybe a pure Regista to dictate the game from around the halfway line. Whatever sort of player they wanted, if they even knew in the first place, I think we can all agree at this stage, we’re now officially alright for creative attacking players.
I know that nobody reading this needs telling what special players our three young playmakers are, but, there’s one frequent description of them that keeps popping up on blogs and in newspapers etc. that I don’t agree with and is actually the reason behind this article. It’s a description that even Alex Ferguson made in his preview of Man Utd’s game at Stamford Bridge in November. He said he’d been watching Chelsea and noticed how we’d been playing Mata, Oscar and Hazard behind the forward to good effect, and how he thought they were “pretty similar”.
Now, admittedly, in the sense that they’re all quite small and occupy the same spaces on the pitch, then they are pretty similar, but in my opinion that’s really where it ends. I think it’s a bastardisation of their achievements so far and a really lazy label to allocate to three players with such important and significant distinctions. On closer inspection you’ll notice that they really aren’t very similar at all:
As systems of zonal marking spread across Europe and as managers like our own (who insist on the tactical organisation of the team before anything else) become more prominent, players like Eden Hazard are dying out. To me he seems like a very old fashioned sort of playmaker, like an Argentinean ‘enganche’ he plays his best football existing almost outside of any tactical system, free to do whatever he wants. Similarly to players like Hoddle, Rui Costa and perhaps the greatest modern example, Juan Roman Riquelme, he is an artist, a trickster, someone who selfishly always wants the ball so he can pass it to a teammate.
Hazard may be the least tactically disciplined of the three but he is definitely the most exciting and impactful when he has the ball at his feet. His dribbling and twists and turns are fantastically entertaining. Now he’s in the Premier League and now especially he’s working under Rafa Benitez, he will be forced to change his game if he wants to stay a regular in Chelsea’s XI, but the fact that Hazard made it to the top of European football playing his own, individualistic and flamboyant game makes him special and it makes him worthy of recognition as a individual.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve called Juan Mata the perfect modern playmaker on this blog, but just in case you’d forgotten – he is. I think most fans would agree he is our best and by far most important player. What’s fantastic about Mata isn’t just how he is the perfect #10, but his ability and willingness to transcend the responsibilities of the position for both the good of the team and to improve himself.
We’ve seen recently Wesley Sneijder practically descend into irrelevance since his treble winning year at Inter. A refusal to take a pay cut threatens his future at the Milan club currently but even before that issue arose his refusal seemingly to play as anything but a pure #10 has made him (in my opinion) a worse player than he was at Real Madrid. Likewise, Mourinho and Mesut Ozil reportedly have quite a difficult working relationship, with Jose feeling the player doesn’t give enough/work hard enough for the team.
When at their best, Sneijder and Ozil are probably the most important players on their team, often making the difference between a good and a great team performance, tying together the qualities of everyone around them. Both however, unlike Juan Mata, seem unwilling to adjust their game during difficult moments. Rarely do they step out of the channels where they wait for the ball to help defend or retrieve it. That’s why Ozil often seems to go missing in the Clasicos.
Mata’s talents along with his attitude and modern approach to his role makes him almost unique across Europe, and, like Hazard, worthy of recognition as an individual.
If Hazard is the past and Mata is the present of play-making in Europe, then Oscar is the future. In modern football every player on the pitch has defensive responsibilities. The fact that Oscar started out in a deeper position is most likely a key reason behind why he’s settled so quickly and impressed both as a creator and scorer of goals and also as a man-marker, retriever and distributor of the ball in midfield. Other instances where we’ve seen midfielders step forward into an advanced playmaking role include Marouane Fellaini at Everton and also Henrikh Mkhitaryan at Shakhtar Donetsk, both of whom are having phenomenal success this season in their new positions.
Whereas ten years ago a #10 may have been judged solely on his ability to score and create chances, the modern game demands them to be far more complete players. For Oscar to have made a name for himself worldwide as such a #10, and at such a young age, is why he is special. It’s also why, you guessed it, he deserves to be recognised as an individual.
I understand, of course that Alex Ferguson couldn’t have been expected to make such a detailed analysis of those three players when asked about them in interview and I’m not suggesting he should’ve tried, but I hope I’ve made my point clear.
The three of them are completely different. I personally can’t think of a situation where a club side has been in possession of three such radically different and talented playmakers, and especially when all of them have barely begun their careers.
To watch how they develop, how they accommodate for each other but also how they leave their own individual impression on this side is the ultimate privilege for this generation of Chelsea fans. It’s going to be fascinating and enjoyable to watch them mature, but please, I urge you, don’t let anybody ever insult them with the mindless and ignorant suggestion that they’re “pretty similar”.
They just aren’t.