In the 1994 World Cup, it was the great Italian trequartista, Roberto Baggio, who lit up the tournament, not merely with his goals, but also with his unrivalled ability to split open a defence with a single pass. He was, to the Italians, not merely a trequartista, but a fantasista.
Since the days of Baggio the role of the playmaker has evolved enormously. These days, the chief creator needn’t necessarily be a number 10 – he needn’t operate behind the striker in a central role. A team’s primary conductor might even start on the wing, and can flit in and out of midfield to set a team’s pattern of play.
Across almost every squad in the World Cup, there are players, who, even if not proficient goal scorers, serve to set the tempo of football that their team seeks to play in. But depending on a team’s system of play, this might be a deep-lying midfielder, a left-winger or even a conventional central midfield player.
Here are six playmakers to watch this World Cup.
Italy: Andrea Pirlo
Andrea Pirlo, along with the now-retired Manchester United footballer Paul Scholes and Spain’s Xavi Hernandez, is responsible for reviving the job of the withdrawn playmaker. Unlike Baggio, who set the tempo of Italy’s play by functioning closer to the centre forward, Pirlo will spend most of his time hovering around the middle of the park. If you watch him play through the 90 minutes of a football match, you might hardly see him attempt the spectacular – his proclivity for bending free kicks being an exception. But, as he so often is for his club side Juventus, Pirlo represents the brains behind Italy’s play. It is to him that they turn to for inspiration, because he seems to have the key to unlocking the meanest defences.
Germany: Mesut Özil
For a while through the noughties, the trequartista appeared to be doomed. Teams had become increasingly prone to playing what is known in footballing parlance as a double pivot – a pair of midfielders who are assigned the singular job of destroying the opponent’s play. But at the 2010 World Cup, at least three of the semi-finalists played a conventional number 10. Of them all, the most strikingly brilliant was Germany’s Mesut Özil. Özil, rather like Pirlo, has an innate ability to seemingly drift out of a football match’s central conscience, while simultaneously possessing an ability to act as its prime influence. As the writer Brian Phillips said, Özil, seems to operate in “his own cool bubble of omniscience, a private pocket of space-time from which he can direct a move while drawing attention only to the players who finish it”.
Colombia: James Rodriguez
James Rodriguez isn’t a typical playmaker, even in an era where finding a prototype of a playmaker can be a difficult task. An eye-catching talent, with a virtuoso’s penchant for the spectacular, Rodriguez can play off either flank or behind a central striker. But wherever he plays, it is likely he will represent Colombia’s chief creative outlet. Last summer, Monaco thought it fit to pay Porto 45 million euros for Rodriguez's services. Since moving, the Colombian has been dazzling, carving open many a defence with his left-foot. In Colombia’s opening match against Greece on Saturday, Rodriguez was everywhere, constantly seeking the ball and then using it with intelligence and purpose. He even capped off the South American country’s victory with a neatly slotted finish in stoppage time.
Japan: Shinji Kagawa
Shinji Kagawa was the cream of the crop in a wonderfully talented Borussia Dortmund team that won the German Bundesliga in 2012. Since moving to Manchester United that summer, Kagawa’s form has waned – this has partly owed to a shift in position; he’s often been shunted to the wings and asked to assume extra defensive responsibilities. For Japan, however, Kagawa continues to glitter. Sharing play-making responsibilities with Keisuke Honda, Kagawa often comes alight in the final third of the football pitch. Here, his quick thinking and nimble feet allow him to find space in tight areas. He may not have been at his finest against the Côte d'Ivoire in his country’s opening match, but there’s still some time left; he is a majestic talent, quite capable of inspiring Japan into the latter stages of this year’s World Cup.
Bosnia: Miralem Pjanic
On April 25, Miralem Pjanic, who plays his club football at AS Roma of Italy, dribbled his way through the whole of AC Milan’s defence to score a goal that his manager Rudi Garcia would later describe as “Maradona-esque”. In a team that loves its trequartistas, Pjanic has emerged as the ultimate playmaker, heir to the great Francesco Totti. To the Bosnian national team, which is playing in its first World Cup, Pjanic represents an even more vital cog. Blessed with an innate sense for space and an eye for the killer pass, he will serve as the team’s chief orchestrator.
France: Mathieu Valbuena
Almost everything that France will seek to do in attack will most likely flow through the boots of the diminutive Mathieu Valbuena. He is a player of sublime skill, who will flit into varying positions where he can find space. You will see him on the left wing one moment, on the right the other, and also behind the French forward Karim Benzema, constantly looking to penetrate the opposition. Valbuena’s passing can often appear unglamorous, but the beauty of his play is in his movement. He flutters into open spaces with such unerring ease that the final pass often becomes a thing of simplicity for him. It might well be Benzema or Antoine Griezmann who will grab the headlines for France, but Valbuena is their single most important player.
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