Introducing…the central winger?

December 3, 2010

Adem Ljajic

A clear contradiction in terms, but it’s not as ludicrous as it might seem.

One of the key trends of the last decade was the struggle of the classic number ten, the central playmaker who would generally play in behind the strikers. The reasons for this have been discussed before – from the popularity of the “Makelele role” that saw playmakers struggle for space, to the predominance of counter-attacking football that discouraged the thoughtfulness of a Juan Riquelme, to the popularity of the 4-5-1 / 4-3-3 – there seemed to be a general trend against trequartistas. Players who would have been No 10s often moved out wide, or played deeper in midfield, or were even used as false nines.

However, this summer’s World Cup confirmed the predominance of the 4-2-3-1, with three of the four semi-finalists (Spain, Germany, Holland) all using this system. This, of course, requires a central playmaker, and Xavi, Mesut Özil and Wesley Sneijder were widely regarded as three of the stars of the competition.

So, we now have a situation where arguably the major formation of today features a type of player that has been overlooked in recent years.


For some clubs, this is not a problem – players who played elsewhere a couple of years ago have simply been moved to play as a number ten, in some cases now playing in their ”natural’ position ‘in the hole’ in 4-2-3-1s. Wesley Sneijder was often used on the wing at Real Madrid, but when Jose Mourinho took him to Inter, the side was built around him regardless of whether it was 4-3-1-2 or 4-2-3-1.

But elsewhere, we are seeing players who have spent their formative years as wingers being played in the central playmaking role this season. Examples include Ashley Young at Aston Villa, Aaron Hunt at Werder Bremen, Adem Ljajic at Fiorentina, Jesper Gronkjaer at Copenhagen and Mathieu Valbuena at Marseille.

The result is that these players interpret the playmaker position differently. Rather than staying central and trying to find space in between the lines, they drift to the flanks and pick the ball up there. This was how Ozil thrived last season at Werder Bremen. Raphael Honigstein described him as “a one-man source of creativity and surprise. Operating behind the strikers, he’s both a playmaker and an auxiliary winger; his intelligent runs provide the width that should be missing in Thomas Schaaf’s diamond formation.”


With the use of Chalkboards, we find that there is more to this idea than mere theory. Gerard Houllier has stated his belief that Young can become a top class playmaker for Aston Villa, playing just behind a main striker. But take his passing Chalkboard from a game earlier this season, against Wolves, where he constantly drifts to the flank. For comparison purposes, it is placed side-by-side with Steven Gerrard (someone who has played the central attacking midfield role for years), in a rare occasion he has been used just off Fernando Torres this season:

by Guardian Chalkboards

It’s clear to see that Young is not used to playing in the centre (although he has stated he believes it is his best position). If you form an imaginary triangle from the two corners of the opposition penalty area and the centre spot – therefore forming an area that could broadly be considered space where a trequartista would function in – the majority of Gerrard’s passes are played within this zone, almost none of Young’s are.

A more interesting graphic can be provided using Hunt’s Champions League match against Twente. From his average position graphic, you would expect that he plays the role of a classic central playmaker (he is number 14):

And yet, if we take a graphic from the TotalFootball iPhone app (which provides chalkboards for the Champions League) we find that he he picks up the ball in wide positions. Here, we can select ‘passes received’ rather than ‘passes played’:

There’s a clear pattern – he usually gains possession in wide zones. It should also be made clear that Hunt was simply drifting from flank to flank at will throughout the game, rather than simply switching wings with the opposite winger (which might create the same pattern), which can be demonstrated by narrowing the chalkboard down to specific time segments.

Another man who has played this role (on occasion) this season is Mathieu Valbuena of Marseille, probably considered more of a right-winger than a central attacking midfielder. His chalkboard of passes played in the game against Spartak shows a similar pattern.

Ljajic’s positioning in the game against Sampdoria also fell into this category. The pictures below shows that, when defending, his job is to remain in the centre of the pitch and occupy one of Sampdoria’s holding midfielders (first picture). When Fiorentina are on the attack, however, he moves to the flanks to escape the attentions of his marker, and links up with the wingers on the right (second picture) and on the left (third picture).


This is not a new role. Pavel Nedved was used a central playmaker for Juventus having made his name as a tricky winger, and frequently drifted around the pitch looking for the ball. There many other examples.

However, the aforementioned circumstances dictate that we are seeing more players of this ilk, which can be linked into a general point about attacking players being more versatile these days, and the increased emphasis of movement.

The role has emerged more by chance than by design and therefore it’s difficult to draw too many conclusions about the intention of coaches using such players. Then again, the same could be said of Francesco Totti pioneering the ‘false nine’ at Roma, and that role has dominated tactical debate for the last couple of years.

In short, it’s hardly a revolution, but it’s something to watch out for.

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