How the 2000s changed tactics #1: The fall and rise of the passing midfielder

April 24, 2012

This article was originally written two years ago, but in the wake of Pep Guardiola’s departure from Barcelona, it seems appropriate to re-publish.

Gabriele Macotti's original article

In 2004, Gabriele Marcotti wrote an article for The Times about Barcelona legend Pep Guardiola. It wasn’t a celebratory piece looking back at Guardiola’s fine career, nor remarking on his ability to defy the critics and keep playing at a high standard, like Paolo Maldini. It was about how, in 2004-spec football, Guardiola was useless.

That is not to say that he no longer had talent. A physically unremarkable player, his domain was sitting front of his own defence and spraying passes across the pitch for his more illustrious teammates – Michael Laudrup, Hristo Stoichkov and Romario being amongst the biggest names to have benefited from his presence. When Marcotti wrote the article, at 33, Guardiola should have been at his peak.

But the reality was that nobody wanted him. In the early 2000s, Europe was tactically obsessed with two types of players in the centre – tough-tackling defensive midfielders, and classic Number 10 creators. Most big sides followed this destroyer-creator model, like Davids-Zidane at Juventus. And therefore, for the deep-lying playmaker like Guardiola, there was nowhere to go.

To quote Marcotti from that original article:

“His midfield skills have become obselete…the modern game has closed the door on players like Guardiola…despite being in the best shape of his career, there is no place for him…that the thoughtful, intricate passing patterns of players like Guardiola are lost to younger fans is somewhat depressing.”

And quotes from Guardiola himself:

“I haven’t changed…my skills haven’t declined. It’s just that football now is different. It’s played at a higher pace and it’s a lot more physical. The tactics are different now, you have to be a ball-winner, a tackler, like Patrick Vieira or Edgar Davids. If you can pass too, well, that’s a bonus. But the emphasis, as far as central midfielders are concerned, is all on defensive work…players like me have become extinct.”

Guardiola whilst Barcelona captain

That was in 2004. And now – in 2010, the current European Champions at club level are led by one Pep Guardiola, who has instilled his very playing style into Barcelona. This season he has regularly played with three Guardiola-esque players in the centre of his midfield – Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets. Xavi and Iniesta also combined to make Spain the European Champions at international level. Just six years after Guardiola’s mentality was considered dead, it is now the way to play football.

It is remarkable that so much can change in such a short space of time. The biggest factor in the re-emergence of Guardiola-esque players was probably the shift away from 4-4-2 systems in the mid 2000s, towards 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 systems, both of which broadly feature three central midfielders. This meant that there was an extra midfield place available, and the destroyer-creator model was altered to include a ‘passer’ inbetween. Hence Liverpool’s brilliant near-title winning trio of Mascherano (destroyer) Alonso (passer) Gerrard (creator), for example.

But perhaps there has been a further shift – the mid 2000s obsession with deploying a player in the ‘Makelele role’ largely led to the decline of the creator as a traditional number 10 (as he was marked out of the game) – and that in turn caused the lessening importance of the Makelele role itself (since he then had no-one to mark). Therefore, the ‘creator’ now plays a deeper, more methodical passing game – hence Cesc Fabregas or Andres Iniesta playing as players at the head of a midfield three – whilst the ‘holding’ midfielder has also moved away from being a tackler, to becoming a passer himself – with Busquets and Michael Carrick amongst the beneficiaries. And suddenly, the midfield battle is not about being ‘physical’ or ‘ball-winning’ – it is all about passing, as epitomised by the current Barcelona sides.

Guardiola instructs his successor, Xavi Hernandez

Of course, we should not fall into the trap of thinking that this type of player is a purely a Barcelona creation. There are other ball-playing midfielders across Europe who have been successful; Andrea Pirlo is the obvious example, but even in Marcotti’s article, Guardiola acknowledged that Pirlo’s role was possible at Milan as they played ‘a different brand of football‘. David Pizarro at Roma is another – but again, Roma have played a highly unconventional system in recent years. Pizarro struggled at Inter when in a standard 4-4-2; maybe we can deduce that the ball-playing midfielder only found favour in unusual formations for much of the decade.

Nor should one infer that Guardiola created Xavi and Iniesta – they were already established at the club. But it is widely acknowledged that they were hugely inspired by Guardiola as youngsters, and they were not always fixtures in the Barcelona side under Frank Rijkaard – in their previous Champions League triumph in 2006, both started the final on the bench as Barcelona fielded two holding midfielders.

So despite what everybody expected at the turn of the century, power has not defeated trickery – in fact, the opposite has occurred - technical quality is more important than ever. Re-read those quotes from Guardiola again, and the description seems like a different world. And so whilst redundant as a player six years ago, Guardiola’s philosophy is now the toast of Europe as a manager.

When Guardiola took over as Barcelona manager, he was just 37 years of age. As mentioned earlier, his physical attributes were never his selling point (whilst his consummate professionalism means he would have kept himself in good shape), and his passing ability would have remained. Therefore, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that the 37-year-old Guardiola probably still could have done a decent job many La Liga or Serie A midfields. His career may have been curtailed prematurely, but how wonderful that this allowed him to entrench his philosophy upon modern football so soon.

And therefore the most fascinating aspect of football tactics in the 2000s was the fall – and rise – of Guardiolaism.

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