The importance of closing down the deep-lying playmaker

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Italy’s gentle control of England yesterday came from two key factors. The first was the narrowness with which Young and Milner played, being sucked into Italy’s diamond which freed up space for the Italian full backs. The second is that deep-lying playmaker Andrea Pirlo was never pressed or closed down anything like as much as he should have been.

Rooney’s reintroduction to the England squad would be beneficial for numerous reasons. However it was hindering for a few as well. Firstly, the 4-4-1-1 that Hodgson employed with Young behind Wellbeck saw Young working hard behind the ball to ensure players were closed down in possession deep in the middle of the pitch, whilst Welbeck naturally worked hard to press defenders and close players down higher up. However Rooney’s introduction in the place of Young, who shifted to the left, meant a change in the way England defended. As the star player of this side, Rooney appeared unwilling to exert too much effort when he didn’t have the ball. A huge departure from the sacrifical player who would work so hard on the left wing when Ronaldo was at Utd, as Rooney failed to offer much cover or press Pirlo at all, giving him time and space to dictate the game. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the introduction of Carroll as a substitute, whilst definitely providing an aerial threat, as he remarkably brough down goal kick after goal kick from Joe Hart, signalled the end of Wellbeck’s good pressing, essentially meaning that the front two of Carroll with Rooney in behind were putting hardly any pressure on the Italians, particularly Pirlo who had as much space as he needed, when Young, who is clearly unnatural defensively would have at least looked to press him better and make life more difficult.

However, this isn’t the first time English football has been ignorant of where attacks are orchestrated, or where the tempo and nature of a move is built. In the 2009 Champions’ League Final, Barcelona’s midfield carousel famously put the Man Utd side, including Ronaldo, Rooney, Tevez, Berbatov, Scholes, Anderson, Giggs Park and Carrick, at different times, to shame. Utd lined up with Giggs as a number ten linking midfield with attack, however this position, similarly to Rooney’s yesterday was strictly an attacking minded strategy and was ignorant of the effects of the deep lying playmaker; Busquets three years ago, and Pirlo last night. Barcelona’s midfield triangle consisted of the now routinely established Busquets-Iniesta-Xavi, with Busquets deep behind the other two. Utd opted for Carrick-Anderson-Giggs, with Giggs further ahead of the other two. However, Giggs failed to track Busquets at all, and thus Busquets would recieve the ball from the defence and have plenty of time to feed the ball into the two more attacking and skilful midfielders ahead of him, or thread it to the full backs. Of course, it is hard to distinguish whether it is Giggs not doing his job or a lack of player instructions from the manager to put him under pressure, but the fact that Busquets was given so much time to build Barca’s play means it was a failing of Ferguson’s regardless.

Which all begs the question as to why this is ignored. Ferguson’s expertise might be in squad rotation, man management and the culture he pervades, but he is certainly not void of tactical knowledge. Perhaps it is simply that English football does recognise the position of deep lying playmaker, as notably the closest thing we have, Michael Carrick, was ommitted entirely from the squad. Perhaps our 4-4-2 culture is more accustomed to two box to box midfielders, or one destroyer and one creator, neither considering a creative player playing deep. Hence we do not see the need to try to prevent that kind of player from operating.

Pirlo’s control of the game could not have been symbolised any better than by his jog to the ball and dinked penalty into the back of the net, which calmed italy and scared England in equal measure. Nor did his celebration of the goal suggest that it was anything other than certainty, a steely assurance that his side would win. This said everything about the way in which Pirlo controlled the game; with time, space and ease. Yet as much as that is down to Pirlo being majestic, the lack of a player making it difficult for him in anyway whatsoever means that we just as much allowed him to do it.

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