Talking Tactics: Attacking midfielder by any other name

Once upon a time, playmaking chores were almost always the domain of a central, attacking midfielder, a technician who prowled behind the strikers, looking to unlock defenses through visionary passing and clever dribbling.

The arrangement was fairly standard when four-man midfields were de rigueur. Teams had two wide midfielders, one holding midfielder and one who needed to be a creative type—an artist, even.

Think Carlos Valderrama. The stylish Colombian was a playmaker’s playmaker, a passing and possession ace who could rip open a match with one, single incisive pass. He was a creator in a classic sense.

These days, fans often examine their clubs and dissect deficiencies, and frequently lament the lack of a “creator,” a man once referred to as the classic “No. 10.”

Truth is, there just aren’t very many of them out there. Whether these players remain available or whether coaches today are simply reluctant to select them, that’s up for debate. (José Francisco Torres and his forgotten place in the US national team pool would be a great starting point for such a debate.) For now, let’s just say that the modern game has demanded players who possess a more complete skill set. The upshot is that playmaking chores now come from areas of the field other than the top of the midfield.

First, there is the deep-lying playmaker. We’ve talked about this before, and I argued that the best central, deep-lying creator ever to wear an MLS kit probably is playing right now: David Beckham.

Second, there is the team effort, which doesn’t use a single playmaker at all but instead relies on creativity to come from the movement of the full squad. This was Colorado in 2010. They won an MLS title through efficient target play, well-rehearsed patterns in the attack, heady wing attacks and practical runs into the penalty area from one of the two-way midfielders. It’s not complicated—or particularly beautiful—but it was clearly effective.

Lastly, there’s the playmaker scenario that falls under the category of “making best use of what you’ve got.”

This is Philadelphia’s way. Peter Nowak’s side does not have a traditional No. 10, so it generates creativity from wide areas, particularly, on the left, where Justin Mapp sets up in the Union’s unbalanced-by-design, four-man midfield.  

On Saturday against Chicago, Brian Carroll and Amobi Okugo set up centrally, with Carroll slightly deeper. (Kyle Nakazawa came in almost immediately for the injured Okugo.) Michael Farfan was on the right, and Mapp was on the left.

Mapp sets up higher than his midfield teammates. He has defensive responsibilities, but nothing like Farfan, who is expected to track all the way back when the ball is on his side, and then tuck well inside when the ball finds Mapp’s side. The central mids then slant themselves toward Mapp’s side on defense. All of this is done to provide Mapp with the space and positioning to join into the attack as quickly as possible. He is also the primary outlet when the Union win the ball and are looking to transition forward.

On the attack, then, Mapp slants well inside, eschewing the winger’s traditional role. This opens the wide areas for left back Jordan Harvey, a real workhorse, to launch himself up the left side to provide width and probe for crossing opportunities. It is a demanding task for any outside back, but Harvey reliably provided the push up that side (until he ran out of gas in the 60th minute). Mapp was able to maneuver inside and act, more or less, as a central playmaker, even if his starting position was almost always on the left side.

All this happening on the left was in stark contrast to the goings-on across the field. Farfan was assigned a more traditional wing midfielder’s role, getting “chalk on his boots,” as they say. That means he was more devoted to remaining wide and stretching the defense horizontally. And right back Sheanon Williams wasn’t one bit interested in pushing up the right side. There really wasn’t a need, with Farfan playing so wide.

Besides all that, Farfan and Williams had a bigger responsibility: stopping Chicago’s Marco Pappa (who usually plays similarly to Mapp, by the way, starting wide by given freedom to navigate inside).

Many debate the potency of lining up the creator on the flank. After all, Philadelphia’s 2-1 win over the Fire represented the first time Nowak’s team has struck more than once in any 2011 match.

Then again, the Union simply do not have a Valderrama. Few teams do.