As featured on Guardian Sport
A FEW WEEKS AGO, THERE WAS A SUDDEN FRISSON OF ENTHUSIASM surrounding Michael Carrick. Having played for Manchester United for nearly a decade and having been capped by England intermittently since 2001, the quiet, unassuming Geordie was subject to a level of interest that belied his having played for years under the radar. The reason for such focus was partly to down to his form, but also had a lot to do with his position.
At 33, Carrick recently signed a one-year contract extension with his club before starting for England in their friendly away to Italy in Turin. It’s perhaps tragic that it has taken so long, but he finally has managers at both club and international level that appreciate his talents. Louis van Gaal has made Carrick an integral part of his new system, pulling the strings behind the hard-working Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini. Roy Hodgson’s decision to give Carrick a starting berth may have been pre-meditated by Jack Wilshere’s injury, but clearly there was recognition that, as far as the base of England’s midfield goes, Carrick is a genuine contender.
Although in vogue now, Carrick’s career has been one filled with fluctuation. His deep-lying playmaker position has at times seemed tenuous. Not blessed with pace and not a particularly imposing figure to play in front of defence, he didn’t fit the typical English mould of the dynamic box-to-box central midfielder that so many of his contemporaries were, nor was he a ball-winner extraordinaire. His talents have often been ignored, even maligned, but now, well into his thirties, England’s only natural regista is receiving the requisite plaudits.
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AS FAR AS FOOTBALL POSITIONS ARE CONCERNED, the regista is viewed as a relatively contemporary phenomenon. Generally speaking, throughout history the defensive midfield area has been preserved for players who perform defensive duties, with creativity encouraged further up the pitch.
However, the first signs of a player with regista-like responsibilities emanated from Vittorio Pozzo’s Metodo in the early 20th century. Pozzo coached the Italian national team in various spells of vastly divergent significance, but it was his time in charge in the 1930s that saw him tweak a formation and define an era.
Having spent time in England, studying and working, Pozzo grew to admire the way in which Manchester United centre-half Charlie Roberts played. Roberts was a skilled player capable of starting attacks, which was something Pozzo desired of his centre-half more than most by the time he was managing. At this point, centre-halves were only just being accommodated as part of a three-man defensive line, having initially been seen as the centre of a three-man midfield in a 2-3-5 formation. Pozzo adapted the 2-3-5 in his own way, refusing to incorporate a third back. He instead wanted his centre-half to be able to distribute the ball; he wanted a director, or in Italian, a regista.
Luis Monti had played for Argentina in the 1930 World Cup, aiding them in their passage to the final where they were defeated by Uruguay, but by 1931 he was plying his trade in Italy, having joined Juventus from San Lorenzo. With Italian heritage he was soon called up by Pozzo to be his regista, his centre-half in the 2-3-2-3 Metodo system. Monti was in his thirties, overweight and lacked pace, but he was just what Pozzo wanted, dropping deep when out of possession before assuming the mantle of creator when Italy won the ball. With a 33-year-old Monti at the heart of his team, Pozzo’s Italy would win the 1934 World Cup.
The continued development of football tactics eventually gave rise to a back four, while the area in front of the defence was generally designated to a defensive midfielder who, while occupying the same space as the regista, came with a completely different style and set of responsibilities. While registas float, defensive midfielders sit. Where registas orchestrate, defensive midfielders allocate. The former is a creator; the latter a destroyer. There grew an acceptance that the two roles could co-operate at the base of midfield, but if there was to be only one player in front of the defence it was preferably a ball-winner with an eye for the efficient but not necessarily the extraordinary.
The use of the destroyer became useful in offering a layer of protection in front of the defence and behind more attack-minded midfielders. Claude Makélélé is the most prominent recent example of this; his departure from Real Madrid upset the balance of the team, while his joining Chelsea bolstered the nouveau riche London club’s spine during José Mourinho’s first tenure.
Of late there has been a resurgence of creators at the base of midfield, however. Furthermore, many of these creators shine brightest in advanced age, just as Monti did.
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LAST SUMMER, AS TONI KROOS BADE FAREWELL TO BAYERN MUNICH and set off for Real Madrid the German champions had already made moves regarding his replacement. Pep Guardiola had precisely identified the player he needed and signing him was merely a case of following Kroos to Madrid and bringing back someone else. That someone was Xabi Alonso.
At 32, Alonso began a new chapter in a remarkable career, leaving Madrid behind in favour of learning under Guardiola’s tutelage. It must be said that, at the time Alonso joined, Bayern were without Thiago Alcantara and Bastian Schweinsteiger through injury. This, along with Kroos’ departure, suggested Alonso was a mere stopgap; a quality stand-in to be used when appropriate. Within months Alonso had turned 33, but other numbers were more revealing. He had broken a Bundesliga record with 204 touches in a 2-0 win over Köln and his passing statistics were, and have continued to be, incredible.
When Alonso had arrived Guardiola described him as “the perfect solution” and handed him a regular spot in his system. Intent on innovating, Guardiola’s tactics with Bayern have seen him in some ways imitate Pozzo’s Metodo, and Alonso has been his Monti.
Alonso, so used to playing in a double pivot, has a slightly altered role with Bayern. Nowadays he has greater freedom, dropping significantly deeper, sometimes even between and behind the centre-backs, to receive the ball and begin attacking moves. A pure regista if ever there was one, Alonso is currently enjoying what some might describe as an Indian Summer in his newfound home, but age is no barrier.
“The older you get, you try to run less and think more,” Alonso stated earlier this season. “With more age, you need to have more composure, you need to read the game better and understand it better.”
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IF THERE IS A PLAYER IN THE WORLD WHO KNOWS ABOUT COMBATING AGE and its possible adverse effects, it is Andrea Pirlo. The nonchalant Italian began his career as a playmaker of another sort and, having signed for Inter Milan following a breakthrough at Brescia, he was utilised behind the strikers. He struggled in this space and was eventually sent back to Brescia on loan in 2001, where Carlo Mazzone began to play him in a more withdrawn role.
It was there that Pirlo thrived, showing signs of the footballer he would go on to be. Perhaps most tellingly, it was he that laid on the pass for Roberto Baggio’s wonder strike against Juventus that year. With time on the ball in midfield, Pirlo lofted a perfectly crafted long-range pass over the top of the Juve defence for Baggio to run on to. Baggio’s control and finish was sublime; some of the last great touches of a fading genius. It was a young Pirlo’s intuition and incision that set it up.
From there Pirlo swapped Nerazurri for Rossoneri, changing teams but remaining in the same city, at the same stadium, as he crossed the Milan divide to join Carlo Ancelotti’s AC. Intriguingly, Brescia would temporarily replace Pirlo with Guardiola, a legendary regista whose playing time with Barcelona had come to an end. Ancelotti not only continued to play Pirlo in his favoured deep-lying position, but built his midfield around him. With the snarling Gennaro Gattuso and the steely Massimo Ambrosini in front of him, Pirlo was given creative license to dictate.
Ancelotti’s departure in 2009 eventually culminated with Massimiliano Allegri taking the reigns; a change that signalled the end of Pirlo’s time in Milan. Allegri brought in Mark van Bommel and rotated the Dutch hatchet man with Ambrosini in front of the defence, favouring their solidity over Pirlo’s technique. Pirlo subsequently left on a free transfer for Juventus but, at 32 and with his game time having diminished in his final season at San Siro, few felt the move to be substantially harmful to Milan’s fortunes.
Nearly four seasons on and Juventus have won every scudetto since Pirlo joined and are well on course for another. When Allegri was appointed Antonio Conte’s successor as Juventus coach at the beginning of this season he had no choice but to show respect for Pirlo, something he did by continuing to afford him space in the Juventus team as the regista in a 4-1-3-2 formation.
What Pirlo has done within the last two decades has transmogrified the way Italian football treats deep-lying playmakers. Previously, perhaps fuelled by famed journalist Gianni Brera’s beliefs that Italians were naturally a physically weak race and should thus focus on defending, Italian coaches have found fitting grace into their systems a struggle and, as such, have found limited value in playmakers. Traditionally the idea that the playmaker could sit in front of the defence, ala Pirlo, was thought of as inherently risky, for his type were considered foppish when what was needed in this area was brute strength and unflinching tenacity.
One example of this perspective in action came when Fabio Capello took over at Real Madrid and considered Fernando Redondo to be too elegant a player to play in front of the defence. Capello had always preferred a strongman in the position; he used Marcel Desailly at the base of midfield while at AC Milan, and felt Redondo’s skill set was better suited to a role further up the pitch.
Capello left Madrid a convert with a much better understanding of Redondo as a player and his usefulness as a deep-lying playmaker. This perception seems to have permanently changed in modern Italian football, for there is now plenty of room for the likes of David Pizarro and Mirko Valdifiori. Enforcement remains a valued commodity when it comes to sitting in front of Serie A defences, but those who prefer having the ball to chasing it have found opportunity too, and Pirlo continues to lead the way in that struggle at the age of 35.
And so to Carrick. When Sir Alex Ferguson signed him from Tottenham Hotspur for £18.6 million he became Manchester United’s sixth most expensive signing of all time. He was also given the number 16 jersey previously adorned by Irish hard man and box-to-box dominator Roy Keane. Some saw the jersey as Carrick being announced as Keane’s direct replacement, but the notion couldn’t have been further from the truth. Yes, Keane left a hole in the club’s midfield, but Ferguson didn’t intend to fill that hole; rather he was preparing for a complete change in shape.
Understanding the need for layers in midfield as opposed to a flat four, Ferguson brought in Carrick to operate as a ball-playing central midfielder. The signing heralded a definitive step away from 4-4-2 for Manchester United as they adapted to the changing environment around them. Over the coming years they would win the Champions League using a mixture of 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 systems with Carrick very much involved.
Carrick has never quite made it to the elite level the likes of Pirlo and Alonso have, primarily because he lacks their metronomic consistency and passing range. Nonetheless, he was ignored for far too long as English football, historically difficult to proselytise when it comes to new ideas, failed to appreciate what he brought to the table. While squabbling over who out of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard should play in the 4-4-2, England completely missed the opportunity to play Carrick behind one or both of them, scrap the 4-4-2 altogether and achieve balance in midfield. Only since Hodgson’s time in charge has the English national team began to fully see the benefits of a diamond midfield with someone such as Carrick at its base.
As he approaches 34, Carrick has the opportunity to be the fulcrum of both his club side and national team in the coming years. People are beginning to wonder how viable this is, asking how long he could play on given his age but, as evidenced by the world’s best, age is no problem for the regista.
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GIVEN THE PROLIFERATION OF AGEING REGISTAS it seems fair to suggest that advanced age correlates with the role itself. One reason for this is that, in a game becoming evermore dynamic with its focus on pressing, counter-pressing, high tempo and quick transitions, some older midfielders are unable to keep up and must therefore adapt to playing in a deeper area of the pitch. In this way their lack of pace and athleticism can be covered by the midfielders and defenders surrounding them. The hard yards are no longer their problem and they can instead use the increased intelligence and awareness that comes with experience to control a game.
The regista rages against the dying of the light, fighting to prove that there remains a place for pause, poise and unhurried, rhythmic passing in the modern game. In this fight they are given solace by some coaches who see the benefits in having them. Guardiola knows these benefits more than most because he was once one of them. Now more than ever, with the advanced playmaker becoming crowded out by double pivots and defensive midfielders, there is a strong case to be made for their retreat.
For some the case is not strong enough, however. Steven Gerrard is an example of a player who was moved back out of necessity but failed to totally adapt to the new role. This is an indication that the regista isn’t some utopian fantasy concocted by the believers to add aesthetic beauty in a sport increasingly conquered by the tall and forceful, but is in fact a role with its own genuine subset of specific skills. It isn’t a mere excuse to include ageing greats; if they lack the required attributes, they will fail in the role. Consequently, although the best registas in the world are, generally speaking, in their 30s, advanced age is not a prerequisite but a coincidence.
What is more likely is that the regista role allows for those that undertake it to play on beyond most others due to the aforementioned specific traits required to perform the role successfully. Progressive teams are now attacking from the back and defending from the front, hence it makes sense that playmaking duties are becoming inverted. Louis van Gaal mentioned this idea in the 1990s during his time as Ajax manager, stating: “In modern football the players in the middle of the back four… have really become playmakers.” That this acknowledgement comes from the man who has made Carrick a vital part of his defensive base is no trivial matter.
We remain in what Arrigo Sacchi saw to be an era of specialism in the sense that the regista must still be helped out by those around them. Sure, playmakers are sitting deeper now, but they must still be balanced out by more destructive players. The only difference is that while advanced playmakers required a destroyer in behind them, registas require those players in front of them. We have not yet reached an epoch in which every defensive player is technically assured. Nonetheless, while historically the attitude towards defending and attacking has been ‘clear it’ and ‘score goals’ respectively, that attitude is modifying. Now, at least at elite level, the lines are far more blurred, with attackers expected to do their fair share of defensive work and defenders needing greater sophistication.
Naturally in such circumstances, the regista becomes more important. Their calmness on the ball and ability to play out of tight situations is more of a necessity when attackers are more willing to pressurise and harangue and more organised in doing so. The evolution of the game therefore calls for specialists in the regista role, not simply the adaptation of other midfielders to it. While the role is still seen as a retirement home for ageing icons, the trend seems to indicate that; in future, players like Michael Carrick won’t have to wait until they are in their 30s to enjoy the adulation their unique talents deserve.
By Blair Newman. Follow @TheBlairNewman