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The cult of the playmaker – and Tom Cleverley

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With Villa's current drought of possession, what's lacking in the Villa midfield? A look at how the answer is more than just magicking up a playmaker.

Shaun Botterill

The most frequent cry of a football fan when asked what his side needs is the dream of the playmaker - someone to "make things happen". The reason is obvious - that creeping despair that fans see when their side has the ball and seem more clueless than Mark Lawrenson in the 21st century.

The reason I call this a cult, is because it believes in a mythical thing, the player who can instantly make something happen out of nothing. The truth is that attacking play is created by a mixture of factors of which the principal three are the ability of the man with the ball, the movement of his teammates and the movement of his opponents. The most creative player in the world can be given the ball and do nothing if he faces only his static teammates and a screen of opposing players, especially if he himself is heavily pressured when on the ball.

The fall of the attacking playmaker, the traditional Number 10, is chronicled by Michael Cox's fantastic tactical blog Zonal Marking here. He makes the point that actually, when we think about incisive passing it is actually the deep-lying midfielders who come to mind - Pirlo is the example par excellence, Gerrard's reinvention as the base of Liverpool's midfield diamond provides a more prominent Premier League example. Players who are creative but naturally play higher up the pitch no longer play alone where they can be neutralised by a dropping back striker or a clever defensive midfielder, but in tandem with other midfielders, and need to take on other responsibilities.

Even Luka Modric, probably the most sterling example of a creative attacking midfielder in recent years, had to shift his role as Paul Wilson mentions here. And Juan Mata, a former hold-out in the number 10 position in Chelsea's 4-3-1-2, was forced out by Mourinho for perceived laziness in his lack of pressing. It's not a simple as signing a diminutive European midfielder and letting him bewitch the opposition, as much as Cesc Febregas may appear to prove otherwise.

And so we come to Cleverley at Villa. Many fans originally greeted his arrival somewhat pessimistically - as not what we need, not the creative playmaker we lacked. An early bid for the more stereotypically European playmaker mould in Sergio Canales seemed to provide the contrast. But as I noted, that playmaker is a myth. Attacking, incisive football is created by combinations. And Cleverley has been an excellent combination player.

As Robert noted last week, Cleverley so far leads Villa's percentage of passes completed (89%) and is second in our chance creation (6) - admittedly both limited due to our current lack of possession but promising signs for the future. At the same time he is very clearly willing to take on the defensive duties he has been given, and is therefore a thoroughly modern creative midfielder. Him in a trio with Delph and Westwood makes perfect sense even though none of them fill clearly defined roles such as the destroyer-passer-creator combo beloved of Football Manager aficionados.

However in order to take advantage of this potential combination play, Villa need badly to start working on their possession. Cleverley's best spell was under the possession-heavy style of Roberto Martinez, who clearly still rates him in that system in his attempts to take him to Everton. However Villa's current focus on the counter-attack leaves little opportunity to recycle the ball as Villa hurry to get the ball to the front line and the space behind the team that is inevitably pushing up towards the Claret and Blue net.

The problem here is not lack of ball-playing midfielders - Westwood and Cleverley are both atypically tidy with the ball for English midfielders, and while Delph is often more wayward in possession, he is gradually becoming more assured in his combination play and his driving forward should create the space for his midfield compatriots to work in. It is the current bunker-mentality of the team. Hopefully the international break will have dispelled that a little bit, and Villa's own Midlands brand tiki-taka will come to the fore.