The dying art of Premier League playmaking

Back with vengeance: yesterday, Cesc proved that he still has what it takes to shine.

He was effectively fighting against no less than six defenders in front of him. The opposition, desperate to get something out of the game against league leaders, has adapted even more defensive tactics than usual. With nine men behind the ball at all times, they were fighting for a precious one point that would help them stave off the relegation threat; at the same time, he was fighting for the full prize that would extend the gap at the top to full six points. After two misses and one saved attempt from his teammates, his time has come. With five minutes until the break, he finally lost the marking in front of hosts’ penalty area, picked up a layoff from Willian and buried it in the bottom corner of Pickford’s net. It was a winning goal and he, Cesc Fàbregas, has just saved the honour and dignity of Premier League playmakers.

Just few weeks ago, it seemed unlikely that it will be him to do it. Fàbregas spent full 90 minutes of the opening game against West Ham on the bench; next week, at Watford, he’s only been given twelve minutes to prove himself. And even though it was him who provided the assist for Diego Costa’s match-winner, he immediately dropped back to the dugouts. September saw him picking up just 75 minutes of Premier League playtime. At the same time, he might’ve scored a League Cup brace against Leicester: but being demoted to appearances in a second-rate competition only underlined his declining stature amongst Chelsea players. After a 0-3 humiliation at Emirates, we haven’t heard from Cesc for over two months; rumours only claimed that he’ll be off to AS Roma soon. And then, suddenly, he resurfaced.

The tables have turned unexpectedly in Manchester, during the key encounter with Pep Guardiola’s team. Against his former manager who neglected him at Barcelona, Cesc played one of the most hard-fought games of his career. For an hour, he’s been struggling to fill into Nemanja Matić’s shoes, losing the midfield battle against the likes of İlkay Gündoğan and Fernandinho. Unlike his injured Serbian teammate, Fàbregas was never built for soaking up the opposition’s pressure and chasing the ball – the last time he had to cope with similar task, Chelsea got outplayed by Arsenal and he disappeared from the teamsheet for months. This time though, with his team on the ropes, he’s managed to send through Diego Costa with an incisive, 30-yard pass – and the ex-Brazilian striker has equalised the score. The rest, as they say, is history.

“People forget that it’s the second time in my life, in my whole career, that I play this system; my other teammates have played much more than me.” – those were his words after the Sunderland victory. “The only down, I could say, is that we need to kill games better when we have the chance.” – he added. Bingo. While saying all that, he has accidentally revealed why he’s been only a background actor in a relentlessly perfect Blue drama. One: as a deep-lying playmaker, he needed much more time to adapt to a new system than more defensively minded Matić and Kanté. Two: with 3-4-3 and an extra man upfront, Antonio Conte needed more protection for his defenders. With Matić in midfield, Kanté’s ability to roam and bully the opposition across the pitch could be unleashed again. With Fàbregas – not so.

Just as he’s bringing back the shades of his 2014/15 glory, the state of Premier League playmaking is hitting the new low. Two years ago, we’ve all been astonished by the immediate impact he’s been providing for José Mourinho’s high-flying side. A year ago, during the times of Chelsea’s most dreadful crisis in 21st century, the dominating creative powers have shifted towards Mesut Özil. Between September and December, the German has provided an incredible tally of 15 assists – on average, one per each Premier League game he has appeared in during that period. While this was going on, we’ve seen smaller, but still relevant explosions of form from players like Christian Eriksen, Dimitri Payet, Dušan Tadić and David Silva. Yes, not all of them were textbook Number Tens – but, for all intents and purposes, they were all superb creators.

This has not been Özil’s season so far.

It’s now December 2016. Mesut Özil has assisted only two goals and created just 37 chances in 15 Premier League appearances this season. If anything – people are now assisting him, as he’s bagged five goals already – only one less than he managed in 35 games last season. However, his shift towards the second-striker role saw him missing a fair share of his shots; the one he horribly dragged over the bar against Everton was his 25th try this season. To claim that he’s playing poorly would be a stretch; but it’s definitely not the standard he’s accustomed us to twelve months ago. It is good for Gunners that, while this little slump continues, Alexis Sánchez and Theo Walcott are both hitting; still, one might only wonder where Arsenal would end up if they could somehow get all those three players to hit their top shape simultaneously.

Few people remember that once Özil stopped performing on an insane level, it was Christian Eriksen who started to give him the run for his money. The Dutchman, en route to Tottenham’s best-ever Premier League finish, has used his team’s momentum well and produced four goals along with eight assists between January and April. Unfortunately for him, Spurs were unable to keep up with Leicester’s sensational form – and that bitter disappointment of a wasted chance has somehow carried itself over into the new season. This autumn, Eriksen needed thirteen games and thirty nine (!) shots to finally unlock his goalscoring account against Chelsea. To make things worse – prior to that, he’s only assisted three goals and his team is now nowhere near the title challenge they’ve mounted during the last campaign.

Last season’s revelation, Dimitri Payet, has suffered even bigger disappointment. This spring, his dribbling skills and untamed energy has led West Ham to their highest-ever Premier League point tally – but the success was not there to stay. The problems started during the summer, when his brilliant performances weren’t enough to yield France the gold of EURO 2016. Immediately after that – and a forgettable opening day cameo against Chelsea – he’s been given an extended leave to shake off the tiredness and minor injury he’s been struggling with. Once he was back in the fray, Hammers were already in a grotesque crisis. The Frenchan took part in two, humiliating league defeats to Watford and West Bromwich as well as a home meltdown to Southampton. Two goals and five assists in fourteen games – that’s his current EPL loot. Not good enough.

In that 0-3 disaster to Saints, it was the other playmaker, Dušan Tadić, who scored the second goal. However – that was his only impactful contribution to Southampton’s season so far and he even recently dropped to the bench, replaced by SFC’s record signing, Sofiane Boufal. If this was any other player in Claude Puel’s team – all would’ve been understandable. But Tadić had 12 assists and a bunch of tremendous performances last year – helping his team to beat Arsenal and Manchester City, among the others. One of the victims of the Serb was David Silva – a long lasting creative engine for the Citizens. Even despite his injury woes (14 games missed), he’s managed to score 11 assists for Manuel Pellegrini’s team. Once Pep Guardiola took over: only one goal and two assists in fourteen appearances.

Who is going to replace them all as main Premier League creators? At the moment, it seems that the wingers will. Wilfried Zaha from Crystal Palace; Sadio Mané from Liverpool; Eden Hazard from Chelsea; Matt Phillips from West Bromwich – all those players have been outstanding in the new campaign, and all are enjoying their role by the bylines. In the absence of typical playmakers, the torch is also being carried by central midfielders of slightly different profile: Adam Lallana (former winger with lots of defensive duties, re-deployed as a member of midfield three in Liverpool); Nemanja Matić (once, an anchoring DM; now, a player with more attacking freedom) and, of course, Kevin De Bruyne (whose dribbling and finishing qualities destined to play almost in a second-striker role).

Is that a bad thing? From the viewers’ perspective: no. As the role of classical playmaker diminishes, so does the domination of a static, possession-based football that’s been on the rise just five years ago. That promises many more sharp, open, attacking games with plenty of goalscoring chances for both sides: great, entertaining games like Man City against Chelsea. Also: teams that limit themselves exclusively to parking the bus are less likely to enjoy success against swift and incisive sides – Liverpool’s recent wins over West Bromwich and Middlesbrough are the prime examples. In a long run, this could mean that Burnley, Hull or Sunderland could be forced to broaden their footballing style the way Stoke and Crystal Palace have already did.

No more dull 0-0 draws, then?


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