Dearth of schemers

England has no true playmaker in midfield. In fact despite the colossal amount of money now paid to players in what I still call ‘The Greed Is Good League’ there is, astoundingly, just one real playmaker of English nationality in the whole grotesquely overpaid EPL. By Brian Glanville.

Knocked out if only on penalties from the European Championship by Italy, England were criticised for giving the ball away. It wasn’t surprising. By sharp contrast with the Italians who boasted the elegant skills and subtle distribution of Andrea Pirlo (33), England had no true playmaker in midfield. In fact despite the colossal amount of money now paid to players in what I still call ‘The Greed Is Good League’, there is, astoundingly, just one real playmaker of English nationality in the whole grotesquely overpaid EPL. (The latest television deal by the Premiership, which now involves the wealthy British Telecom organisation, means that there will be still more money to pay the players, with 70% of a club’s takings destined for their pockets.)

That player is the precocious 19-year-old from Arsenal, Jack Wilshere. But Wilshere, alas hasn’t been able, thanks to persisting injury, to kick a ball for club or country all season. In the event, England’s two central midfielders in a 4-4-2 formation, Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker, were both what used to be called in the old days wing halves rather than inside forwards.

The distinction is important though for years it has been obscured and camouflaged under the term midfielder. Note that when the Brazilians introduced the world game and the 1958 World Cup to 4-2-4, they clearly differentiated between the two men in the middle, Bidi the ‘schemer’, Zito the attacking wing half.

England in the recent EUROs had two very different players but neither was essentially creative. Even if the hard running Gerrard, as he showed so splendidly against Ukraine with a run and pass from the right flank which any winger might have envied, making that headed goal for Wayne Rooney, attacked more often and effectively than Parker.

But neither had the inside forward’s gifts of Andrea Pirlo who, permitted far too much room and time by the English tactics, often created havoc in the England defence with his shrewd passing. He was beyond doubt the main difference between the two sides, having enjoyed a fine Campionato winning season with Juventus, to whom Milan, with whom he had spent a productive decade, inexplicably allowed him to move, last summer. In the shoot out, he casually stroked home a penalty for good measure though his scoring record over many years at Brescia, Inter, Reggiana (for just one season) Milan and Juve is actually very sparse. Never did he get into double figures but then, what did it matter when he could make so many goals for others?

The name for a playmaker in Italy is regista, a director, exactly the same as for a director of films or theatre. But so, a year ago, there was a fashion among Italian coaches and managers to insist that no such special category should exist. That any player could interpret the role, any player could and should be able to pass just as well as a regista could. It reminded me of the old British Army saying that every Tommy, or private soldier, had a Field Marshal’s baton in his knapsack. That he could in fact, rise all the way up the ranks to reach the very highest level in the Army.

It wasn’t true of course. I know of only one instance of its happening when, in the World War I, the Cockney private Robertson, with whose grandson, himself the son of a general, I happened to be at school, rose all the way to Field Marshal.

But of course the Italian theory was pure nonsense. It couldn’t and didn’t last. In due course Fiorentina produced a classical regista in the blond Giancarlo Antognoni, who played a large part in Italy’s success in the 1982 World Cup even if he missed the final through injury when I found him sitting behind me in the press box.

So the tradition previously exemplified by the precocious Gianni Rivera, with Milan and Italy, a star at 16 when he joined Milan, continued. Though, ironically, Rivera himself had missed the 1970 World Cup final.

Previously Italy, boasting both Rivera and the talented Sandrino Mazzola, had managed to square the circle with the so called relay, using Mazzola in the first half, Rivera in the second. But in the final, against Brazil, Mazzola, despite Italy’s failings, played so well that Rivera never got on.

England’s present plight is the more remarkable for the fact that till quite recently, accomplished playmakers were still being produced. Trevor David Brooking, Glenn Hoddle, Paul Gascoigne could all in the Italian phrase, “invent the game” with their imaginative passing.

Could the present dearth have something to do with the years in which the outdated long ball game was reinvented by the misguided Football Association Director of Coaching, Charles Hughes?