Precious playmakers

BLESSED are the playmakers. Or are they? Call them what you wish; schemers, midfield generals, registi or directors, in the Italian word.


BLESSED are the playmakers. Or are they? Call them what you wish; schemers, midfield generals, registi or directors, in the Italian word. They are, or perhaps were, the players who kept things turning from midfield, adept passers of the ball, capable of doing the precious unexpected. Once upon a time no team of any substance could be complete without them. What would the all-conquering pre-War Arsenal team have been without its inside left Alex James, with his marvellous passes? Inside the full back to his left wing partner the precocious, prolific Cliff Bastin. Through the middle to the thundering feet of the battling centre-forward, Jack Lambert or Ted Drake. Sweepingly to the right wing to exploit the electric pace of Joe Hulme.

The only man in the current Arsenal team, who seems remotely capable of donning the role of a playmaker is the veteran Dutch international, Dennis Bergkamp, with his sophisticated skills and his flair for providing the unusual pass. -- Pic. LAURENCE GRIFFITHS/GETTY IMAGES-

"Ball players are important," Yorkshire's George Raynor, successful manager of Sweden, used to say, "Because they create unorthodox situations." And the general, the so-called schemer, was almost invariably a ball player. But a couple of decades ago, or somewhat more, there was something of a sea change in soccer. The word was, especially from Italy, that the so-called regista was on his way out, a luxury. Instead, just as in the old British Army myth, every private soldier was said to have a field marshal's baton in his knapsack, so it was now deemed that the burden of construction had to be shared among outfield players.

It never made much sense to me and it still doesn't; least of all when I see the present Arsenal play. People wonder why they fare so poorly in European soccer while remaining so dominant in England. I would suggest it is because of their lack of surprise. Of the so-called unorthodox situations which only a talented playmaker can create. And the only man in the current Arsenal team who seems remotely capable of doing this is the veteran Dutch international, Dennis Bergkamp, with his sophisticated skills and his flair for providing the unusual pass.

But Bergkamp is in and out of the current Gunners' team in which the manager Arsene Wenger eulogises Ray Parlour, a blond midfield player with bags of energy and spirit but little skill on the ball and a minimum of passing flair. Moreover, when he does play — and of course his refusal to fly bars him from most of the team's European games — Bergkamp tends to be used up front, where there is plainly less space and scope to dictate the play. He has to drop back deeper to do that.

Yet across the decades, Arsenal were famous for their playmakers. After James they paid in 1938, a record �14,500 for Bryn Jones the Wolves and Wales inside-left. Bastin was among those who criticised him but if it hadn't been for the lost six years of the Second World War I think Jones might have proved the true successor to James. After the War, there was the priceless, the essential, Jimmy Logie, a little Scottish inside-right with tremendous ball skills, a one wing player perhaps, by contrast with James, but the man who kept the Arsenal attack constantly on the move.

After Logie came the graceful inside-left Jimmy Bloomfield, the highly talented and creative George Eastham, and the gifted Irishman of the elegant left foot, Liam Brady. But when George Graham, himself a former Arsenal player of finesse, took over as manager at Highbury, the playmaker was on his way out. Graham didn't care for them and the last of the line was Paul Davis, whom Graham often inexplicably kept out of a team, which looked so much better when he was playing.

Alas, the trend has continued; you need only to look at the long list of candidates for the European Footballer of the Year to know as much. Look at it as lengthily as you wish as I have done and you truly find but a single name which can be said to belong to a playmaker; the gloriously talented Zinedine Zidane of Real Madrid and France, who indeed can do anything you want him to do in midfield; or when the spirit takes him, farther up.

Frenchman Zinedine Zidane can do anything you want him to do in midfield or when the spirit takes him, farther up. — Pic. AFP-

Zidane as we know even headed those two goals for France from corners in the 1998 World Cup Final; something he had seldom done before. He is a superbly adroit ball player with the true playmaker's ability to "photograph" the pitch at the moment when he receives the ball. To be fair, there are not many playmaker candidates for the Euro list at the moment. One of them, though an Argentine, would surely be Juan Sebastian Veron, even if his time at Manchester United, and now at Chelsea, has hardly been noted for his consistency; even if he was such a disappointment in the 2002 World Cup. But when on form Veron is every inch a playmaker, making glorious use of the ball whether spreading it wide or giving it short, a masterly ball player.

With the brief but brilliant phase of Total Football in the 1970s, there was reason to think that the playmaker was obsolescent. After all, the whole ethos of Total Football was that anybody could or should do anything. Yet, look at the great Dutch team of that epoch, the one which should surely have beaten West Germany in the World Cup Final of 1974, and who was the best Dutch player on the field? To my mind, the tall, powerfully built, far from fast Wim van Hanegem, the inside left with a superlative left foot who, more than any other member of his team, not excluding John Cryuff, kept the wheels turning. And note that the West Germans, Total Footballers themselves, had the same constructive inside-left that they had had in the 1966 World Cup Final in Wolfgang Overath.

English football has historically had an ambivalent relationship with its playmakers. Even a coach as dedicated to technical competence as Ron Greenwood showed that quality. When he took over as England's manager he promptly dropped Trevor Brooking, his main schemer, who had been his protege when manager of West Ham United. And when the equally creative Glenn Hoddle crowned his debut with a spectacular goal against Bulgaria, Greenwood promptly dropped him with the words, "Disappointment is part of football." And look how long it took for Bobby Robson at last to find a regular England place for Paul Gascoigne, far and away the most brilliant, creative footballer of his English generation!

Joe Cole, forever a substitute at Chelsea, bought from West Ham, is probably the closest England have now as a playmaker, but Sven Goran Eriksson has never placed full faith in him and has even criticised him publicity. Yet, the player, who in the Italian phrase, can "invent the game," is surely still precious.