After the extended middle fingers of both Hands of God, it was the most scrutinised body part of an Argentinian during the win over Nigeria. Forget the left foot of Lionel Messi, the scorer of hundreds of goals, it was the thigh of Messi, capable of cushioning a ball. A thigh that arguably deserved an assist for his opener against Nigeria.
Actually, the assist went to Ever Banega, supplier of the sort of incisive through ball Messi had lacked in Argentina’s first two games when their midfield was a wasteland, devoid of the sort of creativity that the Sevilla playmaker belatedly supplied. There are plenty of reasons why Argentina booked a place in the last 16 – Messi’s magic, an unexpectedly brilliant finish from Marcos Rojo, a glaring miss from Odion Ighalo – but Banega’s inclusion was one.
Whoever picked Banega – Messi? Javier Mascherano? Jorge Sampaoli? – may have studied the evidence of the rest of the World Cup. It is a tournament that can be divided between the haves and the have nots: those who have a classy passer capable of opening up defences from the centre of midfield, and those who have not.
World Cup
The Hod Complex: England and the 1998 World Cup
08/06/2018 AT 08:08
If it may seem obvious, a requirement for any good side, the reality of international football exacerbates its importance. Jurgen Klopp’s theory that pressing is the best playmaker holds greater sway in club football, where managers have more control over training and fitness levels, where collective cohesion tends to be greater. Some sides have pressed at this World Cup, but not to the extent of its most ferocious exponents in the club game. A bona fide playmaker has been better.

Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain, Ever Banega and Enzo Perez of Argentina pose

Image credit: Getty Images

Klopp’s influence has instead taken a different direction. Towards the end of last season, he started using Philippe Coutinho in a deeper role, a station that became more permanent after Mohamed Salah signed. A year later and, appropriately, at Anfield, Tite moved the world’s second most expensive player into midfield in the second half of a friendly against Croatia. The merits of a withdrawn Coutinho were illustrated in his perceptive pass for Paulinho’s goal against Serbia. Yet in qualifying, Tite’s preference was to field three of Paulinho, Fernandinho, Casemiro and Renato Augusto: not identikit players, but not technical talents like Coutinho. He has added another dimension to the favourites.
It disproved the simplistic assumption that talented players have to be deployed in the final third. Roberto Martinez has been criticised for relocating Kevin de Bruyne into the heart of the midfield. Yet his pass for Eden Hazard’s goal against Panama was comparable with Coutinho’s and Banega’s. It was defence-splitting.
In a World Cup notable for set-piece goals, the sides who can unlock defences in open play have an added element. The individual charts for chances created feature both set-piece specialists – Uruguay’s Carlos Sanchez, England’s Kieran Tripper, Australia’s Aaron Mooy – and the genuine creators (there are also bafflingly high numbers of Germans, giving a statistically flattering sheen to a tournament that brought them as many goals as Mile Jedinak, but that is a separate issue). Some of the inventive players, such as Messi and Neymar, are used largely in attacking roles. Others, like Coutinho, De Bruyne and Luka Modric, begin deeper. Come the end of the tournament, they will also take up stations towards the top of the table for completed passes, where they rub shoulders with more defensively-minded players who lack their incision.

Brazil's midfielder Renato Augusto replaces Brazil's forward Philippe Coutinho (R) during the Russia 2018 World Cup Group E football match between Serbia and Brazil

Image credit: Getty Images

That philosophical divide between the pass masters and the rest explains why Croatia, with the Modric-Ivan Rakitic double act, were arguably the finest team of the group stage and perhaps suggests Spain, with three playmakers in Andres Iniesta, David Silva and Isco, could be considered the best placed to win the tournament. Uruguay’s midfield reshuffles, looking to get Rodrigo Bentancur in positions to create, indicate the canny Oscar Tabarez is aware of the prevailing trends.
A common denominator among some of the group-stage disappointments, particularly sterile sides such as Egypt to Poland, has been the lack of creativity from deep. A continued dearth of high-class playmakers feels a reason why Senegal and Nigeria went out, despite doing much right.
Those with a destructive front three or four may be able to compensate if their holding midfielders fashion few chances; meanwhile, Portugal will continue with an idiosyncratic gameplan of clean sheets and Cristiano Ronaldo shots.
Yet those without a genuine playmaker have had to be creative because of that lack of natural creativity. Mexico have looked to energy and tactical cleverness, Sweden to solidity and the crossing of Viktor Claesson to tall team-mates, England to dead-ball expertise and off-the-ball running from midfielders like Jesse Lingard; Jordan Henderson’s passing can be more penetrative than is often acknowledged, but he is no De Bruyne.
Or, indeed, a Banega. If there is now an old-fashioned division of labour to Argentina’s midfield – Mascherano the destroyer, Banega the creator – a side with the fourth-most passes had a solitary goal until he was included. Even as footballing fashions change, the deep-lying playmaker is no passing fad.
World Cup
Qatar World Cup could be expanded and shared between other nations
31/10/2018 AT 04:44
World Cup
Southgate set to be handed long-term contract
01/08/2018 AT 21:40