Interpreting Modern Football Through the Fate of Christian Eriksen

When Internazionale Milan bought Christian Eriksen from Tottenham Hotspur in early 2020, what I imagine is that Inter will become a team that will seriously challenge the Serie A championship with the Danish midfielder playing behind the Lautaro Martinez-Romelu Lukaku duo. It is true that then Inter became serious challengers to the Serie A champions, but it turns out that ‘without’ Eriksen’s role there.

At the time of this article being written, Inter are ending the 2019/20 season as runners-up. Then entering the 9th week of Serie A 2020/21, Inter are also in second place, five points adrift of city rivals, AC Milan. Eriksen, meanwhile, has played just 217 minutes this season. This number is the fourth lowest.

Inter have scored 23 goals in Serie A, the most. This number seems to confirm that the coach, Antonio Conte, has no problem without Eriksen in his flagship 3-5-2 scheme. Despite the controversy, because in the Champions League Inter struggled to score goals, what Eriksen experienced has become a phenomenon in modern football that an elegant attacking midfielder like himself is starting to struggle to get a place in the team.

Modern Football Does Not Need No. 10

It is no secret that currently the 4-3-3 formation has become a mainstay formation in many teams. Since Pep Guardiola’s golden era of ball possession with Barcelona, ​​many clubs have competed to adjust their strategy and players to play in a 4-3-3 pattern. This formation is considered the most balanced, both when attacking and defending.

So it’s also no secret that a number 10 player like Eriksen whose playing area is around the front of the opponent’s penalty box in a 4-2-3-1 formation is starting to erode. Mesut Oezil, despite his non-technical factors, was not even included in the Arsenal squad list for the 2020/21 season.

But the question is, why can’t a player as great as Eriksen (also Oezil) adjust to the 4-3-3 scheme? Doesn’t a team need a midfielder who can provide pampering passes for its strikers?

The CEO of Inter, Giuseppe Marotta, has the answer: “The most important thing about the player is a matter of function. Football is full of various situations, where the players who join, [could] then not function in the tactical system or in the position when he was placed in the team.”

In modern football, players are required to play many roles. This deals with the modern game of football which is divided into three parts: possession of the ball, without the ball, and transitions. In each of these parts one player must be able to adapt to the system.

The theory is this, when the composition of the players in a team plays with a 4-3-3, when they have the ball they can form a 3-4-3 pattern. Then when the ball is controlled by the opponent, the team can form a 4-1-4-1 pattern. This condition will make a player not fixated in one position. This contrasts with an elegant attacking midfielder who usually finds it difficult to adapt to changes in position due to his lack of speed and defensive ability.

An elegant attacking midfielder like Eriksen is synonymous with no. 10 players such as Juan Roman Riquelme, Rui Costa, Pablo Aimar, Deco to Ronaldinho. They are known not to have good defensive abilities, despite their extraordinary ball skills. In the context of modern football, this can make a team seem to be playing with 10 players when they don’t have the ball.

That is why a team throws an attacking midfielder with above average quality, not only for Eriksen. Pep Guardiola is the coach who kicked Ronaldinho and Deco Souza at Barcelona. Juan Mata was sold by Jose Mourinho to Manchester United when he coached Chelsea. Mata’s Chelsea teammate Oscar is currently playing in Asia. James Rodriguez, who shone at the 2014 World Cup, immediately faded because he failed to penetrate the Real Madrid squad.

Playmakers Don’t Have to Be No. 10

Football is a sport that relies on end-products. Goals determine victory. Elegant attacking midfielders (for a time) are needed because they can be the players who end the build-up process with deadly passes to attackers who are in an ideal position to score.

From there also the term playmaker was born, where the playmaker is synonymous with attacking midfielder. By definition, the term playmaker refers to a player in basketball and ice hockey who leads the attack.

But in modern football, the task of managing attacks is no longer borne by the attacking midfielder or those who play in the no. 10. The proof is that now the defenders make the most passes, so that the term ball-playing defender appears. It’s even common to see a defensive midfielder standing parallel to a center-back, being in the last line of defense, when starting an attack (deep-lying playmaker).

Defenders and defensive midfielders can now make passes over 70 times in a single game, it’s not even uncommon to hit over 100 passes. The Guardian said in 2019 that the record for the player with the most passes in one game was Julian Weigl, who recorded 210 passes when Borussia Dortmund faced FC Koln in 2016. Under Weigl, still via the Guardian, the record for most passes is filled by Jorginho (Napoli vs Verona, 2015 ), Xavi Hernandez (Barcelona vs Celtic, 2012), Sergio Busquets (Barcelona vs Levante, 2011), and Ilkay Guendogan (Man City vs Chelsea, 2018). The players are positioned as number 6, aka defensive midfielder.

The more a player makes passes in theory shows that that player determines which way his team will attack. This is in accordance with the definitive meaning of the playmaker, so the term deep-lying playmaker appears.

Actually, it is not impossible for a deep-lying playmaker to play together with a playmaker no. 10 in the same team. AC Milan in the era of Carlo Ancelotti is proof of this where he maximized Andrea Pirlo as the initiator of the attack and Rui Costa as the player who decided the final pass. But Ancelotti’s triumph with this pattern did not last long as time went on.

Currently, a team can play with many playmakers. In addition to the deep-lying playmaker who is still very central, the playmaker role can be played by players in other positions.

Liverpool is an example of a team that has a lot of playmakers, which is interesting not to rely on player no.10. As one of the best teams in the world today, the Reds have Jordan Henderson as a deep-lying playmaker. In addition, the attack of Juergen Klopp’s squad will also depend on the passing abilities of their right and left defenders, namely Trent-Alexander Arnold and Andrew Robertson. Not to mention Roberto Firmino who is also ready to serve Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah through his passes.

Lionel Messi and Neymar are the clearest examples that a playmaker doesn’t have to play in post no. 10. In the 2020/21 season, there are many more examples of playmakers who are not only circulating in front of the opponent’s penalty box. James Rodriguez is adapting to organize attacks from the right side of the field. Hakim Ziyech played the same role at Chelsea. On the opposite side, there is Jack Grealish who is the manager of the Aston Villa attack who controls the area on the left side of the field. Even Harry Kane who is the attacker no. 9 can be called a playmaker too if you look at his role under Jose Mourinho.

Modern Football More Needs a Good Defensive Midfielder

What’s interesting about Eriksen’s fate in modern football is how Tottenham Hotspur has become even more respected after he left. There is the Jose Mourinho factor, the coach, indeed. But it is undeniable that the Portuguese coach was an important part of the tactical revolution in modern football.

At the time of writing, Spurs are at the top of the standings. As mentioned above, instead of looking for a replacement for Eriksen as a playmaker, Mou actually made Kane as Son Heung-min’s servant. The Spurs actually recruited Giovani Lo Celso who could act as a playmaker at the midfield post. But Lo Celso is yet to get the main place in the team.

An important factor in the success of Spurs in becoming one of the strong candidates for the Premier League champions this season is precisely the presence of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg. He plays as a defensive midfielder. The Danish midfielder is upgrading the Spurs midfield previously filled by Harry Winks.

In style of play, Hojbjerg is more physical than Winks. Proficient in seizing the ball, he can also be used as a feeder early in the attack. In fact, thanks to the player who was recruited from Southampton, Tanguy Ndombele’s game is growing. Previously, Ndombele had difficulty breaking into Mourinho’s squad because he was not fluent in defense.

Mourinho himself has always had a ‘good’ defensive midfielder in his team. At Inter there is Esteban Cambiasso. At Chelsea we have Nemanja Matic and Michael Essien. He even brought Matic to Manchester United. Essien is also a defensive midfielder who was borrowed by Mourinho when he coached Real Madrid, after Sami Khedira failed to live up to expectations.

In the last decade, the world’s best teams have always been inseparable from great defensive midfielders. Manchester City began to dominate the Premier League with Fernandinho in midfield. Liverpool ended the fast for the Premier League title and added the Champions League trophy because it had Fabinho. Real Madrid have won the UCL title for three consecutive seasons with Casemiro in midfield. France, who won the 2018 World Cup, could not be separated from the figure of N`Golo Kante, who also succeeded in bringing Leicester City and Chelsea to the Premier League champions for two consecutive seasons.

Actually, not all No.10 players have the fate of Eriksen. Hakan Calhanoglu has actually been in top form this season even though he played behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic in a 4-2-3-1 pattern. Paulo Dybala is an important figure in Juventus’ success in recent seasons. Even with Thomas Mueller, who is still irreplaceable at Bayern Munich to overshadow and serve Robert Lewandowski. Even Bruno Fernandes spearheaded Manchester United when the other forwards got stuck.

But what is unique is that they have a problem which emphasizes that modern football seems to be slowly telling them to adapt to other positions or be wasted like Eriksen. Calhanoglu played as a winger. Dybala did not fit into Maurizio Sarri’s scheme and was rumored to be leaving several times. Mueller is no longer a mainstay in the German national team. Meanwhile, Bruno Fernandes has not been able to return Man United to the top of the Premier League.


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