Say What: Where did all the playmakers go in the Premier League?
IT started with a simple question on Twitter: “Who’s the current ‘Juninho’ in the Premier League?” At least it seemed like a simple question at first. But as I thought about it, I struggled to come up with an answer that I was happy with.
In the end I replied with: “Far fewer of that type of footballer (such as Kinkladze, McManaman etc.) in the league now but the closest is probably Hazard. Dribbling is becoming something of a lost art in the modern game.”
It’s not just dribbling. In the Premier League today, there’s a distinct lack of the type of playmaker that Juninho was. When the little Brazilian arrived at Middlesbrough in the mid-1990s, he helped define an era in the league that included many such players.
They were the magicians (and often mavericks) who had the sort of tricks that kids would try to emulate in the playground. They could dribble, they could split defences with a single pass, they scored goals, and they were usually set-piece specialists.
They were also the focal points of their teams; the creative inspiration. They made the team play (hence the term playmaker) and stopping them was the number one priority for the opposition.
These were the players that justified the ticket price: Georgi Kinkladze at Manchester City; Steve McManaman at Liverpool; Matt Le Tissier at Southampton; Eric Cantona at Manchester United; Teddy Sheringham at Spurs; Gianfranco Zola at Chelsea; and Dennis Bergkamp at Arsenal.
What a cast of talent.
An evolution in tactics has placed less emphasis on the individual and more on the collective. Ironically, in a sense, this was most fully accomplished by Guardiola at Barcelona but his collective had the rather massive advantage of containing the individual genius of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta.
Hazard can clearly be classified as a playmaker at Chelsea. But what about Manchester United? Who’s the new Cantona? It isn’t Pogba. Arsenal have Mesut Ozil, but he’s no Bergkamp.
At Liverpool, Salah is a star but I wouldn’t describe him as a playmaker. De Bruyne is the closest that Manchester City have, but he operates from a slightly deeper position than Juninho and his peers did.
Hazard, Pogba, Ozil, Salah, De Bruyne – they’re all incredibly talented footballers and frequently a joy to watch. But they’d get hammered at futsal by a team made up of those 90s stars in their prime.
The endless (and rather tedious) debate regarding Messi vs Ronaldo tends to imply that we’re living in a golden age of football. It’s not just nostalgia on my part that makes me doubt it.
By the way, while we’re on the subject, Ronaldo is utterly exceptional and yet he’s still nowhere near as good as Messi. Not even close.
Football continues to change of course and it’s remarkable how much it has changed since Juninho ended his second spell at Middlesbrough in 2004.
That was the year of Arsenal’s invincibles; Manchester City finished 16th in the Premier League. Aston Villa, Blackburn, Birmingham, Bolton, Charlton, Leeds and Portsmouth were all in England’s top league.
I still love the Premier League and its wonderful combination of drama, intensity and skill. Maybe I’m just getting old, but I miss the playmakers.
So who’s the current Juninho in the Premier League? The truth is, there isn’t one.
Craig Wilkie. Football Writer. Football Coach. Football Fan. Follow him on Twitter @ciwilkie