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Steve Zakuani, and why playmakers aren't just central players anymore

SEATTLE - OCTOBER 15:  Steve Zakuani #11 of the Seattle Sounders FC scores a goal in the first half against Chivas USA on October 15 2010 at Qwest Field in Seattle Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
SEATTLE - OCTOBER 15: Steve Zakuani #11 of the Seattle Sounders FC scores a goal in the first half against Chivas USA on October 15 2010 at Qwest Field in Seattle Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
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Is Zakuani SSFC's most important attacking player?

In all my ramblings about the Sounders system, reviewing in pretty dense detail the last two years, and exploring the particularities of the usefulness of a central attacking playmaker, it strikes me that there has been a glaring constant to the Sounders attack, a true linchpin that may be the Sounders most important attacking player.  Notice I'm not saying he is the Best attacking player -- to me such discussions of "best" or "better" are too context-dependent to be of much use.  But from a tactical, creative, technical standpoint, it very well may be the case that Steve Zakuani is our most important attacking player.

In all competitions in 2010, Zakuani played in 37 matches, starting 33; only Keller and Montero appeared in more matches last year, and only those two along with Riley and Gonzalez started in more.  He was second in both goals (11) and assists (9) to Montero.  In League play this is more pronounced, as no one, except for Keller, appeared in or started more matches (29 and 27, repsectively).  He tied Montero for most goals with 10, and was second in assists, with 6.

It may appear that I am making the argument that Fredy Montero is the most important player to the Sounders attack, and that is certainly true in terms of prodcution; but this argument is about tactical relevance, and Zakuani may have that advantage in spades over Montero.

Why?  Well, it has to do with the importance of inverted wingers in contemporary attacking football, specifically with teams employing fluid 4-4.5 man attacks like the Sounders (which covers the bevy of 4-2-X-X, 4-5-1/4-3-3, or what sidereal refers to as 4-4-2 "bucket" systems).


I have already contributed a prodigious word count in previous posts on attempting to define the nuance of what a "playmaker" is and how the newer thinking may help Sounders fans adjust to the reality of how this team is and will be built.  But another topic to be addressed is the de-centralization of the playmaker role.  The idea that there are indeed 3 playmakers in many of these systems (typified by the "pure" version of 4-2-3-1) is one that I have touched on, but not explored in depth.

Thomas Mueller played as a right wing for Germany's 4-2-3-1 system in South Africa and took the golden boot with 5 goals and 3 assists in 6 matches.  His suspension from the semifinal loss to Spain due to the deeply flawed World Cup discipline rules was seen by many as an absence which the Germans couldn't overcome.  

When you consider that Germany's left wing, Lukas Podolski, is himself an oft-prodigious 2nd-striker type who has found success in wing positions, and you begin to see the impact of the striker-turned-winger approach I mentioned in a recent article.

Many think of the "playmaker" as the "quarterback" of a team's attack.  For the most part, that type of player has gradually retreated from his traditional spot just behind the forwards to deep in the midfield, often next to the CDM.  While, to many people, this has left a void in the middle, the reality is this has only worked to create a space for the 2nd striker position to either fully evolve into a true CAM, or at least allow space for the Maradona-inpsired 2nd strikers to fall back into a more playmaking role.  But the gap has not just been filled vertically, from the forwards, but horizontally, from the wings.

As we have seen, Zakuani has developed the annoying tendency to dribble into the box and never manage to shoot.  But before we spend too much time bemoaning this tendency, lets think back to consider how many of these blown opportunities came from making central runs, right to the front of the goal, or at least within the area described by extending the outer lines of the 6-yard box.

If you spend much time watching Barcelona playing, you've seen how effective just knocking the ball around can be.  While there exists the valid criticism that its all just passing for passing's sake, its hard to argue with Barca's success the last few years, and their mesmerizingly beautiful style belies the tactical discipline it takes to play that way.  

I can't help but feel like behind it all is a fundamental pragmatism.  Spend too much time dribbling around the middle of the pitch, and you will only find frustration and the ball in the other side's possession.  We all certainly saw enough of Ljungberg try to dribble out of trouble and only end up on the ground whingeing.  It doesn't take much of a leap of logic to determine that maybe you should just have all 10 outfield players focus on passing and possession.  Why keep two strikers up high waiting for service that won't come, when at least one of them can drop off and help out?  Why have wingers hug the touchline when they can move in to receive a 90-10 touch pass rather than a 60-40 cross-field boomer?

Space is vital, or course, which is why wingers are where they are.  In the possession oriented modern game, this is where the dribblers are, and they may as well try to pull the ball towards the goal, rather than further to touch where they will run out of room.

This is the essence of the contemporary winger.  It isn't necessarily a wide player, but a player who Starts wide.  A playmaker who is as likely to make his own plays as one for someone else.  The essence is no longer the long winding dribble followed by booming cross, but instead an explosive dribble followed by slide-rule pass, or dangerous shot arcing near the far post.  Remember the 4th goal against Columbus away?

So why isn't Montero a winger?  It's a good question, and one that I have pondered quite a bit myself.  The only real answer is that he just so happens to be our best 2nd striker, so the conversation may end there.  No one is keeping Montero from wandering wide, particularly considering no one is keeping Zakuani from wandering centrally.  

I have encountered more than one person who questions Montero's ability to be a "#10" (despite my repeated urgings that no one, particularly me, is asking him to be).  What I want is for Montero to be Montero, and that includes passes like the one sent through to Fernandez for the second goal against Houston home.  The expectation isn't that he will need to retreat deeper to become a distributor, forgoing the dribble and suddenly doubling his tactical IQ.  I'd rather he stay higher, occasionally even swapping with the target forward and setting up as the highest player.  For all the passing Barcelona is known for , Lionel Messi sure likes to dribble, playing as a false 9 without a target man to work off of.  It seems to work pretty well...

Just like not all 4-4-2's are built the same, not all 4-2-3-1's are identical, either.  Rather than a CAM, we have a 2nd striker as the middle of the band of 3, and in balance with that we need the second central mid to play higher and provide a little more of a link, something we lacked with Alonso/Sturgis against better teams like L.A. or RSL.

But getting back to Zakuani, and the importance of his role.  The general thinking is usually that a playmaker needs to be central, where he can have more influence over more of the pitch.  But as Jonathan Wilson puts it "...perhaps the truth is that playmaker is not a position at all but a state of mind."  I see no reason for there to be the simple understanding that the "playmaker" is simply the player on the ball.  If incessant passing can be dismissed as simply passing along responsibility, then I could counter that by saying the responsibility is merely shared.  Rather than look for a specific man to do the creative work, why shouldn't it be everyone's job?  Don't we want players who can run, pass, dribble, and score?  Don't we want lots of Steve Zakuani's on the pitch?

I have found that often the solution to the problem is right in front of you, but you never realized it was the solution because you never properly understood the problem.  This has essentially been my argument about the "playmaker" for the Sounders all along.  I would prefer to explore the possibilities the system opens for the likes of Zakuani to flourish as multi-dimesnional attackers, ponder the potential of Fucito as another inverted winger on the right, challenge the likes of Fernandez to give it a go as a deeper-lying central distributor.  Where others may see limitations I see possibilities:  I see the immediate effect the removal of Ljungberg had on Montero, the presence that an overlooked player like Jaqua contributes, the important support that a Riley can provide while not sacrificing defensive ability.

There's just one problem:  with all this talk of dynamic attackers from wide positions, why is it that Ljungberg didn't work out here?  This is actually a question that I just don't know the answer to...

The legendary Arsenal sides of '01-'04 lacked a dedicated "#10" and featured Ljungberg as a wide attacker.  It seems a perfect fit to the Sounders approach, but no one will argue the team misses him.  

The only logical explanation I have ever been able to come up with is that this is the MLS, and he wasn't surrounded by the same talent he had seen at Arsenal, or even West Ham, and he just expected to have to do to much.  He had to be the best player on the pitch, and not just one of the three best attackers on his team.

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