Goals are football’s purest currency, making strikers the sport’s most valuable commodity. But a shift in the way certain players are appreciated has also signified a change in the value attached to them. Now, more so than ever, the midfielder is king.
But perhaps the most revered brand of this new generation of midfielder is the ‘regista,’ an Italian term for a deep-lying playmaker. Once the inclusion of such a reserved midfielder indicated an intention to break up opposition moves, but now it means so much more.
While Lionel Messi picked up last year’s Ballon d’Or with over 40% of the vote, two such players made the top seven in the voting, Xavi in fourth and Andrea Pirlo in seventh.
Football has come to not just revere the deep-lying playmaker but pinpoint it as the most pivotal position on the pitch, and MLS is no different. While North America’s top tier cannot yet match Europe for its accomplished and sophisticated ‘registas’ there are a number of such players impressing, from Patrice Bernier at Montreal to Michel at FC Dallas. But who comes closest to the standards set by the Pirlos and Xavis of the football world?
In terms of average passes played per game, Real Salt Lake’s Kyle Beckerman leads the league, with 68.1. As far as pure ‘registas’ go, Bernier leads the chasing pack, playing an average of 54.2 passes per game, with Sporting KC’s Oriol Rosell not far behind at 52.9.
MLS boasts a number of dynamic playmakers that operate just behind the forwards, like Diego Valeri, Javier Morales and Federico Higuain, but in the modern game these kind of players are given more of the responsibilities traditionally attributed to a forward.
Instead players like Bernier, Michel and Juninho are burdened with the remit of a playmaker. And if goals are the currency of the striker, key passes are the currency of the ‘regista.’
Michel leads the MLS ‘registas’ in this column, with an average of two key passes per game, ahead of Juninho on 1.8 per game and his LA Galaxy namesake on 1.6.
The significance of pass success rates can be overplayed but it does illustrate the effectiveness of a midfield pivot, providing the hub of possession. While he may not be a ‘regista’ Osvaldo Alonso maintains the highest rate from midfield in MLS, completing 87.8% of his passes; also the second highest rate of all regulars in the league.
Chara and Will Johnson appear to be providing the Portland Timbers with a dynamic, passing platform in the centre of midfield. The former has recorded a pass success rate of 87.5% this season, with Johnson not far off at 86.7%.So why has this position and role suddenly become so important? What has changed in the past decade or so?
Coaches have recognized that by planting their playmakers closer to the halfway line, rather than in behind the frontline, they can afford them more time to pick their passes and choose their play.
It is not so much the position that has evolved, but rather the brief given to central midfielders positioned closer to either the defence or the attack that has shifted.By almost forcing the opposition to press the ‘regista’, space is opened up closer to the goal, giving the attackers more chance of fashioning a goal-scoring opportunity.
Of course, while these players may be the ones billed with starting attacking moves they are still important to their team from a defensive perspective, providing a line of resistance in front of the backline when without the ball. And indeed some of the players leading MLS for average tackles made per game are ‘registas’, like Marcelo Sarvas with 4.2 tackles per game, Diego Chara at 3.8 and Benny Felihaber on 3.
In fact, Sporting KC’s Felihaber makes a case for being the league’s best all-round deep-lying playmaker, certainly from a statistical point of view. The 28 year old has coupled his defensive presence with an eye for a pass, making an average of 1.5 key passes per game and boasting a pass success rate of 82%. It is his partnership with Rosell in the centre of the Sporting KC midfield that has provided the platform for teammates like Graham Zusi and Kei Kamara to directly target the opposition backline.
However, Felihaber is let down by his average number of accurate through balls played per game, standing at a measly 0.1. So who leads MLS in this column? It would appear the attacking midfielders have a grip on this standing, with Higuain at the top with an average of 0.9 accurate through balls played per game. Chara, Bernier and Sarvas come closest for the ‘registas’ with 0.4 per game.
One player who has undoubtedly benefitted from the deployment of a ‘regista’ in his team is league joint-top scorer Marco Di Vaio, whose relationship with Bernier has seen him become so prolific this year.
The role of traditional playmaker is still relevant, demonstrated by Higuain who leads the league on key passes and average through balls per game, but in MLS, just like in Europe, a clear distinction between teams with a ‘regista’ and those without is becoming apparent. Strikers may still be king in football, but it’s the ‘regista’ that makes them so.