The renaissance of the attacking midfielder

Picture: @JackGrealish, Twitter

“If you win the ball back high up the pitch and you are close to the goal, it is only one pass away a really good opportunity most of the time. No playmaker in the world can be as good as a good counter-pressing situation.”

In recent years, these famous words from Jurgen Klopp were proven right after his Liverpool team won the Premier League, Champions League, the UEFA SuperCup and the Fifa Club World Cup without playing a traditional ‘number 10’.

This season, as we have heard so many times, is unique in a sense that the high-pressing teams have dropped off their usual standards of pressure on the ball. A number of factors could explain this trend, with a lack of a proper pre-season for most teams evidently affecting the fitness levels of the players.

The low-block defence and counter-attacking football have produced some great results for teams who implement these strategies. And with this, it is perhaps not surprising to see two teams who are known to have quick-thinking and technically gifted attacking midfielders in position 1 and 2 of the Premier League table.

James Maddison

At the time of writing, 2015 Premier League winners Leicester currently sit at the top of the Premier League log. Despite injuries to key defensive players early in the season, they have managed to keep up the pace with the champions and runners-up of last season, Liverpool and Manchester City. After recovering from a long-term injury, Englishman James Maddison struggled for form in the early parts of the season. Since his return to full fitness, he is enjoying what is set to be his best season England’s top division.

The attacking midfielder is currently sitting on 6 goals and 4 assists for the season, with his best record coming in the 2018/2019 season with 7 goals and 7 assists. Maddison always looks to pick up space in the attacking area of the pitch. He has an eye for a pass, the quality to shoot from distance, the composure to take the chances he gets and offers consistent quality on set-piece duty. Keeping him fit will be key to a potential title push from the Foxes.

Bruno Fernandes

In terms of goal contributions, Bruno Fernandes has been arguably the greatest signing the English Premier has ever seen. Having joined Manchester United just over a year ago, he has since won 4 Player of the Month awards, been the highest-scoring midfielder in the league, and taken the Red Devils from mediocrity to magnificence.

The Portuguese international currently sits with a staggering 11 goals and 8 assists in the league in 18 matches this season. His world-class talent, his desperation to win and leadership ability on the pitch will only continue to strengthen the fast-improving team from Manchester.

Kevin de Bruyne

The blue half of Manchester struggled for goals in the first quarter of the season. In an attempt to fix up their Achilles Heel, their defence, Pep Guardiola made slight tweaks to the formation. Initially, this new style of play seemed to restrict playmaker de Bruyne. Now, just under halfway through the season, the Belgian has notched up 10 assists, still on course to equal his record of last season.

Manchester City’s captain not only creates the most goal-scoring opportunities; he also makes the team tick. He is the engine to the attacks, and without his creative ability, his teammates seldom kick into first gear.

Jack Grealish

Due to a number of factors beyond their control, Aston Villa played four fewer games than most of the teams in the league. Despite this, if they win their games in hand, they could be joint top! After narrowly avoiding relegation last season, the Villans have transformed into a formidable team; both in an attacking and defensive sense.

Leading the Lions’ pack is captain Jack Grealish. Often criticised for going down too easily, the Englishman has shown that opposition defenders only opposition may be to drag him down as he has been in unstoppable form. In the 2019/2020 season, Grealish contributed to 15 goals. This season, he has contributed to 14 goals with 5 goals and 9 assists – incredible numbers!

There’s no replacement for a number 10 . . .

While we cannot deny the new creative roles of fullbacks and how their goal contributions have increased, or how a perfectly executed counter-press can create goal-scoring opportunities; there is just no substitute for the value of being able to pass the ball to your creative midfielder and watch him curl the ball into the top corner. There’s no replacement for a number 10 finding space and picking out the perfect through ball to find the centre forward.

There are no definite answers in football. Often, a slice of luck can be the difference in key moments. But, one thing is for sure, the potential renaissance of the attacking midfielder will only improve the quality of football and increase a team’s chances of breaking down a low-block defence.

*These are the opinions of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Vannie Kaap News.