Talking Tactics: The joys of a deep-lying midfielder

Márquez and Beckham play rare, enjoyable roles in MLS

DALLAS — Deep-lying playmakers are like a really great asteroid shower: They don’t come around very often, but they sure are a sight to behold when they come streaking through.

Major League Soccer is getting a sampling of what a wise and able playmaker can do from spots deep in the midfield. Rafa Márquez is working the spot brilliantly for the New York Red Bulls (though he had an off night on Thursday). It’s a pleasure to watch, not just because Márquez wears the position so well, but because we just don’t see them very often around MLS (or anywhere, for that matter.)

And might we soon be seeing another one? David Beckham got back on the field for Los Angeles last week. Spraying killer passes from positions within his own half is one of the assets Beckham potentially brings. But more on that later.

MLS hasn’t really had a true deep-lying playmaker, the kind who has the instincts, ability to improvise, intelligence and tactical discipline to match the creative skills from areas in front of the defense. A true creator from recessed areas who can methodically pick apart opponents with medium-range passes or slice it open with long-range divinity.

Obviously, some situations call for a safer and shorter interchange, just for the sake of retaining possession. AC Milan’s Andrea Pirlo has represented the gold standard of deep-lying playmakers since well before be occupied that role on Italy’s 2006 World Cup-winning side.

The mix and the balance is critical. And players are few and far between who can successfully navigate the craft.

That’s why so many central midfielders tend to be destroyers more than creators. They tackle like crazed dogs and then hand the ball to someone else higher up the field. Or, in the less extreme, they tend to be a quality tackler and linkman.

Guys like Kyle Beckerman at Real Salt Lake or Brian Carroll in Columbus have the bite in their game to go win balls, then have the skill to keep possession and keep the ball moving. But they still aren’t playmakers, per se.

Toronto’s Julian de Guzman comes close to being a true deep-lying playmaker, although the bunch from BMO still haven’t worked out a consistent way they’d like to attack defenses.

Dallas’ Daniel Hernandez (before he was injured) and Colorado’s Pablo Mastroeni are deep-lying distributors. Both screen the defense as an enforcement arm of the midfield. Then, both have the ability to move around gracefully when defenders are in possession, locating the places to make themselves available and move balls safely to attackers.

Shalrie Joseph in New England certainly has the ability to make things happen with a variety of passes out of recessed places in the midfield. But he gets forward so well and has such great range that he’s much more of a prototype two-way midfielder than strictly a holder and recessed playmaker. 

Mostly, the creators in MLS (and elsewhere) tend to be players who occupy spots higher up the field. Some do it from the withdrawn forward position (Seattle’s Fredy Montero, Columbus’ Guillermo Barros Schelotto), some from wide positions in midfield (D.C. United’s Andy Najar, LA’s Landon Donovan).

And others play in the classic No. 10 mold, working the areas between midfielders and strikers the way David Ferreira does it in Dallas or Javier Morales in Salt Lake.

That brings us back to Márquez and what he’s doing at New York. Hans Backe told me last week that he has the pieces arranged right where he wants them. Rookie midfielder Tony Tchani sits near Márquez, doing the work and hinging off the veteran Mexican international. At a different level, Tchani can serve as Márquez’s “assistant” the way Gennaro Gattuso has toiled and tackled for Pirlo at Milan all those years.

With Tchani alongside him, Márquez is freer to concentrate on identifying the best way forward. It may be something long and to the right for the speedy Dane Richards to run onto. (Richards is brimming with confidence these days, which is surely no coincidence.)

It may be into Thierry Henry over medium distance or into space behind the defense for the Frenchman. It may be something into Juan Pablo Angel’s feet in the target areas (when he’s not sitting on the bench!). Or it may be something a bit more conservative to Joel Lindpere on the left.

The variety is unsettling for opposition defenses, which is precisely what makes a sharp-eyed deep-lying midfielder so effective.

So the next question is, will Beckham soon be doing the same at the Home Depot Center? Beckham has torn up MLS defenses at times, moving smart balls along the right touchline for overlapping fullbacks, or changing the point of attack in a hurry with balls to the left. And we know he can devastate defenses with precision balls into space for the speedy Donovan.

He’s done it from his old home on the right, but also at times in LA from deeper, central areas.

Of course, it might take some midfield reconfiguration. Beckham can conceivably create from wide on the right. But will that work with young playmaker Juninho, who has been so lively lately when available, essentially doing the same thing from the top of the midfield diamond?

Beckham could play centrally, but does he have the pace and the requisite edge, coming off an injury at age 35?

Then again, with the right kind of players around him, deep-lying distributor and improvising playmaker might be the perfect spot for a man of such skill and wisdom, but also of advancing age. We’ll know more in the coming days as the former England captain figures to get increased playing time, starting, presumably, with Saturday’s match against D.C. United.

Six weeks ago, the league didn’t have any true deep-lying playmakers. Now there may be two of them—and we all should enjoy watching them.