Paulinho, Asamoah & Bender: The Rise of the Mobile, Multifunctional Midfielder
Tottenham's apparent willingness to spend £15 million on Paulinho, as reported by ESPN, is a sign of a growing trend in world football.
More and more importance is being placed on the central midfield of a team—not that it's ever been anything less than integral—and insurances are being taken out.
Spurs' Premier League top-four chase took a monumental blow when Sandro sustained a season-ending knee injury at Queens Park Rangers this year, and Andre Villas-Boas knows he needs to reinforce to progress.
Paulinho is a special type of player, an all-action dynamo who can pass, dribble, shoot and defend. He recently starred in Brazil's holding pivot alongside Luiz Gustavo at the 2013 Confederations Cup, but his true strengths were not exposed.
He is one of many who represent the new breed of midfielder: the mobile, strong midfielder who is physically and athletically superior.
The likes of Kwadwo Asamoah, Javi Martinez, Arturo Vidal and Lars Bender have shot to prominence due to their varied skill set. Far removed from your typical destroyer or playmaker, they're leading the trend of players becoming more rounded and versatile.
There are not many Kaka's or Claude Makelele's left, and that's because modern football, at the top level, has no room for specialists.
Arrigo Sacchi, a godfather in the team-oriented game, hated these perceived specialists—those who do just one thing (albeit very well). He felt by placing someone who could only create and not tackle, you then had to account for him by deploying a pure defensive-minded player.
Why not, he theorised, just ask everyone to do everything?
And so he did. Sacchi's 1990 AC Milan side took down the entirety of Europe by playing a close-knit 4-4-2 formation that relied on teamwork, pressing and controlling of space.
Paulinho is the type of player Sacchi would deploy, no question: Capable of surging forward, penetrating the box and putting a foot in at the other end, he represents the perfect acquisition for the modern-day 4-3-3 formation.
Midfielders who have an added physical edge are gold dust due to the current footballing trends, and those stem largely from the favoured formation at the time.
The dominance of the 4-2-3-1 system has lead to a common issue: midfield stalemates as six men cancel each other out. With little room to work in and careful marking of players, a lesser team using a 4-2-3-1 can seriously upset a big club.
When neither side can get the better of one another, an emergency route to goal can be found in a strong, athletic player literally cleaving his way through the banks—Yaya Toure style.
That is something you cannot teach—you either have it or you don't. Geoffrey Kondogbia has been born with a hugely impressive, towering, muscular frame. Coached correctly, he can use that to natural advantage and "break" games with long, weaving dribbles.
Paulinho shrugged off Spain's challenges in the Confederations Cup final with ease and drives forward at pace in an advanced role for Corinthians. Kwadwo Asamoah is so powerful and rapid he's adapted seamlessly to left-wing-back, while Toure remains unstoppable in full flow.
The way the game has evolved and the formations that are currently in vogue dictates what type of player can succeed.
These players are merely emerging at the right time in a climate that suits them, but that climate could change two years down the line.
Xavi and Andres Iniesta have been the combination to beat for seasons on end, but what if you can combine both of their strengths in one player? Step forward Thiago Alcantara, Toni Kroos and Cesc Fabregas—three of the most dynamic midfield playmakers we've ever seen.
Football is cyclical. Paulinho and co. are riding the crest of a wave.
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