For as long as anybody cares to remember, the 4-4-2 formation has been a staple part of English football. Certainly, way back when, we had the 2-3-5 and the WM formations, but ever since Sir Alf Ramsey, "wingless wonders," 1966, Jules Rimet and all that, 4-4-2 has been king.
And while football at the top level in England has changed with the advent of the Premier League and the influx of foreign players and coaches has seen formations develop, down at grassroots level 4-4-2 remains the norm.
Therefore the one thing that English football has always struggled to develop and indeed trust at senior level—particularly on the international stage—are genuine No. 10s; English players who find space in between the lines of opposing midfields and defences and who do damage accordingly.
In other positions, England have come up with a number of players you would label as, at one point or another, genuinely world-class—Rio Ferdinand was unquestionably one of world football's best central defenders during the 2000s, while during parts if his career, Ashley Cole has been peerless as the premier left-back on the planet. However, genuine attacking playmakers of the highest order have been in short supply.
There have been no lack of box-to-box midfielders, and some, like Steven Gerrard, Paul Gascoigne and Frank Lampard, have had admirers from Europe's elite—of course Gascoigne tasted Serie A during the '90s with Lazio— and have gone on to conquer Europe by winning the Champions League.
Arguably the most talented English player of the last two decades, Paul Scholes, was criminally misused on the international stage. Despite his technique having earned him the respect of some of the world's finest; shunted out to the flank at Euro 2004 he decided to play no more. At Manchester United, he remains revered for his outstanding skill set and being very much at the centre of some of Sir Alex Ferguson's best teams, but a No. 10 in the purest sense he wasn't.
Gifted playmakers in the shape of Matt Le Tissier and Joe Cole were both overlooked in one way or another: No England manager during his playing career was ever willing to build a side around Le Tissier's mercurial talents—much like Glenn Hoddle previously—and certainly not the way Alan Ball did at Southampton.
That he would only earn eight England caps during his career borders on the farcical. The precociousness shown by Cole as a lithe teenager was trained out of him as he became a more bulky wideman, restrained to the flanks, initially by Jose Mourinho.
Wayne Rooney has long been painted as England's answer to the likes of Francesco Totti, Lionel Messi and Roberto Baggio, but although his touch, vision and passing range are excellent, his best years have largely seen him used as either an outright No. 9 or in a free-flowing forward unit (Manchester United circa 2007-08). Never has a side been built with Rooney as the central creative hub, successfully, despite Fabio Capello's best efforts with England.
Indeed, nor has a Premier League side with any Englishman in recent years. In spite of the rise of the 4-2-3-1 formation among the top clubs and the growth of the attacking playmaker role on these shores, as England's top division has become more cosmopolitan there remains a distinct lack of English players who operate in between the lines—of the home nations and Ireland, arguably it is Norwich City's Wes Hoolahan who has been the greatest practitioner in recent times. As such, clubs have increasingly looked elsewhere.
And increasingly, their want for such talents has taken them to Spain, La Liga and the home of tiki-taka.
As La Furia Roja have ascended to the top of the international game Premier League scouts have cast amorous glances on their national pool, brimming with outstanding technical footballers of various ages and away from the Barcelona and Real Madrid duopoly, have purchased accordingly.
Therefore, talented Spanish playmakers have made their way to the Premier League; Borja Valero's stint at West Bromwich Albion in 2008-09 may have been disappointing for all concerned, but in more recent times they've looked right at home, making themselves invaluable to their club sides.
Four in particular—David Silva, Juan Mata, Santi Cazorla and Michu—each with different strengths, talents and traits have stood out and marked themselves among the elite performers in the English game today. That three of them star week in, week out for members of England's top-four, is a sign of their quality and impact.
In David Silva, Manchester City have arguably the Premier League's chief employer of the tiki-taka way, a player whose intelligent touches, stealthy movement into central attacking areas and eye for a slide-rule pass bring something of a fantasy approach to the Citizens' play.
Never rushed yet always looking to be incisive when in possession, Silva's technical acumen and composure have proven vital to the Blues since his arrival in 2010 from Spanish club Valencia.
Furthermore, he played a major part in their Premier League success in 2012, ending that campaign with 17 assists in 36 matches, according to Transfermarkt.
Like Silva, Juan Mata arrived in the Premier League from Valencia, joining Chelsea in 2011. In terms of style, while overbearing comparisons would portray Mata as a technical rival for his former colleague at the Mestalla, in contrast to Silva and national teammates like Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, he is more of a goalscorer and certainly more direct with his passing. Always looking to move the ball forward as quickly as possible, 2012-13 saw him claim 11 goals and 17 assists in 35 league appearances.
Now 25, Mata is approaching his key years and has made his own place within the hearts of the Stamford Bridge faithful, having been a decisive component in their Champions League, FA Cup and Europa League successes in the two seasons since his arrival in west London.
Santi Cazorla joined Arsenal last August from Malaga and has become a key member of Arsene Wenger's side. A versatile performer who strikes the ball equally well with both feet, the diminutive Cazorla is something of a hybrid of Messrs. Silva and Mata, mixing the eye for goal of his London rival with Silva's appreciation for patient short passing.
His debut season in the Premier League led to Cazorla scoring 12 goals and making 12 assists, and though an increasing amount of his time in Arsene Wenger's XI has been spent on the left wing, his intelligent wanderings continually see him pop up and prosper in central areas.
The odd one out in the Premier League's quartet of Spanish playmakers is Michu, whose career trajectory makes him something of the ugly duckling of the group. Time spent in the Spanish lower divisions with Real Oviedo and Celta Vigo ended with his move to La Liga and Rayo Vallecano in 2011-12, for whom he scored 15 goals in 37 games. A subsequent £2 million move to Swansea last summer came with little fanfare, but his goalscoring prowess—18 league goals last season—has marked him out as nothing less than a bargain and seen his value skyrocket.
Perhaps not as technically refined as his listed compatriots, Michu's tall frame and languid style mixed with his stealthy off-the-ball movement and composed finishing have marked him out as a nightmare for defenders, whether he plays as a No.10—a position in which he will likely further flourish in 2013-14 following Swansea's signing of Wilfried Bony—or as Swansea's furthest forward attacker.
Regardless of the aforementioned quartet's similarities and differences, all have made their mark on the Premier League. Whether it be the goalscoring prowess of Michu, the cerebral defensive cuttings of Cazorla and Silva or the decisiveness and efficiency of Juan Mata, each have earned many richly deserved plaudits.
In their own way, each has proven that the Spanish No. 10, whatever his individual style, can not just cut it in the Premier League but can prosper. And as Spain continues to develop fantastic young talent—witness their recent successes at under-21 and under-19 levels—while England continues to struggle to bring through real decisive playmakers of their own, it is a process that may well be set to do nothing but continue.
Maybe someone like Everton's Ross Barkley will prove the exception to the rule, particularly if his Spanish manager Roberto Martinez adopts the very much en-vogue 4-2-3-1 formation.
Nevertheless, such is the power drain in La Liga at present from those outside the top two, coupled with the outstanding quality throughout the Spanish national system, that the process of the Spanish playmaker rising to the top and stamping their mark on the English top division may not be over anytime soon.
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