Some of the most beautiful sights in football emanate from the deep-lying playmaker.
The position, known in Italy as the "regista" (which literally translates as "director"), is one generally occupied by the sport’s most gifted technicians. And the marriage of player and role can produce wonderful results.
Registi are often responsible for the line-breaking pass, decisively penetrating the opposition with a single touch. They are also the primary purveyors of the perfectly weighted diagonal ball switching play in order to attack from another angle, as well as the chipped pass over the top that forces the defending team to quickly turn and face its own goal.
AC Milan have a fine playmaking tradition. Indeed, some of their greatest teams have been powered by extraordinarily creative deep-lying midfielders. Through the 1990s and 2000s, Frank Rijkaard, Demetrio Albertini and Andrea Pirlo undertook some form of the regista role, becoming pivotal players in multiple domestic and continental successes along the way.
“Football is not a sport of specialists,” Arrigo Sacchi told the Guardian's Paolo Bandini in 2011. “If someone does just one thing over and over, they will get better at that thing. But is football just one thing?”
The question was rhetorical.
Sacchi led Milan to two consecutive European Cups during his first coaching reign between 1987 and 1991. He did so with a 4-4-2 system in which every player was interconnected, individuals within a highly cohesive whole. There was no real sense of speciality in his teams, and consequently, when it came to playmaking, no one man could be viewed as the sole instigator.
Rijkaard, a powerful former centre-back, joined the club in 1988 and was utilised in central midfield. As a Dutch footballer, his defensive origins were virtually irrelevant; he had the elegance and technical quality of a purebred playmaker. However, in line with Sacchi’s vision of the game, he shared creative duties.
He and his midfield partner, Carlo Ancelotti, would move simultaneously, one covering the other, to ensure balance. They defended, moved and passed in tandem, supporting and combining. Centre-back Franco Baresi would also get in on the act, starting and joining attacks when appropriate.
The multifunctional nature of players within Sacchi’s Milan meant there was no out-and-out regista. All were expected to play their parts in building attacking moves, though Rijkaard, with his sophisticated touch and probing passes, was the closest thing to a deep-lying playmaker present in the team.
This was the perfect environment for a young Albertini to develop in. After making his debut for the club in the 1987-88 campaign at the tender age of 17, he spent one year on the fringes of the first team and one year on loan at Padova in Serie B. However, in 1991-92, he became a key player.
Sacchi had moved on at the conclusion of the previous season, his great cycle having come to an end, and Fabio Capello replaced him in the dugout. Changes were coming on the pitch, too.
Ancelotti was, at 32 years old, entering his last year not just with Milan but as a professional footballer. And his playmaking partner, Rijkaard, would soon turn 29. Evidently, there was a need for fresh legs in the centre of midfield, and Albertini would provide them.
Capello retained the 4-4-2 system preferred by his predecessor, in so doing eschewing the use of a trequartista roaming behind the strikers or a regista between the defensive and midfield lines. He did, however, bring about greater specification of roles. In this respect, he showed the earliest signs of a pragmatism that contrasted Sacchi’s idealistic view of football.
Milan won consecutive Serie A titles in 1991-92 and 1992-93, while Ancelotti was phased out of the team and into retirement in favour of Albertini, who gradually assumed full playmaking duties in the centre of midfield.
The transition from shared creative responsibility to more specialised, individual roles became glaringly apparent in 1993-94 with the arrival of Marcel Desailly from Marseille.
The Frenchman replaced Rijkaard, who had returned to Ajax to see out the remaining years of his playing career. Just like the Dutchman, he was a converted centre-back. However, unlike Rijkaard, his stylistic emphasis was on destroying opposition attacks.
With primary duties to intercept, tackle, harry, win aerial balls and apply pressure, Desailly was an indefatigable defensive-midfield force. Standing at 6'1", he combined tactical intelligence and an astute reading of the game with impressive physical and athletic traits. Fast, strong and relentless, he liberated Albertini, allowing the Italian to pursue a more creative role.
Milan’s 1994 Champions League final victory over Barcelona, a 4-0 thrashing, is widely viewed as one of the finest performances of all time and perfectly exemplified the streamlined machine Capello had assembled.
Desailly blocked and chased, while Albertini searched for space. Both players were integral, though there was no doubt the latter was the chief playmaker. He would remain so until the emergence of one of the finest registi in recent times.
Andrea Pirlo had grown up a specialist. He was a trequartista both in skill and style; he had the long hair and unhurried grace of a footballer born to create, as well as the vision and passing range. However, he remained out of position until a formative loan spell with Brescia in 2001.
There, under the tutelage of Carlo Mazzone, he became a regista. He continued to play between lines, only now he was doing so from a deeper space. It was in this loan spell that he provided a memorable lofted assist for the iconic Roberto Baggio in a match with Juventus. Less than three months after that glorious pass, he was a Milan player.
Ancelotti, now Rossoneri head coach, was in need of a replacement for Albertini, who at the start of the 2001-02 campaign was 30 years old. In addition, football was changing. Teams were pressing with greater intensity and defending higher up the pitch; there was a growing need for players with calm under pressure and a good touch to operate in front of defences.
Pirlo would fulfil the deep-lying playmaker role within Ancelotti’s Milan with Gennaro Gattuso, a snarling ball-winner, operating alongside him. The clarity of his role was great within the team; there was an obvious specificity to his orchestration of moves, and an importance associated with his presence between the lines.
However, deep-lying playmakers are not always appreciated. Often, they are the players responsible for starting attacks, though they do not necessarily set up the goals and rarely get on the end of chances. This, along with their unique natures, can make them easy targets.
Pirlo left Milan in 2011, having found first-team opportunities increasingly hard to come by. Coach Massimiliano Allegri wanted extra solidity in defensive midfield, something confirmed by his signature of Dutch destroyer Mark van Bommel, and the Rossoneri’s succession of great registi came to an end.
The club has failed to win the Scudetto since, and the last three years have seen them finish outside of the top six in Serie A. There have, of course, been other issues both within the squad and the hierarchy, but the absence of a midfield director has been glaringly obvious on the pitch.
Currently, the four main contenders for the role are made up of three converted central midfielders, Riccardo Montolivo, Andrea Bertolacci and Jose Sosa, as well as a promising but ultimately untested youngster, 18-year-old Manuel Locatelli.
Milan appear to have forgotten the value of the regista. But if they need to be reminded of the role’s importance, they need not look too far back in time.