Friday, May 1, 2009

Gang of Four: Great Midfield Maestros

Running the midfield can be a difficult proposition. The proliferation of the 4-5-1 has choked some of the spontaneity from deep-lying midfielders, forcing managers to adopt a more strategic "horses for courses" approach (pick 4 or 5 across the middle, each with a specific role), but today in Gang of Four, we're throwing back to a day when the area between the 18-yard-boxes was a virtual playground for those blessed with enough preternatural talent to take advantage.

Before the days of the defensive midfielder, the playmaking maestro was king. We salute four such gods of the midfield who had it all: precision long-range passing, skill enough on the ball to dribble holes in defenses, toughness to ride through the tackle, spontaneity, and goalscoring power.

Gheorghe Hagi (1982-2001)
"You seem to be considered good only if you can run fast, or are physically strong. What about individual skills?"

The unfairly-dubbed "Maradona of the Carpathians" put his stamp on football during USA '94, a lukewarm tournament that cried out for the creativity of the Zen Ponytail, Roberto Baggio, and the kinetic energy of the tiny Romanian. I say unfair because although comparison to Maradona is a dream for most players, little Gheorghe deserved to be recognized on the strength of his own achievements. I dare say in some little nook of Eastern Europe, the next Hagi undoubtedly lurks (had he not already retired, I'd put Greece's Euro '04 wizard Theodoros Zagorakis in the Hagi category).

He was pure soccer talent stuffed into a tiny 5'8" frame, feet capped with size five boots, and capable of beating you with speed or strength. Broad and immune to the then-legal tackle from behind (the best ace up any mediocre defender's sleeve, intimidation via the cheap shot), Hagi's career can be viewed in three phases: 9 years of quiet accomplishment in Romania, a vault to Real Madrid and Barca (with tiny Serie A side Brescia in between), and then late success in Turkey.

Like a great artist, he went through periods of beauty and depression (the latter coming in arguably his biggest exposure to the spotlight: 2 seasons at Real Madrid in the early 90s, and 2 seasons at Barcelona after USA '94), coming up biggest on the big stage.

For all his individual skill with both feet, he was also the consummate team player, continually shepherding his teammates to dizzying heights previously thought unimaginable. Heck, his skill in finagling Romania, by all accounts a limited squad, to the quarter-finals in 1994 says it all.

Ex-French international Luis Fernandez once said that "Hagi is like wine, the older it gets, the better it is," and he was spot-on; after struggling in La Liga with the Big 2, Hagi decamped for Galatasaray, where he won just about everything there was to win. 4 straight Turkish Super League titles, 2 Turkish Cups, the UEFA Cup (running over the favoured Arsenal in the process) before capping his final domestic season with a UEFA Super Cup triumph over former club Real Madrid.

Antonin Panenka (1967-1982)
"My credo and belief has always been to entertain the spectators. First of all, I had to enjoy myself and like the football that I was playing, but I also wanted to give fans who are working all week something that would please them when they came to watch on Sunday, which they would talk about all day in the pubs afterwards."

The mid-70s gave us one of the best tournaments ever in Euro '76, with the excitement provded by the four teams that took part. Holland, West Germany, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia played four glorious games, complete with drama, comebacks, penalties, beautiful goals, and pure attacking football.

Emerging from the dust unscathed were the Czechs, thanks in large part to their insouciant, moustached midfielder who birthed the cheekiest penalty trick the world has ever seen.

Antonin Panenka was, as dubbed by the French press, "a poet", blessed with otherworldly vision and a passing accuracy that has rarely been replicated since. 15 years of toil in the Austrian leagues may have consigned him to the fringes of Greatest Player discussions, but Euro '76 gave him the perfect platform with which to present his resume.

It's that penalty; not only was it a perfectly-executed statement of intent, but it was done in the high-pressure situation of the PK shootout after a blood, sweat and tears final with the West Germans, who reckoned they'd struck a crucial psychic blow with their 89th minute equalizer. And now, with Panenka ready to strike, knowing that his kick would decide the affair, he dragged his feet long enough to watch Sepp Maier commit to diving left before gracefully clipping the ball softly down the middle, leaving Maier a powerless spectator from the floor.

Pele reckoned him to be "a genius or a madman", and few can argue. Equally deadly from the free-kick, Panenka let his passing and shooting do the talking, although for most, it all comes back to that penalty, and the legions of players who've attempted it since.

John Barnes (1981-2000)
"Barnes did what we expected him to do. He made a goal, scored one, and entertained. You remember that." - Kenny Dalglish after Barnes' Anfield debut for Liverpool in 1987

Barnes was a big man. Not orca fat or anything, but considering the svelte, skinny masses that surrounded him on every team for which he played, his skill and grace are even more astounding.

The Jamaican-born Watford and Liverpool midfielder/left winger was a master of his domain, the man so good that as manager, Kenny Dalglish bought him THREE times (once for Liverpool, then for Newcastle, then for Celtic in the twilight of his career). Never one to take too many touches or strides, he conserved his limited energies for when they were needed most. Blessed with an unlikely change of pace for such a giant, "Digger" Barnes was the driving force behind Liverpool's great run in the 80s/90s, winning 2 FA Cups, 2 League Titles (including Liverpool's last in 1989/90), and a few Charity Shields for good measure.

As provider for Peter Beardsley, John Aldridge and Ian Rush, (Barnes was one of the game's best crossers), Liverpool were unstoppable; to put it in context, Barnes managed 22 goals from the left wing in that league winning 89/90 season, while Ian Rush, far and away the more prolific goalscorer, could only manage 18 up front.

He also played the game with a heavy dose of fun and enjoyment, which wasn't exactly easy back in the mid 80s; moving to Liverpool brought the ire of the far right, who showered him with racist taunts at every opportunity. In 1987, a game against Everton at Goodison Park brought out the anger in the home fans, and there exists an iconic shot of him casually backheeling a banana off the pitch. Never one to get caught up in the politics surrounding the game, Barnes used football to silence his most xenophobic critics.

And then there's that goal at the Maracana in 1984, against a backdrop of abuse from the National Front who felt he had no place on the team. It was Maradona's goal in '86 before Maradona got started, a mazy run through the heart of the Brazilian team, untouched en route to goal.

That was the magic of John Barnes. Every time the ball was at his feet, you knew such miracles were possible.

Michel Platini (1972-1987)
"When I was a kid and played with my friends, I always chose to be Platini. I let my friends share the names of my other idols between themselves." - Zinedine Zidane

As batshit insane as the Frenchman is in his role as President of UEFA, we must give the man immense credit for his bewitching beauty during his playing days. At the core of France's "carre magique" of the 80s and the Juventus midfield that dominated Europe, Platini was the ultimate #10 when numbers on shirts still carried that weighty significance.

Platini could do it all with both feet. He was goalscorer, orchestrator, dead-ball specialist and peerless midfield general, reading the game with such clarity and foresight that one could be forgiven for thinking he'd already played the game in the future before zipping back to run through it step-by-step as it happened the first time around.

With a strikerate well above scoring every other game (312 in 580 for clubs AS Nancy, St Etienne, Juventus, and for France), Platini was god's gift to the attacking midfield. Laboring through 3 World Cups, including that 3-3 game with West Germany (he was instrumental throughout; though the Germans won on penalties, he still considers it the best game of his career), as well as a victory in Euro '84, scoring 9 of France's 14 goals in just five matches. That tournament on home soil was a perfect distillation of his brilliance; scoring two "perfect" hat-tricks (header, goal with left foot, goal with right foot) along the way.

Few #10s have shown such dominance since.


The NY Kid said...

/wipes tears from eyes after last video

Platini: From Midfield Maestro to Pernicious President.

Joep Smeets said...

off all these guys ive really only seen hagi play, and his legendary world cup was when i was pretty young too. Nice profiles though and a great feature.

For me, from the ones ive seen play I would have gone with

Hagi, Rui Costa, Totti and Litmanen

The Fan's Attic said...

Is it just me or would not Zizou be considered a "Midfield Maestro"?

The NY Kid said...

Zizou is THE Midfield Maestro. There can be only 1.

30f said...

Great feature. This and the 'Individual Seasons' one are definitely top notch.

I look forward to the upcoming 'Own Goaling Defenders' and 'Talented but Surprisingly Brittle Dutchmen' pieces.

The NY Kid said...

please, these need to be limited to 4!

Keith said...

I'll also anticipate the "kalamitous keepers" GOF