World Cup favourites choosing defensive-minded midfielders over deep-lying playmakers
The most fascinating tactical development over the past few World Cups has been the increased popularity of the deep playmaker. Having nearly become extinct around the turn of the century, it's notable that recent World Cup winners have generally depended upon a great creative influence from deep.
Take the past six World Cup winners, and they can essentially be split in half -- the early three sides used defensive-minded water-carriers in front of the defence, screening and tackling rather than creating. Brazil's 1994 side, for example, used Dunga and Mauro Silva, two players reliable with possession rather than genuinely creative. Four years later, France also played two in their final victory over Brazil, with Didier Deschamps deployed alongside Emmanuel Petit to the left. Christian Karembeu, a peculiar hybrid of a wing-back and a box-to-box midfielder, also shuttled up and down on the right of a very defensive three-man midfield. In 2002, meanwhile, it was back to a defensive Brazilian duo. Gilberto Silva played alongside Kleberson, who had replaced the more creative Juninho midway through the tournament.
Then, however, there was something of a revival. Italy's creative force in their 2006 triumph was Andrea Pirlo, who depended upon Rino Gattuso to get through the running, and who played a relaxed, reserved role and created from in front of his own defence. Spain's 2010 side used Xabi Alonso deep alongside Sergio Busquets, with Xavi Hernandez also dropping back to help out. More than anyone, Spain popularised deep-lying passers. In turn, that partly influenced the Germany side of four years later, who used Bastian Schweinsteiger, a technically gifted former winger, in a holding midfield role; their star midfielder was Toni Kroos, who played a little higher up, but in front of the opposition midfield rather than between the lines.
So what of the 2018 crop? Well, for fans of deep-lying playmakers, things aren't looking entirely promising. In a post-Pirlo-and-Xavi world, and with Italy absent and therefore denying us the opportunity to watch Pirlo's successor, Marco Verratti, it's clear that the majority of big sides are using more functional players ahead of their back four.
Spain must be considered a slight exception. Their holding midfielder is Busquets, who clearly has the passing qualities to be considered a playmaker, and is absolutely wonderful at playing disguised reverse passes into attack, but plays a very safe, reserved role for Spain and leaves the creativity to more advanced players. In a 4-1-4-1 system, Spain's most dangerous creators are Andres Iniesta, David Silva and Isco, who will look to receive the ball between the lines, albeit while taking it in turns to drop deep. Thiago Alcantara plays deeper but might not force his way into the side. Koke is another option.
Germany, meanwhile, still have Kroos. He's played all over the midfield throughout his career -- as a No. 10, as a true holding player, and has now established himself as a centre-left midfielder in a trio or a duo. It'll be the latter here, with Sami Khedira pushing forward to the right, and Kroos dictating the play. Mesut Ozil, meanwhile, will play as a conventional No. 10.
The other big sides, though, are playing battlers in those positions. Brazil's deepest midfielder will be Casemiro, who has showcased his passing skills at Real Madrid more over the past season but is largely still a holding player who keeps things simple and allows others to shine. For Brazil, he and Fernandinho will protect the defence first and foremost, with the side based around combination play from four more attack-minded players.
The fourth-favourites, France, are a similar case. N'Golo Kante will play in an all-action defensive midfield role, and while he's another whose passing has improved noticeably in recent months, he's hardly an Alonso or a Pirlo. Indeed, France's midfield is slightly lacking in creativity from deep, which makes the absence of Adrien Rabiot slightly confusing. Argentina, meanwhile, have the option of the talented youngster Giovani Lo Celso, but Javier Mascherano seems more likely to shield the defence, perhaps with Lucas Biglia, another destroyer, for company.
Belgium are an interesting case. Kevin De Bruyne will start in an even more withdrawn role than he's accustomed to at Manchester City, alongside Axel Witsel. But it seems likely that Roberto Martinez will push him forward against strong opposition, introducing an extra defensive midfielder.
England, meanwhile, are taking an unusually technical side to Russia, but defensive midfielder is the area where they're lacking creative spirit. Eric Dier is a defender as much of a midfielder, and renowned for his tackling more than his distribution. Jordan Henderson is about energy and pressing.
There might be some rare creativity in deep midfield positions from relative outsiders. Uruguay, usually based around combative players in front of the defence, look set to field Matias Vecino and Federico Valverde, with the latter particularly talented in possession. Portugal's Joao Moutinho, on his day, can spread play excellently, while Ivan Rakitic will dictate play from deep for Croatia, with Luka Modric higher up.
But look elsewhere and the likes of Mexico, Colombia and Switzerland are all fielding defensive-minded tacklers rather than creators in front of their defence, and this seems more likely to be a tournament about No. 10s.
Leo Messi, James Rodriguez, Younes Belhanda, Christian Eriksen, Christian Cuevas, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Shinji Kagawa and Piotr Zielinski all look set to be fielded as conventional No. 10s with two holding midfielders affording them that freedom. That in itself should produce some good moments -- but consistently good football tends to come from teams fielding deep playmakers, who can find more time in possession and engineer methodical attacks. The 2018 World Cup might be remembered as the one where the sturdier, more defensive and less creative midfielders made something of a comeback.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.