Media punta power
Pride of place this week goes once again to Levante, who stay second behind Barcelona on goal difference after beating Malaga 3-0 in the duel of the new-teams-on-the-block. It's true that Malaga lost their goalkeeper Willy (he might have to change the name on his shirt if he ever gets signed by an English team) after half an hour to a sending-off, but Levante proved themselves perfectly capable of taking full advantage, winning a game with lots of symbolic meaning attached to it.
Real Madrid's income this season will be €488 million, while Levante's will be €23 million. It's true that many sides would also be happy with Levante's income, but they probably don't reside in the same league. Malaga are also there, the nouveau riche club of La Liga, with the third highest income after the big two (€150 million) and an owner whose pockets are as deep as any. Mr Al-Thani is just biding his time, seeing how things go, but he won't have been too impressed with this result, Willy or no Willy.
The average age of the two sides must have been pretty impressive (answers on a postcard please) but, when Julio Baptista and Jose Rondon are missing, the sight of Ruud van Nistlerooy alone up front, for all his impressive statistical past, makes the Malaga project look slightly wonky. The trouble for them now, of course, is that they are the new team to dislike in La Liga, the one that everyone wants to beat. This is a difficult cross to bear for an institution that is more accustomed to condescension and patronising smiles. Some of their players - Santi Cazorla, Van Nistlerooy, Jeremy Toulalan, Baptista, Joaquin - are, of course, more adjusted to the big time, with the mentality to accompany it, but at times the schizophrenia of it all might just get to them. It certainly appeared that way in the game at Levante, a team whose expectations this season went no further than survival, both on and off the pitch. The opposite is therefore true for them, in that anything other than the misery of a relegation struggle comes as a bonus.
That's five wins on the trot now, an undefeated start to the season, and the best defensive statistics in the league. Oh - and they wear the same colours as Barcelona.
Returning to the theme of the nouveaux riches (this time in the plural), I watched Manchester City's David Silva run riot against poor Scotland last Tuesday in Alicante. The 3-1 score did not reflect the host's annihilation of their visitors, but Silva's performance got me thinking about the whole Spanish scene at the moment, and why the national side is so many light years ahead of the English one, for example - despite the power and force of the Premier League. I remember seeing Silva playing for tiny Second Division Eibar back in 2005, a side to whom several famous players, Xabi Alonso among them, have been traditionally farmed out to toughen them up. As with the Lynard Skynyrd album Nuthin Fancy, such is the philosophy of Eibar FC. I think the game was against Elche, and poor Silva (I had no idea who he was) looked as if, in the famous words of my grandmother, "a good meal would stiffen him". Skinny and frail, he was nevertheless the best player on the park, when Elche allowed him to be. It still seems incredible how far he has come, and that he has managed to adjust equally to the physical exigencies of the Premier League. He took some time to adjust, but now that he's understood how to exploit that league's particular limitations, it's party time.
Silva is another example - as if there weren't enough already of La Liga stock - of what the Spanish call the 'media punta'. This is an interesting term, which translates non-literally to the English concept of the man 'in the hole', or the one who plays behind the striker. This player has also been called the 'false number 9' but that epithet gives the (false) impression that the player is nevertheless a striker. The media punta is nothing of the sort in Spain, and there is a whole doctoral thesis waiting to be written on this one. Perhaps, in years to come, someone will look back and realise that this present period in Spain was a golden age of this type of player, and that such a proliferation of talent in this position is unlikely to ever re-occur.
As regular readers of this column will know, I've watched a lot of junior football over the past few years, following my own son's progress through the ranks here. He's now left me to weekend rack and ruin, because he's playing Varsity soccer over in Ohio for this academic year, but the lessons from my dad-on-the-touchline days remain the same.
You see things more clearly at those levels, and one conclusion I came to several seasons ago was that there are certain positions in football that can be taught but others into which players need to be born. For example, you can teach people to play full-back, centre-half (if they're the right build), even defensive midfield. True strikers might be born, but I'm happy to be contradicted on that one. My own son, a defensive midfielder, could nevertheless play almost anywhere he was asked to play, apart from media punta. When he once did play there, it was obvious that the position required a very particular set of skills, and he didn't have them. In fact, in all the years I spent watching literally hundreds of teams at these levels, I could count on a couple of hands the truly standout players in that position. Standout players in other positions occur with more frequency, which is why the present crop in Spain is so unusual, and why, in the words of Scotland's Steven Naismith, Spain are at times "unplayable".
The basic role of the media punta is to form a link between the midfield organisers and the striker(s). In a 4-3-3 formation, where a single striker is accompanied by two wider players who push up a high line, the media punta is a single player who stays ahead of the two remaining midfielders - the 'organiser' and the 'holding' player. It all sounds a bit textbook-ish, but the obvious role of the media punta here is to ensure that there is never too much 'distancia entre lineas' (distance between the lines), the affliction that Spanish coaches fear most. In fact, the legendary phrase in La Liga circles at the moment - and it was used to describe David Silva last Tuesday night - is to 'mover entre lineas' (move between the lines). As we'll come to see, La Liga teams are now experimenting with more than one media punta, if they have them in stock. And if you get them all oiled up and working, it makes life very difficult for defenders.
But why is it a difficult position to master? It's probably because, for a lot of the time, the media punta has to receive the ball with his back to the defence. As you can imagine, for a holding midfielder accustomed to always facing the play, this is a nightmare. Midfielders always have to be quick and aware, because they roam in over-populated areas, but the lone media punta is almost always under pressure because support is never guaranteed. So it depends on where you choose to receive the ball, of course.
Cesc Fabregas succeeded in England because he chose to operate in an area that was neither midfield nor forward, in the no-man's land 'between lines', as the Spanish say. He wreaked havoc there for several seasons, especially when he was joined by others who also prefer this zone, like Samir Nasri and more recently Jack Wilshere. Sometimes it was hard to see just what Fabregas' secret was, but it was an ability to switch direction, pass accurately long or short, and never signal to defenders what his real intentions were. Simple but true - and it can't be taught. Now he's joined a Barcelona side that possess two supreme exponents of the media punta art, Andres Iniesta and Leo Messi, and has consequently added to the destructive weaponry that the Catalans can unleash on almost all who attempt to oppose them.
I read somewhere recently that Barcelona are playing a 4-6 formation, or at times 3-7 (depending on how you want to define Dani Alves), without a striker. Seven midfielders? Yes - I would buy into that theory. David Villa and Pedro often operate like midfielders, with the proviso being that they will run into the forward space first, before the others. But the term 'midfielder' is misleading in a system like Barcelona's. Their fluidity of movement, often using three media punta players who flit and fly around the more static Xavi in a sort of hypnotic, unpredictable dance, simply destroys defences that have grown up on the idea that the opposition will consist of a set of players whose movements and zonal play will be more or less limited to specific areas of the pitch. Indeed, the poor Scottish centre-backs on Tuesday night were completely thrown by Spain's use of Silva and Cazorla as media puntas, with no-one identifiable to mark higher up. This sort of football is beginning to dominate the scene here, which is why Fernando Torres is losing his place in the national line-up. Players like Torres become almost redundant under this system, because they depend on quicker and more direct service, behind the lines. Torres prospered under the Xabi Alonso-Steven Gerard regime at Liverpool, two players who could feed him quickly and accurately. But at Chelsea, a side who are trying to work towards the Spanish model, the build-up play - now dictated by Juan Mata, another exponent of the art - finds Torres struggling to adjust.
Spain have an abundance of these players, so many in fact that Mikel Arteta cannot get a sniff of a game for the national side. But notice how quickly Arsene Wenger, the only manager in England who has tried to introduce the media punta cult, moved in for Arteta, once Fabregas had finally gone. Arteta, viewed as an okay sort of player by the Spanish media, has attracted great praise in England, probably because he can 'move between lines'. Frank Lampard has been one of the few English players to manage the art in recent years, which is why his more patient style always clashed with Gerrard's more bullish approach in the national side. Lampard's great tragedy was to have been born alone into the position, and to have been mistrusted by the English football media for it ever since - besotted as they have been for years with Gerrard, a much less accomplished footballer but one who ticked all the boxes for the Three Lions concept. Now, the only media punta England have got is Wayne Rooney - Wilshere may become one - but no England manager has ever had the gumption to consistently play him there.
Meanwhile, the gap widens between the haves and the have-nots, in media punta terms. Looking to dominate the world? Find yourself a few of these guys, and things might start to happen for you.