There is often much debate and, at times confusion, surrounding the function of the mezzala, but the role is much simpler than it lets on. And, when put into practise correctly, can be one of the most important tools in your managerial kit bag.
Some of football’s most revered tacticians have been wedded, and at times, solely reliant on a functional mezzala, sometimes mezzale (plural).
Of Italian origin, the word ‘mezzala’ hasn’t quite penetrated the water-cooler vernacular of the everyday fan on these shores.
So, when loading up your new Football Manager save, it can often be daunting when words like ‘mezzala’, ‘libero’ and ‘raumdeuter’ are flaunted in your face.
But you should not fear them, nor should you neglect them, as they could hold the key to unlocking the true potential of your squad.
With that, we’ve put together a complete breakdown of the mezzala role, from which tactics work best, to the right players suited to the role.
What is a mezzala?
At its most basic and rudimentary level, the mezzala is the widest central midfield player, or as Football Manager describes the role: “a central player that likes to drift wide, essentially a central/half winger”.
The term, a portmanteau of the Italian words ‘mezza’ and ‘ala’, means half winger, and can be best compared to a traditional No. 8 as part of a midfield three, the player who contributes most frequently with attacking moves, exploits the half space and arrives into the box with relish. Think of a more attack-minded box-to-box midfielder, but like any role, the mezzala’s function can be tailored depending on the preferences of the manager.
One of the best examples would be Paul Pogba at Juventus. In Antonio Conte’s famed 3-5-2, Pogba had a system which perfectly catered to his talents in a midfield three. Andrea Pirlo was the deep-lying tempo setter, one of Arturo Vidal or Claudio Marchisio would put in the hard yards and bring bundles of energy, and Pogba was ultimately given carte blanche to surge up the pitch and make things happen in the final third.
On Football Manager the core attributes that make up a top-level mezzala are ‘passing’, ‘dribbling’, ‘decisions’ and ‘first touch’. As a player that will be looking to create, carry the team forward, and work in tight pockets in the half space, the mezzala must be technically proficient and confident in close quarters.
As the most creative midfielder in the side as well, it is almost canon to accompany any mezzala with at least one defence-focused teammate in the middle of the park, which often means a 4-1-3-2 or a wide 4-3-3 are the best formations to utilise the specialised role. Or even a 3-5-2 in the case of Conte’s ‘Invincibles’.
Now that you know the role and how it functions, let’s look at some of the best players who can operate there.
Kevin De Bruyne
Kevin De Bruyne is one of football’s most complete and multifunctional players, a world-class factotum who is able to operate in numerous roles. Whether as a No. 10, out wide, as a shadow striker, or even as a deep-lying playmaker, the Belgian has played everywhere on the pitch.
But, more recently, as part of Pep Guardiola’s now-established 4-3-3, the City midfielder’s role may best be described as a mezzala. He is the creative release valve, collecting the ball deep and given license to gallop forward, usually out wide to create space and link up with City’s ever-present, overlapping full-backs.
From his heat map this season you can see just how high and wide De Bruyne pushes up the pitch. The central areas are usually congested as teams look to condense the space and suffocate City’s cyclical waves of attack, meaning De Bruyne often instinctively drifts wide to pull players out of position.
Remember, the term mezzala translates to half winger, so it is no surprise to see De Bruyne operating closer to the flanks and getting forward with such gusto. While we tend to associate Guardiola teams with intricate patterns of play and eye-pleasing triangles, De Bruyne actually whipped in the most crosses from open play of any central midfielder last season in the Premier League (162).
In fact, only Trent Alexander-Arnold (238), Adama Traore (183), Dwight McNeil (177) and Andrew Robertson (167) delivered more open-play crosses than De Bruyne, a quartet of exclusively ‘wide players’. His assist for Ruben Dias in the 2-1 win over West Ham this season was emblematic of this mezzala role he has taken up under Guardiola.
With the Hammers proving difficult to penetrate centrally, De Bruyne collected the ball on the right byline, before cutting infield and executing a pinpoint delivery into Dias’ path, who leapt like a salmon and duly uncorked a haymaker header.
A clearer indication of De Bruyne’s mezzala role can be illustrated with his passes received and movements network.
From this season you can see he tends to collect the ball just wide of the half space and in that crucial area between the opposition midfield and defence, while his predominant focus is, again, to shift the ball out wide (as indicated with the red arrows).
Guardiola, who is deeply wedded to Cruyffian principles, i.e. the obsession with creating space and stretching the pitch, has often utilised mezzale across his career; at Barca, for example, it was Xavi and Andres Iniesta pushing forward and linking up with Dani Alves and Eric Abidal. Now, it’s De Bruyne galloping forward and spreading the play for City.
With Rodri sitting back, recycling play and procuring the ball when out of possession, De Bruyne has creative freedom to maraud forward and wreak havoc.
We can also look at the example of Bernardo Silva, who has a similar function to De Bruyne on the other side of Guardiola’s midfield three.
From City’s most-used set-up this season, you can see Rodri is usually flanked by two mezzale. Ilkay Gundogan has also embraced a new forward-thinking role this term, and is now the Premier League’s top scorer in 2021.
“We need more players to arrive in the box,” Guardiola told his City players at the start of the year, and that shift in focus has clearly rubbed off on one or two players.
But, this is a mantra that has followed Silva for the majority of his time at the Etihad. You can see from his heat map this season it is very similar to De Bruyne’s on the opposite side of the pitch.
If you didn’t know any better you would say it was almost reminiscent of a right winger, and not a central midfielder, where Silva has played the majority of his games this campaign.
Again, the ‘half winger’ term comes into play here. Silva is literally tasked with collecting the ball deep, usually from Rodri, and pushing high into the half space on the right, waiting for an overlap from Joao Cancelo, while De Bruyne produces something similar on the left flank.
You can also see from his attributes on Football Manager 2021 that Silva is almost tailor-made to play as a mezzala, and it is actually his preferred central midfield role.
Sergej Milinkovic-Savic & Luis Alberto
One player regularly thought of in the FM circuit when discussing the role of the mezzala is Lazio’s Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, who has shone as Simone Inzaghi’s most forward-thinking central midfielder over the past few years.
The Italian coach is a man of habit, rarely (if ever) straying from his 3-5-2 system, which relies heavily on quick counterattacks and midfield balance. It will come as no surprise that Lazio finished the 2019/20 Serie A season with the most ‘fast breaks’ (44) of any club, scoring a league-high nine from those quick counters.
Milinkovic-Savic was central to that, with his driving runs and ball-carrying exploits helping Lazio push up the pitch with pace, precision and often with devastating impact. In fact, his almost telepathic link-up with Ciro Immobile has been the cornerstone of the club’s recent success.
This season the Milinkovic-Savic-to-Immobile assist to goalscorer record is Serie A’s most prolific (four goals), while the towering Serb is enjoying one of his most fruitful campaigns with six goals and seven assists.
And like De Bruyne, as well as Silva, you can see from Milinkovic-Savic’s heat map this season that he is a player who likes to collect the ball deep and push high up the pitch, diagonally, focusing almost entirely on exploiting the half space.
>For a player of such bulk and attacking prowess, his heat map somewhat contradicts our perception of what his style should be. But, that hulking frame all but belies his world-class ability on the ball, and you can see he has a propensity to attack the ‘half winger’ space, though he does naturally drop deeper compared to Silva or De Bruyne, as Lazio are not a possession-heavy side.
Luis Alberto can also be said to play a similar role on the other side of Inzaghi’s ‘three’, with the Spaniard flanking one-time Liverpool anchorman Lucas Leiva on the left. He has been the creative force behind Lazio’s ascent to the Champions League table, and continues to work beautifully in tandem with Milinkovic-Savic.
This season Alberto has made the second-most passes into the final third of any player in Serie A (270), illustrating his emphasis on getting on the ball and playing on the front-foot, with his first instinct to push forward in true mezzala style.
Rodrigo De Paul
Rodrigo De Paul is the talismanic force pulling the strings for Udinese and making things happen. He, like Alberto, ranks very high for passes into the final third this season, with the Argentine registering the fourth-most in Serie A (252).
De Paul is also similar to Silva on FM21 in that he is an archetypal mezzala, with the role attributed as his ‘best’ setting when playing in central midfield.
With key attributes in passing, dribbling, first touch and vision, De Paul would make for the perfect mezzala if you’re looking to take Udinese to the next level, or thinking of plundering their ranks.
For the club this season, he has been their chief creator and reliable goal-getter, ranking first for both metrics in Serie A, while his heat map once more shows the mezzala role in full swing, with the midfielder another who regularly inhabits the half space.
The Little Zebras also play with a three-man midfield, and De Paul, occupying the No. 10 jersey, is naturally the man tasked with pushing high up the pitch and finding gaps.