The deep-lying playmaker is one of the most important positions in football.
In many tactical set-ups, the playmaker is a more advanced midfielder and those who play at the base of midfield are tasked with moving the ball forward quickly to said player. But in the most intense passing teams there is nearly always someone at the base of midfield, a playmaker who sets the tempo of the side. Who has the ability to bend the game to their will. That is so key to the modern game, especially in sides that intend to play through possession.
This is not just about defensive midfielders who can pass, nor is it about the kind of central midfielders who will drop deep to receive the ball and then also push up, or go wide, etc. This is about footballers who play primarily at the base of midfield, and whose chief function is to dictate play from there with intelligent passes through and beyond opposing midfield lines.
To ensure our selection process was consistent, we only drew from a pool of players whom met the following criteria: since the start of 2016/17 they will have had to play more than 1,000 league minutes, average at least 10.0 passes into the final third per-90 minutes, created at least 0.50 chances from open play per-90 and take less than 1.00 touches inside the opponent’s box per-90.
With those selection criteria in mind, here are the top 10 deep-lying playmakers in the game:
10. Jordan Henderson
Liverpool and England, 28 years old
Jordan Henderson is a wicked passer of the ball, able to stretch the field like few else in the game. His eye for a pass and his ability to execute it quickly has helped launch so many fast counter-attacks for both Liverpool and England. He’s also a workhorse on defence, and while he can often be exposed when it comes to marking space (hence why Liverpool fans want to see Fabinho in big games) his importance in the passing game is why Jurgen Klopp and Gareth Southgate keep picking him.
9. Granit Xhaka
Arsenal and Switzerland, 26 years old
Xhaka is a player who can be perfectly described as ‘oft-maligned’, often unfairly. It’s rare that a player is so often criticised for what he isn’t, rather than praised for what he is, and part of that must be laid at Arsenal’s feet for so rarely putting Xhaka in a position to truly shine in big games. But there can be no doubting the Swiss’ ability to ping a ball across the pitch perfectly into someone’s path. And whilst Xhaka’s not exactly a defensive dilettante he’s not, y’know, good at it. Still, he tries and that’s commendable.
8. Marcelo Brozovic
Inter and Croatia, 26 years old
The forgotten third man in Croatia’s magical midfield trio that helped the tiny nation make the World Cup final. Brozovic used to be a runner, a box-to-box man known for his energy, but lately he’s learned to perfect a more restrained role at the base of midfield. He is relentless when it comes to collecting the ball but then distributes it perfectly.
7. Leandro Paredes
PSG and Argentina, 24 years old
Bizarrely underrated by many, Paredes has all the makings of the next great Argentine No.5, a true heir to the legacy of Fernando Redondo. Sure, Javier Mascherano was a legend but he was a more limited kind of bruiser in midfield, Paredes is an artist. His control over the ball and ability to escape the opposing press and set tempo could prove crucial in PSG’s attempts to finally win the Champions League. He is Thiago Motta’s heir and the man who could truly unleash Marco Verratti.
6. Dani Parejo
Valencia and Spain, 29 years old
Valencia’s metronomic captain has long gone under the radar, probably because he’s Spanish so can’t get a look-in for the national side and plays for Valencia, who are easily the least-fashionable of Spain’s big sides. But here’s the thing: Parejo’s brilliant. Capable of defending well his use of the ball is sensational, unleashing the vast array of forwards (not all of them good) that Valencia have at their disposal. Could have been a true baller had a bigger club taken a chance, but will have to settle for being a legend for Los Che.
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Chelsea and Italy, 27 years old
Not to get all Sir-Alex-defending-Verón here, but ignore the nonsense being said about Jorginho.
There’s a reason Pep Guardiola wanted him to replace Fernandinho at Manchester City. He’s a majestic and metronomic deep-lying playmaker. Jorginho moves the ball so smoothly as a second instinct, passing to him seems to be like breathing. Just something he does. Smashed the Premier League record for passes made within months of his arrival and only Chelsea’s general malaise has stopped him having a great debut season.
4. Marco Verratti
PSG and Italy, 26 years old
The Italian midfielder is so goddamn good that Barcelona pursued him so often and with such gusto that PSG got mad and signed Neymar just to warn the Blaugrana to keep their hands off their man.
Verratti can do almost literally everything in football, defending and then distributing the ball with almost unerring ease. You can’t press him and if you back off he can pick out a team-mate 40 yards away. All that’s stopping him from being the best in the world is his lack of production when the chips are down on the big European stage.
Bayern Munich and Spain, 27 years old
In terms of pure talent, Thiago Alcantara is obviously the best footballer on this list. What makes him so amazing is that he can play as part of a double pivot, or a midfield three, or despite being a skinner technician, can be sensational at the base of midfield by himself. His first-touch is of the finest silk and his awareness of everything around him makes him so dangerous he can beat you with the pass and the dribble. Educated under Pep Guardiola (and Barcelona then Bayern Munich), Thiago has matured into one of the finest all-around talents on the planet whose greatest weakness is the fact that his ligaments are made of wet cardboard.
2. Toni Kroos
Real Madrid and Germany, 29 years old
When you think of passing, you think of Toni Kroos. His career at Real Madrid saw him drop back from a No.10 to play as a deep-lying playmaker, and while his defending has always left a lot to be desired, when he has the ball at his feet he’s been simply unreal. Kroos plays passes short, long, high, low, diagonally or straight and if he has to cross he can do that too. If Kroos is given the right kind of support system then he could play on as a deep-lying playmaker for another five years at least. The Prussian Pirlo.
1. Sergio Busquets
Barcelona and Spain, 30 years old
Sometimes one incident is so ridiculous that it defines your career. Sergio Busquets’ play-acting to get Thiago Motta sent off in a Champions League semi-final almost an entire decade ago still lives more freshly in the memory than the literally hundreds of world-class displays of midfield mastery before and especially since.
Long-legged and awkward, Busquets doesn’t look like a footballer at first glance. But he plays like one. A genius whose understanding of tempo and positioning mean that even though he’s about as fast as a 74-year-old in the middle of their siesta, he is rarely found wanting defensively – and not just because he is magnificent at making and drawing tactical fouls.
The way he is able to split the opponent in two with his penetrative passing makes him a genuinely essential part of any team he’s playing in, even if that team has Leo Messi in it. Try and watch Barcelona without Busquets, even if Messi is there the team simply does not play the same type of football. They can’t. Busquets is Barcelona. The finest deep-lying playmaker in the world.