Is Using Talented Playmakers Out Wide a Net Positive?

Jamie Scott looks at the kind of relationships certain types of wide attacker form, and how they benefit the team as a whole

Playmakers are typically players who catalyse ball progression and/or creation in and around the final third. They are dynamic in the angles they receive at, and smart in the way they orientate themselves in order to retain possession when playing in tight spaces. Archetypal playmakers include (but aren’t limited to) #10s like Mesut Ozil and David Silva, players who typically operated in the central zone or half-spaces.

So it is of great interest that the current tactical discourse surrounds the utility of wide playmakers. This topic itself encompasses the use of #10 like players out wide, and wingers with a proclivity to invert being instructed to remain in the wide zone. The common perspective is that utilising playmakers – players with such creative threat – in the wide zone limits them individually. This article will take the counter-consensus standpoint, presenting, and aiming to provide evidence for, the notion that utilising playmakers in the wide zone is a net positive for elite-level teams.

Style and Position of Wide Playmakers: Grealish and Saka

To be able to quantify whether wide playmakers are effective, we need to first understand the role that these players actually have in their respective teams. To interrogate this, we will look at Jack Grealish and Bukayo Saka.

Jack Grealish, who was regularly utilised as a floating #10 in his time at Aston Villa, has almost exclusively been used on the (left) wing by Pep Guardiola in 2022. His primary quality in the #10 position, particularly for a team like Aston Villa, was his high ball retention when receiving in a plethora of positions and angles, while attracting defenders with his gravity in ball possession. Grealish became the hub for all good things going forwards for Villa and his performance levels were genuinely world class; he was an incredible ceiling raiser for Dean Smith’s side.

At Manchester City, Guardiola has identified these qualities as integral to his style of play and utilises him in the wide spaces. Grealish attracts defenders when he’s on the ball and has been instructed to drive down the line. This notion is corroborated by Grealish’s action maps.

Jack Grealish tends to carry down the wing before engaging the defender(s) in the final third, once he is in more potent positions
Jack Grealish draws defenders into the wide space, such is the threat he poses in possession with his carries and dribbles

Bukayo Saka’s role under Mikel Arteta is cut from the same cloth as the role Guardiola devised for Grealish. Saka is encouraged to receive from the progression phase in the wide zone, as he is therefore able to receive a higher volume of progressive passes.

Bukayo Saka largely receives in the wide zone, particularly in the middle third, during team progression

In a similar vein to Grealish, Saka is a dynamic player when receiving, shielding the ball well if an opponent presses his first touch, but is equally capable of rolling his defender or making a half-turn if afforded space. His ball retention is excellent, and he is a top dribbler, which allows him to commit defenders. He has started to slow the game down at times, when receiving in the final third, which enhances his gravity – drawing defenders towards him in the wide zone.

Bukayo Saka’s Winger Actions suggest that Saka has a strong proclivity to the wide space, dribbling, crossing, and creating from the wide zones

Like Grealish, Saka is playing on the opposite wing to their strong foot (i.e., right-footed on the left or vice versa) – so the lack of actions upon inverting would appear surprising to the naked eye on two fronts: the players would be expected to drift inside to receive, and the players would be expected to make dribbles from out-to-in in a more lateral fashion (i.e., cutting in across defenders). But a combination of natural player development (these are ball-heavy playmakers), and tactical input from their respective managers, has seen Grealish and Saka develop into highly disciplined attacking weapons.

Downstream Effects of Using Wide Playmakers

It is established that teams would create with ease if they were granted access to the central space (more specifically zone 14); simply put, top teams will punish you if you grant them time and space in dangerous zones. By association, the half-spaces became a high-threat creation zone, due to their near-central location – as a result they are also now a high-priority defensive zone.

An emerging tactical trend amongst the more progressive elite-level managers is the use of overloads/rotations in one zone to draw attention away from a different zone (which the team will then look to exploit the space within after a quick switch for example). The use of players with gravity has been an age-old strategy to draw defensive attention into a certain area, freeing up attacking teammates in other zones, thus giving them opportunities to create. The strict utilisation of high-gravity playmakers in the wide zone is a relatively new phenomenon, however.

And this is the method behind Grealish and Saka playing such an altruistic role in their respective wide zones. Grealish offers threat dribbling into depth and creating in the wide zone/cut-back zone. Saka offers threat carrying down the line before engaging with a devilish 1v1 ability and huge threat when looking to execute crosses or shots on his left foot in the final third. These players drag defenders out wide, and down towards the touchline. And this play has a number of downstream benefits.

Bukayo Saka and Martin Odegaard

Martin Odegaard is perhaps a slightly overlooked player in Arsenal’s current star-studded line-up. He keeps play ticking in ball possession, with high involvement in the progression and attacking phases. His nominal position is as an #8 on the right side of the midfield three, and this means he will naturally aim to have a high volume of touches in the right half-space. Typically, an industry-standard defensive block would cover the half-space in their settled shape, with at least one player ensuring that an opponent like Odegaard would never have reasonable time/space in this zone. But such is Saka’s ability to drag his defender deep and wide, with his 1v1 ability, the defensive block must shift across to support the defender. This shift opens space in other zones, such as the half-space, for Odegaard to receive in a high volume and orchestrate play.

Odegaard isn’t such a creative catalyst, at least not typically: he doesn’t play raking balls, and he isn’t the sole (or even primary) creator in Arsenal’s lineup. But the pockets he finds himself in allow him to optimise his performance to match the team’s needs.

Martin Odegaard has a high involvement in ensuring Arsenal’s attacking play runs seamlessly – in terms of moving the ball and retaining possession. He primarily operates in the right half-space, and is a downstream beneficiary of Bukayo Saka’s wide game
Martin Odegaard isn’t a high-volume creator as such, but when spaces arise, he exerts a massive influence or Arsenal’s attacking play. The space to create in zone 14 is a bonus

Jack Grealish and Joao Cancelo

Joao Cancelo is perhaps a higher profile creator for Manchester City than Martin Odegaard is for Arsenal, and not just because of his absurd technical levels or audacious outside-of-the-foot crosses. Cancelo, a right-footed left-back, ranks highly within Manchester City’s line-up for Expected Threat (xT), and much of this threat is generated in the left half-space. In a similar vein to how Saka’s gravity opens space for Odegaard, Grealish’s carrying ability down the line combined with his ball retention and gravity ensure that he’s a significant priority for the defensive side to contend with. Logically, this means Grealish gains attention in the form of defenders, resulting in time/space for Cancelo in the left half-space. With Cancelo’s ability to execute his attacking actions so cleanly when granted space in attacking zones, City can create through this mechanism; and it’s needless to say they score a multitude of goals with recipients like Erling Haaland waiting for Cancelo’s crosses in the box.

Joao Cancelo has made the out-swinging right-footed cross from the left a trademark in recent times, as a result of City’s attacking mechanisms, but he is equally potent making in-swinging crosses or chipped through-balls/reverse passes. He is a phenomenal creator in the left half-space, and this is facilitated by Grealish’s gravity on the left wing

Discussion & Conclusion

The downstream benefits of using such a playmaker like Saka or Grealish in the wide zones aren’t limited to opening spaces for a teammate in the corresponding half-space. There’s credence to the notion that having such gravity in the wide zone has a plethora of high-value benefits across the field. Opponents are less primed to launch critical counter-attacks if a number of their players are attracted to a deep and wide zone within their own half, for example. Furthermore, seam runs from the corresponding half-space member can also open new passing lanes for other players to be found in space.

Rodri’s performance as a #6 for Manchester City has been widely accredited, but its worth noting that his role refines his game down to a very simple level. The 4-3-3 that City use means he plays at consistent angles, and mechanical off-the-ball runs means he knows where his runners will likely be upon receiving. His aerial switched-diagonal pass has become a trademark, and facilitating this sort of play (often in zone 14) is often a downstream benefit of City’s left wing dynamics.

In a similar vein, Arsenal scored from zone 14 against Spurs recently, in a scenario where Saka attracted Son and Perisic, while Odegaard committed to his run into depth. Saka could slow the game down, draw his markers, and lay off to White who in turn laid off for Partey to shoot in a high-threat zone.

What is also interesting to discuss, is the comparison between high-gravity playmakers such as Saka or Grealish, who have the capability to slow the game down, with high-intensity wingers who also have a proclivity to attack down the line, in Gabriel Martinelli and Phil Foden. Both Martinelli and Foden like to drive down the left wing, and often generate similar scenarios for their teammates in these situations.

But the downstream benefits arising from these players’ actions are perhaps less than those generated by Saka and Grealish. This could be because Martinelli and Foden are more output-oriented and tend to speed the game up with their dribbles and runs, both of which lead to individual output rather than attracting attention to find space elsewhere. It’s hard to quantify which has more value, the wide playmaker or the classic winger, but the question is moot because you can include both within one team – as City and Arsenal do.

A more prudent question could well be: is the impact of a playmaker in the wide zone greater than the impact they could make in a central or free role? In other words: would Grealish or Saka have a greater positive impact in their current altruistic role, or in a more central role? Individually, perhaps they would in a central role, but in terms of net positives for a team, for the reasons discussed in this article, I would argue their wide role is a strong net positive for both teams.

Header image: Shutterstock/MDI

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