The idea of the box-to-box midfielder is a very English concept, but has been largely absent since the era of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. Under the guidance of Maurizio Sarri, the role is returning to prominence in the shape of Chelsea’s Ross Barkley, writes Musa Okwonga.
In tactical terms, 2018 was a momentous year for English football. Liverpool reached the UEFA Champions League final, and England advanced to the semi-final of the World Cup; but, in both cases, the teams were missing a player who could operate effectively in the gap between attack and midfield, who could force the play rather than respond to it. The absence of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain through injury, especially after his excellent form for Liverpool in the later stages of the Champions League, was thus lamented by supporters of both club and country. Worse still was the knowledge that, just a generation before, England had had both Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, two of the best number eights in history, and not known what to do with them.
If that previous generation was golden, then, from one perspective, this has unfortunately been the lost one. Jack Wilshere was heralded as a player who could dictate the tempo of the match, in the style that Thiago now does for Bayern Munich, but he succumbed too often to injury and loss of form. Beyond him, there have been few others who have looked like carrying the creative mantle for the national team. That’s why the performance of Ross Barkley, who was superb in Chelsea’s recent 4-0 Premier League victory over Burnley, is cause for celebration.
There will be various notes of caution around Barkley’s recent outing. For one, it will be argued that the opposition were only Burnley, who are far from the defensive force they were last season - they have already conceded 21 times in 10 league games, compared with 39 goals conceded in 38 league games last season. Still, it took some guile to prise them open, and Barkley was the supplier-in-chief, scoring once and laying on another excellent assist. He played with rare restraint, completing 96 passes with a 93% pass completion rate, and keeping the ball moving without fuss. It was the type of showing that many commentators thought beyond him - in the past, he has frequently been criticised, and not without foundation, for making poor decisions in the final third and conceding possession too frequently.
Maurizio Sarri, the Chelsea manager, hailed Barkley afterwards as a “complete” player, which felt like a poignant description; there was a time when the box-to-box-midfielder was a staple of the English game, and it feels ironic that it has taken an Italian manager to develop Barkley into the footballer he should be. Maybe this is fitting, though. There may be a sense in which a generation of England’s midfielders, in tactical terms, have suffered from the impatient, less contemplative style of the domestic game. The midfield three is now a staple of Premier League teams, but for a long time 4-4-2 formations were the norm. As a result, many footballers grew up in an era where the emphasis was on constant forward motion, and without a concept of “la pausa”, the quality of being able to slow down the attack until gaps appear in the opposing defence.
Though “la pausa” is a Spanish concept, exemplified by Xavi, Andres Iniesta, and Sergio Busquets, it was heartening to see it displayed by another English player recently - by Tottenham Hotspurs’ Harry Winks, appropriately wearing the number 8, in his appearance as a substitute against Manchester City. Though Spurs suffered a 1-0 loss in that Premier League game, Pep Guardiola was full of praise for Winks afterwards, enthused by the young international’s deft and creative use of the ball.
With Phil Foden, a star of England’s U17 World Cup victory, waiting in the wings at Manchester City, it thus seems that England’s players have finally absorbed a few years’ worth of Continental lessons. Whilst Winks, Barkley and Foden have a considerable way to go before they can ever match the achievements of Gerrard and Lampard, England now look far better equipped to handle the rigours of international competition than they have in a very long time. That’s thanks in no small part to the return of the number eight - that most British of concepts, brought back to prominence by the foreign finishing school of Mauricio Pochettino, Sarri and Guardiola.
Musa Okwonga is a poet, author, journalist, broadcaster, musician, social commentator, football writer and consultant in the fields of creativity and communications. Musa also co-presents the Rabona podcast.