The most pivotal player in a modern, top-flight football team is not the goal-grabbing striker. It's not the goalkeeper. It's not even the mercurial, creative No. 10.
No, the most crucial player is the deepest midfielder, who simultaneously shields the defence and starts passing moves.
The identity and style of this player influences a team's approach more than any other. Defensive midfielder or deep-lying playmaker, he occupies the same position on the pitch but takes on a different role and, consequently, signals a completely different type of team.
The nature of this player has always been a source of debate in England. In the interwar years when the pyramid system dominated, he was the centre-half. Initially, he'd been moved back from a central attacking role, turning a 2-2-6 into a 2-3-5, so he was attack-minded by nature. But the centre-half would later evolve into a defensive stopper and eventually shift back even further into the defence. His past and future were diametrically opposed; was he an attacking or defensive player?
Fast-forward the best part of a century and there's still a debate about this footballer's ideal skillset. English football is cautious by instinct and deep-lying midfielders have thus concentrated on ball-winning during the Premier League era. The 1990s were dominated by the likes of David Batty and Paul Ince, and Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane were soon to follow, both of whom became famed for their tenacity more than their creativity despite initially being more than just holding midfielders.
Chelsea's purchase of Claude Makelele in 2003 served to popularise the use of one solid defensive midfielder stationed in front of the defence; although he could play up, he chose to focus on his defensive responsibilities and left attacking to other teammates.
The mid-2000s, however, saw the reemergence of the deep-lying playmaker across Europe. Andrea Pirlo's brilliance for AC Milan was a notable exception to the idea that this player needed to be defensive. Xavi Hernandez -- albeit in a slightly more advanced role -- and Sergio Busquets later emphasised the value in technical skills from the base of midfield too.
As possession football became the default approach for top Premier League sides, English clubs embraced deep playmakers; Paul Scholes enjoyed an incredibly late peak upon moving deep and Michael Carrick offered something similar alongside him, while Arsene Wenger replaced departing defensive midfielders by shifting Denilson and Mikel Arteta -- predominantly passing midfielders who had played higher up -- into deeper roles. Tottenham often utilised the long-range passing of Tom Huddlestone, and Swansea City's Leon Britton averaged the highest passing-completion rate in the Premier League (93.3 percent in 2011-12). Teams wanted to play from deep.
The arrival of Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte at Manchester City and Chelsea respectively seemed set to further the use of players in this mould. Guardiola was a key part of Xavi and Busquets' brilliance at Barcelona and at Bayern Munich the manager deployed Xabi Alonso in a deeper role than he'd been accustomed to. Conte, meanwhile, helped to revolutionise Juventus' football with the signing of Pirlo, again shifting him into an even more withdrawn role.
Both Guardiola and Conte believed in the value of playing a pure passer deep. But neither, disappointingly, have embraced this approach for the start of their Premier League campaigns.
Conte, in particular, signed N'Golo Kante, a midfielder famed for his incredible ball-winning statistics throughout Leicester City's extraordinary title triumph. Kante isn't incompetent in possession, but his attacking qualities are based on sporadic, storming forward runs rather than guile. At Chelsea he's been handed a stricter job positionally speaking -- essentially the Makelele role -- and therefore will contribute relatively little in possession.
Cesc Fabregas' future with the club is also in question. Although he's not a proper deep-lying playmaker -- he hasn't played that role since his days in Barcelona's youth system -- he would have offered more creativity from central midfield. Instead, Conte seems determined to play Nemanja Matic and Oscar for their discipline and ball-winning qualities, though Fabregas' wonderful curling assist for Diego Costa's winner against Watford on Saturday underlines the benefits of passing quality from deep.
It would be unfair to suggest that Guardiola has turned against deep-lying playmakers at City, because he's doing something different altogether in asking his deepest midfielders to drop into defence, with the full-backs becoming bonus central midfielders. Besides, Fernandinho is perfectly capable in possession, and David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne are arguably the major beneficiaries, playing in deeper roles than usual. Still, it's a shame that Guardiola doesn't have anyone comparable to himself as a player, the type of footballer he's done so much to promote during his eight-year managerial career.
City have never entirely nailed down the perfect man for that deep midfield role, and Guardiola would have surely loved a player in the mould of Busquets, Alonso, Toni Kroos or Marco Verratti to start moves from deep. Fernandinho, as he's pointed out, would be equally happy in another position and might be perfect for the "wing-half" spot where Guardiola has used conventional full-backs.
This is all linked, too, to the decline in popularity of possession football, which seemed all the rage when Guardiola's Barca were at their peak but has taken a slight backseat behind counterattacking football. Perhaps a player like Arteta (now Guardiola's assistant, incidentally) was lucky to join Arsenal at precisely the time when players like him were dominating the deep midfield position.
There has never been more tactical variety in the Premier League, but it's still disappointing to see so few genuine deep-lying playmakers. The likes of Pirlo and Busquets have defined the last decade of European football, while Kroos and Verratti should define the next few years. English football, however, still lacks an equivalent.