Before we begin, I would like to take a second to appreciate all the modern day coaches who make football incredibly interesting and fun. Football has evolved to a point where analytical thinking is almost a basic necessity of coaching alongside pure footballing brains.
Coaching a real life team is nothing like the simulation that most fans experience through video games. It is impossible to pin down the nuances that make a coach so vital in modern football. As such, those who can translate that bird’s eye view during a real match deserve special applause and that’s exactly why we are here–to look at all things tactical and see what we can infer from our observations.
One look at the current scene will tell you that former Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City are arguably the most dangerous team in all of Europe. It is a testament to their quality that they absolutely shredded Napoli (who have a strong case for being the second-most devastating side in Europe) in their Champions League fixture. Despite Napoli missing some key players, Pep’s side were always too lethal for their opponents.
The combination of Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva in midfield alongside the pace and trickery of Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane has been the perfect compliment to the technical and finishing ability of Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus.
To be fair, neither KDB nor David Silva are a true CM. The duo are both CAM/winger hybrids who have adapted to a rather demanding position with nous. Despite having access to the services of Ilkay Gundogan (who is one of the best controlling midfielders on the planet), Pep prefers using new arrival Bernardo Silva as the primary option to replace his CMs.
So where has this fetish of CAM/winger hybrids come from? And what does it mean for the 4-3-3?
Rewind a few years and Barcelona under Pep had exactly the same as it’s LCM. Andres Iniesta was a generational player who could run between lines and offer an attacking outlet like no other. Back then, the Spaniard was complemented by two Catalan think tanks—Xavi Hernandez and Sergio Busquets.
While Iniesta ventured forward and drifted past defenders like they were traffic cones, Xavi stayed back and provided control to Barcelona in midfield with defensive reinforcement in the form of Busquets. This system was effective and brought great success to Pep and Barcelona in what is arguably the greatest run a football club has ever had in the modern era. Iniesta was a hybrid player and probably the first of his kind.
Lucho failed to implement his vision of solely utilising CAM/winger hybrids as central midfielders but the idea has become a global phenomenon. From Philippe Coutinho to KDB to David Silva—the trend has caught on like wildfire.
It was his inability to instil positional discipline in his players that led to Lucho’s failed project—neither Arda nor Denis ever truly adapted to the CM role. Even his prodigy, Rafinha, whom he groomed from being a CAM/winger to a CM, was unable to bring his tree to bear fruit.
Pep has taken this idea and turned the results inside-out thanks to the intelligence of the players at his disposal. Not only do his players understand their role, they have the discipline to stay inside and make alternating runs into the box. This kind of tactical awareness can only be developed through rigorous training and a solid positional regimen—Pep has managed to do both.
Much like the “converted winger” trend that dominates the full-back scene today, the “CAM/winger hybrids” are here to stay in midfield. It takes more than hard-work to make something so intricate work with perfection. While the former demanded hardworking wingers to put in a tackle and play deeper, the latter calls for innate ability and a very high footballing IQ.
Both those trends have their own success stories. While Antonio Valencia has been a revelation as a full-back at Manchester United, Aleix Vidal is an example of how quickly the experiment can fall apart without the right players. Iniesta, KDB and David Silva may be some fine examples, but they’re not the standard—they’re the exception.
Many will try and fail, but Lucho’s fetish has caught on and will probably change football for ever.