Tuesday, 16 Apr 2024

Understanding the Role of a Playmaker in Modern Football

what is a playmaker in soccer

Playmakers have once again become crucial in football, particularly due to the popularity of the 4-2-3-1 formation, which requires at least one creator in the attacking midfield line. However, defining what exactly constitutes a playmaker can be challenging. The question varies in different football cultures. While Argentina has its revered “enganches” or No.10s, in other countries like Croatia, players like Luka Modric can also be considered playmakers, even if they don’t play in formations with a number 1.

Origins of Playmakers

In the early stages of football, playmakers were known as inside-forwards. Their role was to receive the ball from the wing-halves and link the midfield with the attackers. The first playmakers can be traced back to the inside-forwards of Scotland’s 2-2-6 formation, such as Robert Leckie and James Begg Smith. However, it was in South America, particularly with Uruguay’s Olympic champions of the 1920s, that the inside-forwards began dropping deeper and becoming effective playmakers.

As formations evolved, the role of the playmaker became more defined. In England, Herbert Chapman’s Arsenal employed the first British playmaker, Alex James. He was responsible for initiating counterattacks with precise through-balls to the wingers. In Brazil, the development of the diagonal in the late 1940s saw the emergence of the “ponta da lança,” an advanced inside-forward who connected midfield and attack. A notable example of this was Pele in the 1958 World Cup.

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4-2-4 and Beyond

The introduction of the 4-2-4 formation by Brazil in 1958 led to further variations in the positioning of playmakers. In Argentina, the 4-3-1-2 formation became popular, with an attacking midfielder, known as a playmaker, operating behind two forwards. Other European nations, like the Netherlands, West Germany, and the USSR, opted for symmetrical 4-3-3 formations, occasionally incorporating a deep-lying playmaker, such as the libero.

The Bilardo Protocol

The role of the playmaker became even more complex with Carlos Bilardo’s tactical switch during the 1986 World Cup. Bilardo moved Diego Maradona from a classic playmaker position to a second striker role to exploit England’s physical defense. This shift blurred the lines between playmakers and second strikers, leading to ambiguity in categorizing players like Dennis Bergkamp, Roberto Baggio, and Gianfranco Zola.

The Modern Playmaker

The advent of the 4-2-3-1 formation has brought new possibilities for playmakers. Teams can now incorporate a deep-lying playmaker, like Xabi Alonso, as one of the holding midfielders. This allows for dual creative hubs while maintaining defensive solidity. Additionally, the emergence of the 4-2-1-3 formation suggests a return to the playmaker/second striker hybrid, operating behind a front three. In essence, the playmaker is coming full circle, once again creating opportunities for the central striker and wingers.

Ultimately, the concept of a playmaker extends beyond a specific position; it is a state of mind. The ability to create and influence the game is what defines a playmaker in the modern era.


Q: Can a playmaker play in positions other than the center?
A: While playmakers traditionally operate in central positions, players like Luka Modric have shown that they can excel in different roles and formations.

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Q: Who were some of the first playmakers in football?
A: The early playmakers can be traced back to inside-forwards like Robert Leckie and James Begg Smith of Scotland’s 2-2-6 formation. Later, players like Alex James and Pele became notable playmakers.

Q: How has the role of the playmaker evolved over time?
A: The role of the playmaker has evolved as formations and tactics have changed. From inside-forwards linking midfield and attack, to deep-lying playmakers and second strikers, the playmaker’s position has become more fluid and versatile.


Understanding the role of a playmaker in modern football involves recognizing their ability to create and influence the game. Playmakers have evolved from inside-forwards to deep-lying playmakers and even second strikers. The emergence of formations like 4-2-3-1 and 4-2-1-3 indicates a return to the playmaker’s origins, with increased emphasis on supporting the central striker and wingers. The concept of a playmaker goes beyond a specific position; it is a mindset that focuses on creativity and game-changing abilities.

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