Europe's most underrated playmakers
A few years ago, counterattacking 4-3-3 formations were dominant across Europe. The "playmaker" seemed an antiquated role, as South American No. 10s like Juan Roman Riquelme and Pablo Aimar failed to have the impact in big leagues that their talent hinted at. Now, positive football is in vogue and short-passing players are fawned over like never before. Here are five of Europe's most underrated playmakers.
Danny (Zenit St. Petersburg and Portugal)
There is something particularly imaginative about the way Danny plays football. He's forever demanding the ball, dropping deeper and deeper to collect it, and tending to receive the ball on the run, often drifting inside toward goal before his first touch. From there, it's almost as if he tries to do what is most fun with the ball rather than what is necessarily most effective. He's obsessed with playing the ball with the outside of his right boot, often down the left flank, searching for Alexander Kerzhakov's moves into the channels. Sometimes it comes off, often it doesn't, but it's difficult to get too frustrated with a player who always wants to turn on the style.
Danny is an adaptable player. He's versatile in terms of positioning -- he generally plays on the left for Zenit, but can switch to the right or play through the middle. More importantly, he can create in two completely different situations, either by running with the ball on the break, Zenit's favored form of attack, or by creating and exploiting space in otherwise packed defenses.
It's easy to see why he doesn't get a great deal of attention. Danny plays in a slightly obscure league, and being both foreign-born and foreign-based means he lacks vociferous support from his "home" country of Portugal. As he showed in the thrilling 2-2 draw with Shakhtar Donetsk this week, however, he's a magical player when on form.
David Pizarro (Roma)
The Chilean seemed to be perfect for manager Luis Enrique's "BarcaRoma" project -- small, energetic and a brilliant user of the ball. If Enrique was trying to replicate Pep Guardiola's side, few other players in Europe would be so unperturbed at being asked to play the Xavi Hernandez role. But so far, Enrique hasn't shown a lot of love to "Pek," short for pequeno. Fitness problems have complicated the situation, as Pizarro is yet to play a full league game under his new manager.
Pizarro is perhaps not a classic playmaker. He plays deep in midfield, controlling the game rather than creating chances. His passing is reliable and understated but occasionally spectacular. In Luciano Spalletti's legendary 4-6-0 formation, he was superb, able to pick out midfield runners with long balls over the top. In Claudio Ranieri's modified version of the system, his long diagonals for Mirko Vucinic and John Arne Riise were crucial at spreading the play.
He retired from international football in 2005 and therefore missed the legendary Marcelo Bielsa era, and his subtle, understated manner means the occasional viewer might miss his brilliance. The more you watch him, however, the more you appreciate his quality. Let's hope Enrique proves that theory right, and Pizarro becomes a fixture in the Roma side this season.
Santi Cazorla (Malaga and Spain)
Victorious at Euro 2008, 37 caps for Spain despite its wealth of attacking talent, and a 21 million euro summer signing ... it might seem crazy to suggest Cazorla is underrated. But then, his true brilliance is only starting to be appreciated. He isn't simply a good, talented midfielder, he's one of the best in his position in Europe.
It doesn't matter whether you play Cazorla on the right or the left -- he'll do the same thing, coming inside into central positions between the lines, linking play and providing through balls for the forwards. He lacks outright pace over long distances, but everything else about his game is fast. His quick feet jink away from opponents' challenges, his passes are fired to the feet of teammates, and his movement to get to the return ball is instant, often giving him a couple of yards' head start over the defender supposed to be tracking him.
Cazorla has also shown himself to be a dead-ball expert -- three goals from free kicks already this season. For a clear indication of his quality, look at how Villarreal has struggled since his departure; the lack of Cazorla seems to be the difference between being a top-four side and midtable also-rans.
Andrea Cossu (Cagliari and Italy)
No player recorded more assists in Serie A last season than Cossu -- 13 in all, and for an unfashionable club like Cagliari, that's pretty good going. A favorite of any regular Serie A watcher yet unappreciated by international coaches over the years, he's played just 135 minutes for his country. At 31, it seems he might never get a real chance.
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He usually plays behind the two forwards in Cagliari's 4-3-1-2 system, but spends much of his time drifting to the right wing, from where he's a very good crosser. Cossu is from Sardinia, the island midway between Italy and Spain. And that neatly sums up his footballing style. He isn't a stereotypical Italian player; he plays more like a Spaniard in the mold of Cazorla, Juan Mata or David Silva, and Barcelona President Joan Laporta once identified Cossu as his favorite Serie A footballer.
Cossu might come to be regarded as a modern-day, Italian version of Matt Le Tissier -- no trophies, few international appearances, but happy to be regarded as a legend at the club he loves. Incidentally, Le Tissier was also from an island, Guernsey, detached from the country he represented, and was another one admired by a Barcelona. He was one of Xavi's favorite players.
Marvin Martin (Sochaux and France)
Another short player -- just 5-foot-7, which seems to be roughly the optimum height for playmakers in modern football. Like Cossu, Martin topped his league's assist chart last season with 19, taking Sochaux from a midtable side to one that threatened to qualify for Champions League football. It fell six points short.
Unable to gain Europe-wide respect in that competition, it's at international level where Martin has shown he'll be able to cope with the inevitable move to a bigger club. His debut against Ukraine in the summer was outstanding, coming on as a substitute at 1-1, then providing two goals and one assist in a 4-1 win. His only competitive start was in a disappointing 0-0 draw against Romania, but his frequent substitute appearances suggest that France manager Laurent Blanc wants to integrate him into the side at some point. Expect plenty of calls for Martin's inclusion at Euro 2012.
It was a surprise to see him scoring so readily for France, as that's the one area of his game at club level he needs to improve on. He's hit only seven goals in more than 100 appearances. Still, with such a high rate of assists, you can hardly blame him for a lack of productivity, and the truth is that he's an old-fashioned, selfless playmaker -- happier to provide for others than to get the glory himself. The simplicity of his passing is almost as impressive as the effectiveness of it, and he should become one of Europe's most popular players.
Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He also runs zonalmarking.net.