Creativity has an amorphous definition on the soccer field. It’s easier to think of creativity in broad strokes than it is to define precisely why a player is creative or not. The classic representative of creativity is the #10, a technical playmaker who dictates a team’s attack from a central position (long, flowing hair optional). The glamorous list of classic trequartistas includes Roberto Baggio, Zinedine Zidane, Francesco Totti, Kaka, Rui Costa, Juan Riquelme, and Carlos Valderrama.
However, as the role of the #10 changed and responsibilities evolved, the image of a playmaker broadened. It included players taking up positions deeper (Andrea Pirlo, Xavi) and wider (Ronaldinho, young Leo Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo) than the classic playmakers. Mesut Ozil is the closest to a traditional #10, but even he occupies wider spaces than his predecessors.
If “playmaker” is no longer a synonym for creativity, another term can distinguish how players are helping their teams. I land on inventiveness. It’s a quality that is similar to creativity, but slightly different. Creativity connotes something new, original, or unexpected. Inventiveness still covers the act of creating, but through an adept display of fundamentals.
It may be useful to think of these classifications as it relates to a play, rather than a player. Something creative skews proactive, creates problems for the opposition, is riskier, and indulges in more flair. Something inventive skews reactive, provides a solution to a question asked by the opposition, and does so economically. At the extremes, it is the imaginative compared to the masterful, a “Why not?” compared to “This is how we do it.”
The connection between the two is in the skills required for creativity and inventiveness. Players must possess great technique, vision, and strong situational awareness to execute a creative or inventive play. Ultimately, the desired outcome of creative or inventive play is the same: unbalance the opposition and create advantageous situations in possession. Usefulness is a requirement of successful creative or inventive play – it’s absence looks kind of like this.
Lee Nguyen and Darlington Nagbe provided an example of creative play and inventive play against Iceland. Nguyen hit a beautiful, unexpected pass to Gyasi Zardes in the 16th minute.
Nguyen runs in from the left flank and receives a pass centrally from Michael Bradley. He continues his diagonal run, and draws the attention of two Iceland defenders. Just before the cross, Nguyen has a few low-risk options: he could continue dribbling and wait for more support, or he could slide a short pass in to Ethan Finlay. However, Nguyen opts for the higher-risk, higher-reward option and plays a pinpoint cross to the six yard box to Zardes. It’s an example of using vision and skill to execute a creative goal-scoring opportunity.
Nagbe provided a spectacular moment of inventiveness against Iceland (ESPN video here). In the 89th minute, Nagbe collected a headed clearance in his defensive third (shown below in the screenshot 1). Iceland pressured hard immediately, but Nagbe shielded the ball and rode off the challenge (2-4). He immediately encountered another defender (5), but shifted his body to evade him with one touch (6-8). At this point, Nguyen’s supporting run drew two other defenders toward the ball (9).
Six seconds after he collects the ball, Nagbe is running up field with four defenders out of position. His pass allows Jerome Kiesewetter to run with the ball at speed, ultimately earning the free kick that would win the game for the US.
In a recent interview with Jeff Carlisle, Jurgen Klinsmann opined on the team’s creativity and mentioned both players:
You always hope for the next player around the block to be a difference maker. So if you come in, I think Lee could be a player that brings a lot of vision on the field. Darlington has this natural gift to keep things flowing. He’s very calm on the ball, controlled. You always hope that some players come in, break in and give you a surprising element.
Certainly the surprising element of a Yedlin is his speed, he’s courageous. He doesn’t fear anything. So that gives you an extra tool.
It’s telling that Klinsmann included DeAndre Yedlin in the response. The mandate is not just to find “creative players” in a classic playmaker sense, but players who can disrupt an opponent’s defensive shape. Let’s expand to a team context in midfield; below are the passes and take-ons in the last 15 minutes of the Iceland game.
By comparison, here is the 15-30 minute stretch in the first half that also included a goal.
Passing success is about the same in both, but the last 15 minutes of the game featured a stronger foundation for the rest of the team. Successful actions are more evenly distributed across the field in those last 15 minutes, leading to fewer weak spots the opposition could ignore.
For the rest of this year, we’ll be in proactive situations for CONCACAF qualifiers and reactive situations in Copa America. If our midfield for this cycle is built around Bradley, it’s worth considering the creative and inventive implications. Doing so will give Klinsmann the best opportunity to play difference makers in and around the midfield.