Where have all the Enganches gone?

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The above picture recently surfaced of now retired Juan Roman Riquelme with Leo Messi and Javier Mascherano and Riquelme’s son. Arguably, Riquelme was one of the last enganches to excel in Europe and possibly the world. Of course, you ask, what exactly is an enganche?

Allow me to explain.

An enganche, a Spanish term, sometimes referred to as the #10 in English, is the central midfielder tasked with the creation aspect of midfieldery. The position walks the fine line between two similarly awesome Italian terms regista (a deep-lying playmaker like Andrea Pirlo) or a treqartista (an attacking midfielder like Roberto Baggio). For example, dribblers like a younger Andres Iniesta and Pablo Aimar are easy on the eye, but don’t really dictate the pace of a game like an enganche would – they are wonderfully decisive in the attacking third – akin to oil in an engine – but not the motor itself.

Very close examples of an enganche would be Juan Roman Riquelme for Villareal and Argentina at the 2006 World Cup, along with Zinedine Zidane’s performance for France at the same tournament. Sometimes, an enganche players a bit in front or beside a single holding midfielder like Marco Senna or Javier Mascherano. Other times, he has two ball-winners behind him like Claude Makelele and Patrick Vieira.

The trend in the modern game towards a 4-3-3 with two holding midfielders means that the #10 has often turned into a false nine, an auxiliary striker who spends a large chunk of the game humming around the opposing eighteen yard box. When teams field a 4-4-2, they also opt for two central destroyers and, again, one of the strikers has to drop deep centrally to kickstart the offense (or wait for the play to develop on the flanks).

Xabi Alonso is probably the closest midfielder to an elite-level enganche in European soccer today, even if he drifts out of games and his crossfield passes make him a secondary assist machine, not necessarily a decider of games. Xavi Hernandez, the undisputed pass-master of tiki-taka, also nicely controlled his team’s tempo when at Barca. In a sense, the 2015 Champions League final (briefly near the end we got some Xavi vs. Pirlo) was a last hurrah for an older generation of defensively-suspect mercurial types with soft touches.

And I don’t buy the whole “the modern game is defensive” rubbish. Everybody says that (or some version) when a playmaking midfielder gets sold or transfers or retires. Rather, talent is a spring of water, not a conveyor belt. Some years are barren, others bountiful. When a talented enough #10 comes along, tactics will adapt to him or her. Not vice-versa. For the next few years, the hard-running Vidals and Pogbas of the world will rule the roost. In the meantime, enjoy these videos:

Riquelme at Germany 2006. Dreamy. But let’s not forget Zizou in the quarterfinals vs. Brazil.

IMAGE CREDIT: Some dude (or dudette) who takes pictures.

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