It’s not football, and it’s especially not soccer, it’s calcio. Calcio, the word itself, is more than a colloquialism however, it is the first indicator of the exceeding independence of Italian football. Calcio, again, the word, is the starting point of a culture all to itself. For example: what most of the world call a rabona, calcio calls a incrociata (“crossed kick”). Panenka? In calcio it is the colpo a cucchiaio (“spoon shot”). Rovesciata (from the verb rovesciare meaning upside-down): a bicycle kick. But the dichotomy of football versus calcio is more innate than regional lexicon. What transmogrifies calcio are terms like bandiera (“the flag barrier,” a one club man) and libero (“free,” the #6 who was free to roam and shore up any chinks in the defense’s armor) which lend to its culture. However, at the heart of calcio lives its most vaunted and mythological figure; the trequartista*.
The magic of the number 10 comes from the trequartista’s feet, the player of inventiveness, the one who is capable of wrong-footing everyone with a piece of skill perhaps even he is not fully aware of.
Trequartista literally translates to three quarters, signifying how much of the pitch falls under his jurisdiction, and as Mancini, who wrote his Master’s Thesis on the subject, points out, magic emanates from the trequartista. Occupying the space between the midfield and striker’s lines, the trequartista is charged with opening up the final third of the field and dictating forward play. Whether it be supplying chances to the strikers via perfectly timed and weighted passes or scoring goals himself, he possesses preternatural vision to evaluate multiple scoring opportunities while simultaneously remaining elusive and unpredictable. He charms and fascinates the audience with his skill and since creating and scoring goals, often within the same play, is without a doubt one of the most difficult tasks, the player who can achieve it earns themselves the most admired role on the pitch.
It was during Serie A’s pinnacle in the 80s and 90s that the trequartista was most realized. Trequartisti such as Platini and Maradona exemplified the position so well they were able to take control of the entire pitch. The torch was then passed to Roberto Baggio, who, in my humble opinion and with apologies to our talisman, is the last best example of a traditional Italian trequartista. In the early 2000s the position’s responsibilities began to evolve as defenses began pushing forward, forcing the trequartista to drop further back and aid possession recovery before leading the attack. This era’s archetypal standard trequartisti are Zidane while at Juventus, Juan Sebastian Veron at…, we’ll just say Juan Sebastian Veron in 2000, and a pre-Spalletti Totti.
However, it has been a solid ten years since world football has seen an outstanding trequartista. Perhaps Ancelotti’s Milan of 2006-07, with Kaka and Seedorf sort of operating as dual trequartisti was the last time we saw the creativity of a trequartista. Since Pep Guardiola’s revolutionary tiki-taka and “the false #9” philosophy the trequartista is no longer fashionable. Offense is now more collaborative and inclusive, placing greater emphasis on midfield and maintaining possession. Pep’s midfield maestros Xavi and Iniesta were given freedom to move anywhere about the pitch in order to supply the strikers, and with the forward line of Eto’o, Henry, and Messi the results were lethal. This new brand of total football, without a fixed set of midfielders and more emphasis on widening the pitch, has sent the trequartista into hibernation.
While very few teams today include a true trequartista, the position is not completely forgotten and might be on the verge of a renaissance. Since the departure of Xavi and especially since the arrival of Luis Suarez at Barcelona, Messi will often drop further back rather than leading the forward line assuming a role similar to the trequartista. Incidentally, he assumes a similar role for Argentina. This tactic appears to be more out of necessity, however, as the contemporary Barcelona and Argentina sides are rich in quality strikers but lacking reliable distribution from midfield.
While this generation certainly has its superstars, players like Griezmann, Neymar, Ronaldo, and Suarez, only Messi has been cut from the same mold as Maradona, Baggio, and the like. It’s sad but the days of the dominate trequartista are more than likely long gone.