Tuesday, 28 May 2024

The Mezzala Role: A Guide to the Creative Central Midfield Position in Football

Keen players of FM23 will be very familiar with the mezzala role and its place within modern football. It’s a term that has become more widely known in recent years, although there’s still a lot of confusion surrounding exactly what this soccer position entails. Is it about drifting wide, or more about arriving into the opposition penalty box? Can a team have more than one mezzala, or is this a specific role for an individual to fill? How exactly can we tell when we’re watching this type of player in action?

In this article, we’ll answer all those questions, providing you with a detailed guide to the mezzala role. We’ll explain what this position entails, detail the key skills that are needed to perform it, talk you through where the concept originated, and crucially, explore the primary benefits of having a mezzala in your team. As tactical tweaking and innovative positional play continues to advance and progress the world of football, diving deep into roles like the mezzala can give us a great insight into how elite coaches think about the beautiful game.

What is a Mezzala?

The concept of the “mezzala” in football is a slightly confusing one. At its core, this word is used to describe a creative central midfield player who plays an important role in attacking moves by moving into half-spaces and attacking key areas of the opposition’s final third. But ultimately, different people have different perspectives on it, because this term can be used to describe both a specific position and a more general role on the pitch.

Football Manager 2023 players may view the mezzala as essentially a central midfielder who drifts wide. For some, the definition of this role hinges on a player operating within the “half-spaces”, the lanes of the pitch between the wing and central midfield that are crucial in creating passing attacking moves. According to The Athletic’s Italian football expert James Horncastle, “It doesn’t help that the term is interchangeable with interno, someone who plays ‘inside’ and incursore, meaning someone who makes an incursion in the final third or the opposition penalty box”.

To simplify things, you could also refer to these players as “8s” (as opposed to “10s”, who are generally more central playmaker types). They are generally creative, industrious, mobile, technically skilled, and above all, capable of operating as a kind of versatile, dynamic midfield hub. So in a sense, the “mezzala” is a kind of modern variant of a traditional English role — the box-to-box midfielder.

In terms of how they line up in a starting XI, a mezzala will often be a wide central-midfield player in a trio or diamond, playing outside and slightly ahead of a deeper single pivot in midfield. However, as you’ll see in the next section of this article, there’s plenty of scope for coaches to use their mezzala in whatever way they want.

The Mezzala Role: Responsibilities and Key Skills

The mezzala’s key duties and responsibilities can be extremely wide-ranging, depending on how each coach wants to create space and generate overloads in the attacking third. That being said, there are a few key attributes and core strengths that this type of player needs to have.

  • Extremely good technical ability with both feet is a must. The positional versatility of this role and the fact that players will regularly receive the ball in tight spaces where quick ball control is needed means this is an absolute must.
  • Decision making is also super important, because so much hinges on these technicians knowing how and when to release the ball.
  • Passing and dribbling ability is crucial, as this player will be relied upon to help move their team from midfield to attack, whether that’s through clever forward runs into wide positions, dribbling into half-spaces, or spraying passes across the midfield.
  • Dynamic, fit, versatile, and technically proficient, almost like an old-school box-to-box midfielder but with less defensive duties.

When pushing up to join attacks through the half-spaces, a mezzala will often benefit from being structured within a midfield three, which provides defensive protection and thereby gives them the freedom to shift forward. In this case, having a defensively-minded double pivot to back up the mezzala could be useful, although it’s probably more common for mezzale to be used ahead of a single pivot. Once they’ve shifted into more advanced zones, these creative midfield players will typically link with forwards dropping back from the opposition penalty area, and sometimes they’ll get into the box to get on the end of passes. Ultimately, this aspect of their game depends on the core strengths and traits of the individual.

Kevin De Bruyne playing as a Mezzala

The Origins of the Mezzala

Being caught up in the specific role played by the mezzala, we haven’t yet dug into the origins of this position and the name it’s been given. The word “mezzala” is an Italian term that originates from the mashing together of two words: “Mezza”, which means “half”, and “Ala” meaning “winger”. The resultant phrase, “half-winger” is a good indication of the type of half-space zones that this advanced central midfield player is expected to occupy throughout a game.

It’s important to note that there can also be more than one mezzala in a team’s starting XI. The plural of this term is “mezzale”, and this variation has been used extensively in the history of the phrase. For example, when the WM formation was the primary system used in European football, Mezzale were the two attacking midfield players that sat just behind the front three.

The Role of Italian Tactical Innovation in the Modern Game

The mezzala role isn’t the only example we have of Italy’s wide-ranging influence over tactics in the modern game. Italian football has contributed massively to how people across the world understand football, with the legendary profile of influential modern coaches such as Antonio Conte and Carlo Ancelotti underlining this reality.

There’s the evolution of the sweeper position and in a similar vein catenaccio, a defensive system built around man-marking and sweeping that drops a central midfielder back into a more deep-lying, backline sweeper position. There’s the advent of zonal marking, which while certainly not associated exclusively with Italy, was pushed forward by legendary Italian coach Arrigo Sacchi, who encouraged his Milan side to decide their position based on four reference points; the ball, the opposition, teammates, and open space.

Then there’s the influential developments made regarding the most common formations used in modern European football, with Carlo Ancelotti pioneering the 4-3-2-1 system with AC Milan and Antonio Conte showing how a cleverly-designed 3-5-2 shape can be the secret to domestic success. Italy is a country that through the years has produced some great thinkers on the beautiful game — the role of the mezzala is just one of many examples of this.

Examples of Top Mezzale in the Modern Era

Before we leave you, we’re going to dive into a short list of current stars who could be defined as “mezzale”. Some are more obvious than others, but each of these individuals regularly demonstrates the key traits defined as the foundation of the “half-winger” role.

Kevin De Bruyne, Manchester City

Perhaps the best example of a world-class mezzala in 2023 is Belgian international Kevin De Bruyne, who has played a hugely significant role in Manchester City’s dominance over English football over the past few seasons. Pep Guardiola has massively improved him as a player, using his versatile skill set to great effect — most interestingly, turning him into a modern mezzala tasked with drifting wide into the inside-right position, where he regularly fires his trademark pin-point passes and crosses into the opposition penalty box. It’s De Bruyne’s clever movement within Guardiola’s 4-3-3 system, as well as his dynamism and ability to consistently contribute to City attacks, that make him such a great example of a mezzala.

Sergej Milinković-Savić playing as a Mezzala

Sergej Milinković-Savić, Lazio

Serbian midfielder Sergej Milinković-Savić has repeatedly been linked with a move to a major Premier League club in recent transfer windows, and based on his performances in Italy’s top flight, you can see why. As a creative midfielder for Serie A side Lazio, he plays an instrumental role in molding swift, incisive counter-attacks, progressing the ball through the thirds, and producing late runs into the final third that add an extra goal threat for his team.

Paul Pogba, Juventus

While Paul Pogba’s second spell at Juventus has been far from successful — he recently picked up yet another injury that will sideline him for an extended period — his first time round in Turin saw him demonstrate world-class talent on a consistent basis. Different coaches employed the French World Cup-winner in different ways, but at one point when Antonio Conte was in charge of Juve, Pogba was used as a mezzala, connecting midfield and attack fluidly through intelligent movement and runs into the pitch’s half-spaces.

Interested in finding out more about the historical tactical innovations that have changed the face of global football? You’re in the right place. Next up, why not check out our guide to the ground-breaking Dutch philosophy of Total Football?

Frequently Asked Questions:

What is a double pivot in soccer?

A double pivot is a central midfield pairing with an emphasis on providing solidity, screening the defensive backline, and building possession. Players who operate in this position must be positionally astute, calm on the ball, effective in the tackle, and capable when it comes to passing over a range of distances. For more information, check out our guide to the double pivot.

What are the benefits of the 4-3-3 formation?

A mezzala often works best within a 4-3-3 structure; this formation uses a back four, a midfield trio, and a forward three to create a healthy balance between defensive solidity, powerful midfield presence, and attacking might. The 4-3-3 formation is one of the most popular systems in football.

What are the key positions in football?

Mezzale, false 9s, sweepers, defensive pivots — these days, there are so many technical terms to describe positions on a football pitch. Ahead of the goalkeeper, the main three zones are defense, midfield, and attack, but within each of those areas, there are various different positions players can occupy. Check out our guide to Soccer Positions Explained for the full low-down.

Conclusion

Understanding the mezzala role in football can provide a fascinating insight into the tactical nuances of the game. From its origins in Italian football to its modern-day application, the mezzala role offers teams a versatile and dynamic midfield option that can greatly impact the attacking output. With players like Kevin De Bruyne, Sergej Milinković-Savić, and Paul Pogba exemplifying the role’s key qualities, it’s clear that the mezzala has become an integral part of modern football.

So whether you’re a football manager looking to utilize the mezzala role in your team or a fan interested in understanding the intricacies of the game, exploring the mezzala role will undoubtedly deepen your appreciation for the beautiful game.