The Playmakers: Diego
The year was 2003. Brazil were the World Cup holders, thanks to the Ronaldo/Rivaldo/Roberto Carlos/Cafu generation that were just passing their prime. But the future of Brazilian football seemed bright, firmly rooted in six players: Kaka of Sao Paulo (and shortly of Milan,) Adriano of Parma (and soon of Inter), and the famous quartet located in the coastal city of Santos: Robinho, Elano, Alex…and Diego.
As it turns out, only one of those six players was destined to reach his full potential, with Kaka winning the World Player of the Year award in 2007. The rest all fell short, for one reason or another, and even Kaka’s time at the top ended up being relatively brief. Robinho moved to Europe, and while he was a valuable contributor to Real Madrid, his move was probably too early and his skills never really advanced. Adriano battled psychiatric issues, alcoholism, weight gain, and indiscipline. Elano repeatedly made poor career choices, first moving to rot in Eastern Europe before heading to Manchester City, a fairly dysfunctional (at the time) club in a league and a climate for which he was unsuited. Alex was a stalwart at Chelsea for many years, but was constantly hampered by injuries.
And then there’s Diego.
Thus far, Diego has managed to escape the physical issues that so plagued Kaka, Adriano and Alex, but he mirrors Robinho and Elano in that his career has been marked by poor personal management. After leaving Santos, he first went to Porto, but never seemed to establish a place for himself there. To this day, that fact is bizarre to me – he seems exactly the kind of player that could succeed in Portugal, specifically in Dragon Stadium. However, I didn’t see a single Porto match during his time there, so I have no idea why it never worked out.
Things improved after a switch to Germany. In Werder Bremen, Diego enjoyed the best three-year stretch of his career, where he almost looked like a poor man’s Zico. Never before or since has Diego shown the kind of ball trickery, finishing, or passing ability as he did for Bremen. Unfortunately for him, his zenith occurred at the same time as Kaka’s. Milan’s former golden boy was actually never as good on the ball as Diego was, but his electric pace, fantastic finishing, clutch-ness and general charisma (not to mention the fact that he played for a bigger club) meant that Diego constantly stood in Kaka’s shadow with the national team, at exactly the moment he should have been making his own shade.
In 2009, Diego at last made a move to a top-level club. But it was the wrong move to the wrong club at the wrong time. Juventus has the most glorious past in all of Italian football, and it appears that they have brightest future, but Diego arrived at a down-period for the bianconeri. Still reeling from their role in the calciopoli scandal, Juventus were dealing with several of their top players either getting older (Buffon, del Piero) or retiring (the historically underrated Pavel Nedved.) That coupled with a shifting bench (they went through four managers from 2009 to 2011, with none of them able to really settle on an identity for the club) and a tumultuous back-room (three presidents in two years) meant that Diego arrived at a club still trying to find itself.
Diego’s time at Juventus was marked by a string of patchy performances. He never played poorly enough to be warranted a flop, but rarely played well enough to justify the money spent on him. Part of the problem was certainly tactical – my memory is that Juventus played a 4-3-1-2, which is an extremely narrow formation. (Mano actually trotted out this formation against Argentina recently – I’d love to talk about the tactical implications of that decision, but there’s no time now.) The problem with the 4-3-1-2 is that, because there’s almost no natural width, the “1” player has to be a tremendously good mover off the ball, able to move to either wing to help with link-up play. That’s not Diego’s game; as we’ll discuss in a minute, he’s an extremely vertical player, not a horizontal one. Ultimately, Juventus’ opponents were able to surround him in the midfield, denying him time on the ball or space to work with.
So Diego certainly wasn’t granted any favors in Turin, but some of the fault was his own. He continually clashed with his manager, and he never seemed to make any real effort (again, in my opinion) to adapt his playing style to fit the situation. For every highlight he produced, he just as often went missing. I also felt this was part of the reason why he never took off under Dunga. He seemed uncomfortable both on the counter-attack, and playing in Dunga’s asymmetrical formation, and he looked unwilling or unable to adapt his game. He looked fine but nothing special in the Copa America, and again, uninspiring in the Olympics (though here he was also hampered by the fact that he was playing alongside Ronaldinho and Hernanes.)
Eventually Diego was shipped off to Wolfsburg. For those of you who weren’t here then, the move was widely panned at the time by most of our regulars. Their fears turned out to be well-founded: Diego had a miserable time at Wolfsburg, clashing again with both Steve McClaren and Felix Magath. The lowlight was when he demanded to take a penalty, then hit the woodwork, resulting in a fine.
Finally, Diego found himself in Madrid.
It was the first consistent return to form for Diego since his Bremen years, and he was helped by the fact that he brought exactly what Atletico needed (a central playmaker), got along well with his manager, and played in a formation (the 4-2-3-1) that suited him well. Finally, he had the perfect partner in front of goal – Radamel Falcao, whose penchant for running onto balls into the box complemented Diego’s own style beautifully. More on this in a moment.
So that brings us to our analysis of one Diego Ribas, the last of the 2003 starlets who just may yet have a significant role to play in Brazil’s future.
An analysis of Diego
It was much harder to find “Diego versus” videos on YouTube than “Oscar versus” ones. In general, this is the only sort of video you can trust on YouTube when it comes to evaluating a player, because the good ones usually will show every touch the player gets in a game, as opposed to solely the highlights. (It doesn’t show their off-the-ball movement, which is almost as important as what a player does on the ball, but you can’t have everything.)
Unfortunately, there weren’t very many videos of Diego. I especially was disappointed to see virtually no footage of his match in the first leg against Lazio in the Europa Cup, but no matter. (I did download the first half of that match, but it was infected with malware.) We’ll just have to work with what we have.
Here are a few “Diego versus” videos.
Diego versus Zamalek
Diego vs Hannover
Diego vs Zaragoza
Diego vs Racing Santander
So what does Diego bring to the table?
The number one thing is…
Of all the candidates to wear the #10 shirt, Diego is by far the most aggressive on the ball. This includes Ronaldinho and Kaka, two players who were once extremely aggressive but have lost a lot of fire as their pace has diminished. He’s certainly more aggressive than the languid Ganso, or the thoughtful, measured Oscar.
Aggression can be a negative as well as a positive, and Diego does sometimes tend to be too aggressive, when holding up play and taking stock of his options would be a better course of action. But in general, watch how when Diego gets the ball, he immediately starts moving forward. This is handy at the international level, because it gives defenses less time to set themselves. It’s also a good trait to rub off on Neymar, who for all his speed has a tendency to linger on the ball before he starts to accelerate. There’s only three players I’ve seen in the last 20 years who can make this work effectively (that is, accelerating from a standing position) – Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, and Messi. The first two because they were blindingly fast, improvisational maestros who could split defenses like they didn’t exist; Messi because the ball is attached to his foot at all times, so he can weave diagonally across the pitch even when starting from a standing position. Messi is quick, but speed isn’t really required with him.
Diego’s aggression can come in handy for the national team because one of its main faults has been playing at too slow of a tempo. That’s improved greatly since Oscar’s recent emergence, but when one player plays at an extremely high tempo, like Diego does, that tends to have an exponential effect on the rest of the team.
Strength on the ball
There are a couple reasons why Diego can afford to be aggressive so much of the time. Part of this is his strength on the ball. Diego is a very compact player, with a low center of gravity and fairly broad shoulders. He can withstand knocks without losing his balance. It’s this quality that led him to get into so many good scoring positions for Bremen, and while he didn’t find the net nearly as much in Madrid, it enabled him to dribble into advanced positions.
For an example of his strength, look at Atletico’s second goal against Lazio. Here, Diego is able to withstand the defender riding off his shoulder (and even shrugs him off) long enough to maintain his balance and cross the ball to Falcao for the tap-in.
Diego is a really excellent dribbler for his position. Watch the Hannover video for a perfect example of this. His prime skill when it comes to dribbling is his ability to change the direction of the ball while maintaining balance and while shifting his weight to his opposite foot. What this means is that as he shifts the direction of the ball, say from right to left, he shifts the ball from his right foot to his left foot, and as the ball is rolling that tiny distance, he is already propelling his left foot forward while simultaneously planting his right foot to push off of. He is very adept at changing feet, even when doing it blind. (Diego is in love with the midfield variant of the Cruyff turn.) This is a lot more difficult than it sounds. A lot of players have to break their stride when switching feet, or they put too much weight on the ball when moving it from one foot to another, meaning they have to chase after it ever so slightly. Other players have to look at their shoes while changing the direction of the ball in traffic, but Diego can do it even behind his back. Finally, I mentioned in my last article that Oscar can pass the ball with every part of his foot; similarly, Diego can dribble with every part of his foot, changing the direction of the ball with either his outside, inside, toe, heel, or even sole.
Diego is not that fast of a runner. His top speed is definitely better than Ganso’s, and probably better than Oscar’s, though the latter has a great first step. Even post-injury Kaka is probably faster than Diego, but Diego makes up for it with his strength and dribbling ability. You can never have enough players who can run at defenses, because it keeps defenders honest. They have to pay attention to you, by either committing to the tackle (which can get them out of position if the dribbler can bypass them) or dropping back and ceding ground, which relinquishes all initiative. (Danilo, Juan and Bruno Uvini are all experts at this.) Diego’s dribbling ability would lend a nice counterweight to Neymar and Hulk on the wings. It would cede quite a bit of the dribbling responsibility from them, meaning they can move into more dangerous positions to receive the ball, rather than having to advance it themselves. (For Neymar, this is especially key, as he is most threatening when closest to goal.)
Neymar and Hulk would also benefit by playing with Diego, for a separate but related reason…
Passing while on the run
Another underrated technique is being able to pass the ball accurately while running. Diego is an expert at this. In fact, I think it’s his single best attribute. To pass well on the run, you have to have great balance (already covered that) and you have to be able to play with your head up. Diego can do that too. Running with your head up is so key for a playmaker that it always boggles my mind when I hear people say that Lucas Moura could potentially play as an attacking midfielder, using the term as synonymous with playmaker. The terms aren’t synonymous – or at least, they don’t HAVE to be – but to put Lucas in the middle on THIS team just doesn’t make sense, for the opposite reason it DOES make sense to start Diego. Lucas can run, but not with his head up. Diego can do both.
And because Diego can pass with every part of his foot, it opens up numerous angles. This is why he could potentially be the perfect running mate for Neymar and Hulk. As long as those two move intelligently, Diego could create numerous opportunities for them by running at defenses, then passing diagonally to either wing. This is especially true given Brazil’s new tactic of pressing high. The more Brazil win the ball in the middle of the pitch, the more Diego can race ahead against a backpedaling defense. What often happens in such a situation is that the defense will start to pull apart, with some defenders advancing, others backpedaling, and some stretching wide to cover the flanks. But the more they pull away from each other, the more space there is for Neymar and Hulk to exploit, and the more each defender becomes slightly less sure of what exactly they should be doing. This is also handy, because of another Diego trait…
Passing into space
Diego does this more than any of our other playmakers. When it comes to pinpoint through-balls, I would argue that Diego is the worst of all our options. He’s certainly not better than Ganso or Kaka, and I don’t believe he’s better than Oscar, either. He’s really not the best when it comes to timing the killer pass, and his ability to properly weight the ball isn’t very good either.
But what Diego is good at is passing into open space. That’s one of the reasons he did so well in Atletico, because he partnered with a center forward who loves to run into space and latch onto the ball. (I loved watching Falcao do this alongside Hulk at Porto.) Passing into open space is such a simple, smart tactic, because it always guarantees the ball is advancing, and because it forces defenders to stretch the cover. Against packed international defenses, anything you can do to get defenders to stretch is paramount. So not only does Diego open up the pitch when he passes into space, but he can propel the attack even quicker this way, because it’s much faster for a player to run onto a moving ball than to always have to dribble it forward themselves. If Diego were playing in the center for Brazil, dribbling at speed, with Neymar and Hulk surging off of him, Diego could simply pass the ball diagonally into space for either of them to latch onto, then giving Neymar the opening to cut onto his right foot while at the same time his defender is moving in the opposite direction (because he was moving in the same direction as the ball.) Ditto for Hulk cutting onto his left foot. Alternatively, both players are adept at advancing to the touchline and then either cutting back or rifling across. Notice in both videos how Hulk passes into space for Neymar against the USA, and Bruno Cesar passes into space for Hulk against Egypt.
Disadvantages with Diego
Now, not everything Diego does is perfect. As I said, he’s not that accurate when it comes to defense-splitting passes, and he’s also far too in love with chipped, angled passes. When these come off, they look fabulous, but too often they don’t. He has a tendency to attempt a more difficult pass when a simpler one would do, and for all I’ve raved about his aggression and dribbling ability, he’s also guilty at times of holding onto the ball for too long.
Another disadvantage with Diego as opposed to Oscar is that Diego is primarily a vertical player. You will almost never see him move out to the wings, either to receive the ball or to dribble it. He is just not comfortable on the flanks, and he doesn’t have the speed to really work well there. Oscar, on the other hand, appears fine no matter where he is, and this mobility around the pitch is his perhaps his single best attribute. One of the reasons that the classic playmaker position is dying out is because it’s become a tactical dinosaur. If you are relying on a central presence as your creative spark, it’s become fairly easy for opposing defenses to mark you out of the game. There are only two reliable ways to combat this. One is to have excellent movers off the ball, forcing the defense to divide their attentions (something Italy did well at in the Euros, in order to protect Pirlo. Although Pirlo also had the advantage of working from a deeper position, and playing against indifferent markers like Wayne Rooney and Mesut Ozil.) The other way is to be able to move away from the center of the pitch, either dragging your marker with you or forcing another zone to pick you up. Oscar is extremely adept at this. Diego isn’t, and it’s one of the main reasons he struggled at Juventus. Oscar’s mobility could and probably will pay major dividends at international level. Diego’s weakness could be a major fault.
Oscar also has the advantage over Diego at being a harder worker. While Diego will drop deep into the defense, he doesn’t really defend while he’s there. Sure, you’ll see him make the odd interception once in a while, but he’s there more to take advantage of any mistakes the opposition makes. Oscar, on the other hand, generally works hard to recover the ball once it’s been lost. It’s because of his work rate and mobility that he can still be a contributor on the pitch even if he’s having a bad day in other areas. With Diego, either his runs and passes are coming off, or they’re not. If he’s feeling heavy-legged on a given day, or if the defense decides to mark him heavily, there’s a good chance he’ll become invisible. And not in the sneaky “Wow, I didn’t notice Player X at all during the game, but looking back he was fantastic” sort of way.
The single biggest problem with Diego, though, is that in the end, none of us know what we’re really going to get with him. For every Santos, there’s a Porto. For every Werder Bremen, there’s a Juventus. For every Atletico Madrid, there’s a Wolfsburg. How will he look in the chaotic world that is international football? He never played badly for Brazil before, but he never really played great either…or if he did, I can’t remember it. Carlos Alberto Parreira and Dunga both gave him chances, then decided to drop him. That means little by itself, but it does mean Diego still has major question marks about his name.
Ultimately though, now that Hulk, Hernanes and Marcelo have all been given their due, Diego takes the lead for the player most deserving of a call-up. It is pretty criminal that Mano has called up Ronaldinho, Elias, and Bruno Cesar over Diego. On paper, Diego could be the single greatest option to combine with Neymar and Hulk in a 4-2-3-1 formation. It’s the right formation, and the right complement of players. If the World Cup were tomorrow, Diego would be my pick. I wouldn’t feel 100% confident about him, but then again, I don’t feel 100% confident about anyone on this team except for Thiago Silva.
In any case, here’s hoping that Diego finally gets a call-up after the Olympics. You have to think that he’s just dying for a loan to Flamengo, because there’s no better way to increase his standing in Mano’s eyes than to play in Brazil.
When Diego finally does get called, I sure hope he puts a kind word in Mano’s ear about Filipe Luis.
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