It appears me to me after a few weeks of discussion that the role of a CAM may be a bit fuzzy for some. This is interesting to me because I can't help but feel since the retirement of Zidane the role has changed. While the fundamental idea of what a CAM does is still present, the responsibilities of such a player have changed, the demands on such a player have changed, and the ability to find such a player has become increasingly more difficult. All problems that Milan and Allegri are currently contending as Allegri searches for his "Ace in the Hole."
For those that don’t know, the space behind the strikers is often referred to as the "hole" but its best we get a CAM definition out there for everyone to ponder, while this is basic it captures the fundamentals of the role:
Central attacking midfielders are usually the fittest players in a team, considering that they have to be involved in almost every attacking play. Apart from their top form, CAMs need to have good technical ability. When a skillful midfielder is dribbling, he is not supposed to look at his feet, but should be scanning the field for open space and moving teammates. In a practical sense, the midfielder needs to possess enough skill so that he can concentrate on his primary job of distributing the ball without worrying about the mechanics involved. Overall, the job requires skill, stamina as well as vision and tactical understanding.
When his team does not have possession, the CAM is expected to drop back and pressure the ball. In offense the attacking midfielder should be in involved in the action by making checking runs towards the ball. Even before he gets it, he should already know where and how he wants to distribute it.
So with that as the foundation we can look at the role in Allegri’s system, how it was deployed last season, and who can fit the bill. The two fundamental points I notice are the work rate and technical ability. There is no such thing as a lazy CAM, the “hole” is a big space on the pitch and depending on the tactical deployment of the team your checking runs could be as short as five meters, ala Xavi, or as long as 25 meters, more like a Sneijder. The technical ability is also imperative because it allows the player to have comfort on the ball both at this feet and on the pass, this point is imperative! The #10 as we remember it in the form of Baggio, Valderama, Platini, and Mazzola is no longer viable. The fantasy of such players is no longer feasible because of the pace and tempo of the game, a modern day CAM can’t turn on the ball pick up his head and expect ample time to thread the perfect pass, instead the modern day CAM is like a wall, receiving the ball and passing often times in 2 to 3 touches. It is simply the evolution of the game, which is what Allegri is looking for. He doesn’t require slaloming runs, or mind bending passes, he wants the ball linked from his bull dogs to his strikers, as quickly as possible and let the strikers do the work, a smart plan when the strikers have 14 goals apiece!
With Clarence being the only true CAM on the roster last season, Allegri chose instead to deploy Robinho and Boateng in the role, depending on the need and the opponent. Neither player fits the bill exactly, Robinho being better with his touch and vision, and Boateng with his work rate. But both player’s found success in the make shift role. Allegri was able to use them in situations that suited their play and both players admirably kept things simple, moving the ball and pressuring it when they had to. When Seedorf was deployed in the role, the team simply didn’t look the same, which is why he was moved to LM. Seedorf didn’t seem to get the memo that time and space were at a premium in the “hole” and often times slowing Milan’s play to a crawl, or forcing long balls into the strikers because he wasn’t checking as quickly or efficiently as Robinho and Prince. Simply put every player brought strengths to the role, but none of them are the true player Allegri’s craves in the spot.
So what does Allegri want? As mentioned above, he needs less fantasy and more simplicity, someone who can metronomically cover the ground needed, pressure the ball, and move the ball efficiently. Hence the targets of Aquilani and Montolivo, who can be deployed both in the hole as well as the midfield line depending on the situation. Neither is ideal, but their vision and simplicity in passing is surely an asset, something Allegri sees and covets. A player not really suited to this would be Kaka, and while sentiment can often times get in the way, there needs to be a bit of rational thought as well. Kaka’s role has always been more of a support striker than an attacking midfielder, even in Carletto’s fabled XMAS tree where his interchange with Seedorf both protected Clarence, allowing him to cover less ground, and linking with the striker. Kaka was never a tremendous passer of the ball, nor a player keen to check deep for the ball. His strengths lied closer to goal and in one v one situations, where his pace and dribbling could shine. Sure he could pass the ball in the box better than most, but picking up his head and spotting a 20 yard pass were never his strong points, he was always on the receiving end of those passes. So while sentiment would play a big part in his return, like Pirlo, he probably doesn’t fit into Allegri’s master plan. Imagine Kaka receiving the ball close to the center circle and having to turn and face two DM’s and two CB’s, if you think he is injury prone now, he would be rendered a bag of body parts by the end of the season.
As you can see, like most positions in the modern game, the CAM role has evolved over time to suit both the tempo and style of which the game is played. It is intriguing to see how roles and tactics evolve over time and as the game gets faster, I know that is hard to believe, the roles will continue to change from the way we remember them. Like the Sweeper, the CAM as we knew it, the romantic classic number #10, may be extinct sooner than we think.