How Napoli's Marek Hamsik became Serie A's most prolific goal-maker

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In the last couple of years, there has been a mass departure of number tens from Serie A. Whereas Wesley Sneijder, Diego, Javier Pastore and Francesco Totti all played as classic playmakers during the 2009/10 season, the first three have departed, with Totti forced to adapt to Zdenak Zeman’s distinctive 4-3-3 formation for much of the campaign.

While Totti has continued to provide great creativity from a left-sided role, Serie A is now more fixated with powerful runners in the playmaking position. Kevin-Prince Boateng’s surprise success with Milan cleared the way for the likes of Michael Bradley (Roma) and Fredy Guarin (Inter) to be used as their side’s most advanced midfielder.

For creativity, Italian clubs now depend more on deep-lying playmakers. Andrea Pirlo has been performing tremendously in that role for over a decade now, while the likes of David Pizarro and Riccardo Montolivo have been amongst Serie A’s most impressive performers this campaign.

So who is Serie A’s most prolific assister? This has been an interesting race this season, contested by four very different types of player. Napoli’s Marek Hamsik is a driving midfielder who often appears more about energy than incision, Totti has spent much of the season out on the left, Antonio Cassano has generally played as a ‘second punta’ – just off the main forward – for Inter, while Fiorentina’s Borja Valero shuttles forward from the left of midfield in a side based around ball retention.

It’s Hamsik who leads the way, collecting an assist in each of Napoli’s last two games – a 5-3 win at Torino, then last weekend’s 2-0 defeat of Genoa. He’s created 13 goals in 2012/13 – three clear of Totti, and four ahead of Cassano and Valero.

Hamsik may not be a natural No.10, but he’s become a more creative player because he’s been fielded more consistently in a central role. Previously, Walter Mazzarri often used Hamsik on the right flank, moving inside into playmaking positions – now, he’s at the heart of the action. He’s matured as a playmaker and has become more reliable in possession, and enjoys seeing plenty of the ball in central positions.

The 5-3 win over Torino demonstrated how often he received short passes inside the centre circle. It also shows that he’s still not an overly incisive player in the final third, but because he receives possession so often in dangerous zones, he eventually finds a clever pass.

Hamsik is also intelligent in the way he spreads play from flank to flank. Napoli’s gameplan for the past few years has been based around speedy wing-backs - by distributing the ball calmly out to Juan Zuniga and Christian Maggio, the Slovakian gets Napoli into crossing situations, before charging into the box himself.

However, while Hamsik was once compared to Frank Lampard because of his ability to break forward from midfield to find the net, he’s found goalscoring tough in recent weeks. Having netted nine in his first 23 Serie A games this season, he’s now gone eight matches without scoring – and also missed a penalty against Torino.

He’s not shying away from taking shots – as his recent performance against Atalanta shows – but it’s the first time in three years that Hamsik has made eight consecutive Serie A starts without finding the net.

Last week’s performance against Napoli was a good example of Hamsik’s current playing style – most of his passes played from deep positions, relatively few in the final third, a couple of unsuccessful longer passes, and an assist for Blerim Dzemaili having made the correct decision on the break. He also repeatedly tried to dribble past opponents, nearly scoring a wondergoal – only the finish let him down.

Hamsik’s game has changed significantly in the past 18 months – whereas he was once about energy and goalscoring, now he’s Serie A’s most prolific provider of assists, but isn’t finding the net himself. If Hamsik can consistently return to the form he showed earlier in the season, when he contributed in both areas, he’ll rightly be regarded as one of Europe’s best attacking midfielders.

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