How Napoli's Marek Hamsik became Serie A's most prolific goal-maker
STATS ZONE OVER EUROPE: FourFourTwo's award-winning FREE app now also covers the top flights in Italy, Spain, France and Germany (as well as England, Champions League and Europa League). A delighted Michael Cox packs his suitcase and chalkboard and heads for NaplesÃ¢ÂÂ¦
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 ZemanÃ¢ÂÂs 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 BoatengÃ¢ÂÂs surprise success with Milan cleared the way for the likes of Michael Bradley (Roma) and Fredy Guarin (Inter) to be used as their sideÃ¢ÂÂs 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 AÃ¢ÂÂs most impressive performers this campaign.
So who is Serie AÃ¢ÂÂs most prolific assister? This has been an interesting race this season, contested by four very different types of player. NapoliÃ¢ÂÂs 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 Ã¢ÂÂsecond puntaÃ¢ÂÂ Ã¢ÂÂ just off the main forward Ã¢ÂÂ for Inter, while FiorentinaÃ¢ÂÂs Borja Valero shuttles forward from the left of midfield in a side based around ball retention.
ItÃ¢ÂÂs Hamsik who leads the way, collecting an assist in each of NapoliÃ¢ÂÂs last two games Ã¢ÂÂ a 5-3 win at Torino, then last weekendÃ¢ÂÂs 2-0 defeat of Genoa. HeÃ¢ÂÂs created 13 goals in 2012/13 Ã¢ÂÂ three clear of Totti, and four ahead of Cassano and Valero.
Hamsik may not be a natural No.10, but heÃ¢ÂÂs become a more creative player because heÃ¢ÂÂs been fielded more consistently in a central role. Previously, Walter Mazzarri often used Hamsik on the right flank, moving inside into playmaking positions Ã¢ÂÂ now, heÃ¢ÂÂs at the heart of the action. HeÃ¢ÂÂs 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 heÃ¢ÂÂs 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. NapoliÃ¢ÂÂs 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, heÃ¢ÂÂs found goalscoring tough in recent weeks. Having netted nine in his first 23 Serie A games this season, heÃ¢ÂÂs now gone eight matches without scoring Ã¢ÂÂ and also missed a penalty against Torino.
HeÃ¢ÂÂs not shying away from taking shots Ã¢ÂÂ as his recent performance against Atalanta shows Ã¢ÂÂ but itÃ¢ÂÂs the first time in three years that Hamsik has made eight consecutive Serie A starts without finding the net.
Last weekÃ¢ÂÂs performance against Napoli was a good example of HamsikÃ¢ÂÂs current playing style Ã¢ÂÂ 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 Ã¢ÂÂ only the finish let him down.
HamsikÃ¢ÂÂs game has changed significantly in the past 18 months Ã¢ÂÂ whereas he was once about energy and goalscoring, now heÃ¢ÂÂs Serie AÃ¢ÂÂs most prolific provider of assists, but isnÃ¢ÂÂt finding the net himself. If Hamsik can consistently return to the form he showed earlier in the season, when he contributed in both areas, heÃ¢ÂÂll rightly be regarded as one of EuropeÃ¢ÂÂs best attacking midfielders.
Stats Zone is bigger and better than ever! Our FREE Opta-powered app now features the Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, Ligue 1, Serie A, Champions League and Europa League.