Tactics, Time And The Riddle Of The Invisible Playmaker

Ganso The 10 Who Wasnt There

Secrets are an exalted state, almost a dream state. They’re a way of arresting motion, stopping the world so we can see ourselves in it.

— Don DeLillo, Libra

During the Paris Commune, in all corners of the city…there were people shooting at the clocks…

— Walter Benjamin


Gas Station

Strobe lights and blown speakers
Fireworks and hurricanes
I’m not here
This isn’t happening
I’m not here

– Radiohead

No player encapsulates the paradoxes of our current times quite like Ganso. Paulo Henrique Chagas de Lima (or ‘Ganso’, meaning ‘goose’ in Portuguese) is a player who is neither here nor there.

He first appeared to the world alongside Neymar as one half of a prodigious double-act in the Santos team that would go on to lift the 2011 Copa Libertadores. The fledgling Ganso was absent through injury for much of that campaign, and to this day a feeling of absence lingers.

For many critics, Ganso — a leggy futsal kid from the steamy base of the Amazon Delta — is a player who never quite lived up to his potential, he never fulfilled the hype, especially when considered in comparison with the razzmatazz of his old Santos friend and teammate.

The narratives around Ganso’s career conspire to paint an image of a player who flattered to deceive. His time in Europe was underwhelming, failing to make any tangible impact at Jorge Sampaoli’s Sevilla.

Ganso is viewed as having lacked the ‘intensity’ required to shine at the very top levels of the modern game, he would ‘go missing’ for long periods during matches, apparently unable to step-up to the plate when it really mattered.

But to criticise Ganso for a perceived lack of presence is to be blind to the secrets of one of football’s most enigmatic figures. What makes Ganso so compelling is precisely his habit of disappearing completely.

Ganso is so in tune with the deep rhythms and flows of football that he melts into the essence of the game itself.

Its as though you have to step back and tilt your perspective for Ganso’s languid forms to finally manifest, a wizard-like playmaker trapped within the pages of a Magic-Eye storybook tale.

Teammates pass around him, commentators don’t mention his name and fans wonder where he’s hiding. And all the while Ganso is right there, wondering what all the fuss is about. ‘Just share the ball with me, you’ll get it back’ he must be thinking, ‘why do you all run away from me. Am I invisible?’.

Figure 1.1

Figure 1.1 — Despite being only a few metres away, Ganso is ignored by a teammate in the 2009 u-20 World Cup Final against Ghana.

But Ganso barely reacts to being ignored, he probably thinks it’s all so very strange; Games do pass him by, but the games are all the worse for it.

To the contemporary football mind everything that is useful must be visible. Visibility is a necessary prerequisite for data, or any commodity for that matter. It must be, otherwise how can it be presented on charts and graphs, captured and quantified, packaged, displayed and sold to the highest bidder?

All of a sudden the natural flow of a football match becomes a crucible of digits; an organic resource becomes a flat-grid from which data must be mined and extracted.

So many coaches, analysts and fans have decided on what they’re looking for in advance, they think they know what value looks like — crazed frontier prospectors desperately panning for gold-dust along the muddy banks of the great Sacramento River.

But you cannot assign numerical value to everything that is valuable, true beauty is priceless. Every number contains its own conspiracy.

How do you quantify an appreciation of rhythm? Of knowing when to move and when to pause? How do you digitise the smoothness of a player’s touch or the swing of their dribble? Ganso sees the game in a way others don’t, the solutions he finds exist only in his imagination; faded street-plays plucked from the dusty back-alleys of half-lit childhood games.

Ganso’s game is the art of a thousand invisible things, so much so that throughout his career it has often seemed as though teammates and coaches were unable to connect with his subtle invitations to combine and play. For Ganso’s value to be seen and appreciated he needs collaborators willing and able to adjust their views to his.

Figure 1.2

In Figure 1.2 Ganso plays a beautiful reverse pass and makes the toco y me voy to complete the tabela. The return pass never comes.

This is the tragic beauty of Ganso; a footballer whose talents are so extraordinary they often render him unintelligible.

While other, far less gifted players thrust themselves forward to centre-stage, Ganso remains in the shadows, a tropical wallflower shuffling his feet around the edges of the industry’s disco-ball glitz.

Figure 1.3

Figure 1.3 shows Ganso being substituted. Brazil will lose the final on penalties.

The camera-eye betrays Ganso, he’s there if you want to see him, but he’s not going to force the issue. He’s a strangely passive, slow-burn of a footballer, it takes a little time to acquaint oneself with the riddles of his game.

Increasingly we demand everything to be everywhere all at once, instant access to the sum total of human knowledge is now a must. Mystery has been replaced by fact, the invisible world of dreams and secrets substituted for that which is clear and obvious.

In a world defined by immediacy and presence Ganso embodies delay and absence, and by disappearing in front of our very eyes he reminds us of how another football might yet still be possible to discover.


The Enigma Of The Hour, Giorgio De Chirico (1910 or 1911)
The Enigma Of The Hour, Giorgio De Chirico (1910 or 1911)

They don’t think inside time, they think as time

— Reza Negarestani

The perception of Ganso as a footballer unfit for the demands of the very highest level perfectly demonstrates how the new Global game has become attached to a specific temporal flow.

To understand Ganso’s disappearance we must see that the modern European game (which now dominates methodologies across the globe) is not only ‘faster’ than in his native Brazil, but, crucially, its entire conception of time is structured in a radically different way.

Much of global football has now reached a point where it operates in accordance with an idea of time that became popular during the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions and spread quickly throughout the Western world and beyond.

In this orientation, time’s properties (durations, rhythms, tempos, cycles etc) are outsourced to and organised by an external, artificial and ‘objective’ power.

The mechanical clock is the most obvious and influential of these artificial time-organising systems. Lewis Mumford wrote that —

‘by its essential nature the clock disassociated time from human events…The clock, not the steam-engine, is the key-machine of the modern industrial age’.

Jeremy Rifkin elaborates,

‘Time, which had always been measured in relation to biotic and physical phenomena, to the rising and setting sun and changing seasons, was henceforth a function of pure mechanism. The new time substituted quantity for quality and automatism for the rhythmic pulse of the natural world’.

By organising the world’s various eco-systems under one centralised order of artificial time, the connections to the rhythms, tempos, durations and cycles of the planet’s diverse environmental conditions were severed.

Until recently, humans had experienced time in a more grounded manner, in relation to the ecological movements of their local habitats and cultures.

Nomadic peoples moved in harmony with nature’s rhythms, the cycles of their clocks were not mechanical but organic. The movements and encampments of North America’s First Peoples were aligned to the migratory patterns of the Buffalo; motion and pause informed by the shifting currents of environmental flows.

In his 1987 book Time Wars: The Primary Conflict In Human History, Rifkin refers to various studies to demonstrate the differences between what he calls ‘Anthropological Time Zones’. In one such study it is observed how Brazilian student’s attitudes to time differ from their American counterparts.

‘Unlike American students who are rigidly entrained to the dictates of the clock, Brazilian students are much more ‘laid back’ and much less compulsive when it comes to conforming to predetermined durational boundaries. For Brazilian students, the preestablished time duration of ten to noon is more of a general reference point to coordinate activity rather than an inflexible imperative to be unflinchingly obeyed…Interestingly, the Brazilian students felt no anguish over being late. In follow-up interviews they expressed a certain amount of pride in their late-to-come, late-to-leave orientation. In their culture, there is a value placed on maintaining a certain open-minded approach to durational segments.’

So, what happens when a footballer who naturally feels the game’s durations with a more ecological and relational orientation is placed in a team environment where time is governed by the artificial rhythms of the coach’s meticulously planned game-model?

Perhaps the player will adapt and find liberation in the workings of the new system. But not all players transition so smoothly, it is also possible that a profound dissonance will emerge, a deep incompatibility between conflicting appreciations of time.

This is a time-crisis, a chronosis; reality fractures as the subject is caught in a no-man’s-land between alternative temporal domains.



The worst labyrinth is not that intricate form that can trap us forever, but a single and precise straight line.

— Jorge Luis Borges

At Sevilla, Ganso was an artisan craftsman told to clock-in at the factory gates, just another worker instructed to take his designated place on Jorge Sampaoli’s high intensity chance-production line.

Perhaps Ganso’s greatest quality is his ability to dictate the tempo of the attack. But in the modern game it is now far more common to have the timing of a team’s in-possession actions dictated by the coach, or rather, by the system.

Jorge Sampaoli issues instructions to Ganso at Sevilla
Jorge Sampaoli issues instructions to Ganso at Sevilla

Artificial timing mechanisms are becoming ever more prominent in football’s tactical evolution as coaches work out increasingly novel ways of manipulating rhythm and tempo. Roberto De Zerbi’s recent rise is thanks largely to the implementation of an ingeniously devised tactical system based on the imposition of a quite radical temporal scheme.

Roberto De Zerbi
Roberto De Zerbi

The Italian’s teams will often stand completely still in their formation until the opponent presses the ball-carrier. De Zerbi’s system demands that the game-flow is interrupted and stopped in these specific situations. The pressing player is the trigger mechanism which sets the system’s processes in motion.

“Brighton is a master of passing the ball to a man who is free, but also knowing when to pass the ball.

“They know how to move at the right time. They have the right tempo to pass to the free man.

— Pep Guardiola

Figure 2.1

Notice how, in Figure 2.1, De Zerbi’s Shakhtar Donetsk players stand almost completely still in their evenly distributed, symmetrical arrangement. Centre-back Marlon puts his foot on the ball and pauses to provoke the striker to press. Once the striker jumps to press the system’s precise third-man connections are activated.

It isn’t the role of a playmaker to decide when or where the game should be slowed or quickened. For De Zerbi, and so many of his Positionally-minded peers, these aspects are controlled by his system’s governing clockwork and animated by the precision-engineering of its automated mechanisms.

When time and its rhythms are controlled by the system the playmaker disappears — or rather, the system is the playmaker.

So much has been written about ‘the death of the playmaker’ that the phrase has become cliché. But by understanding the playmaker’s disappearance through the prism of time we can more clearly identify the forces responsible for this vanishing.

Time itself has been co-opted as a resource commodity, standardised into measurable, repeatable chunks so at any given point the players have pre-assigned tasks and responsibilities that must be performed.

These scheduled processes must be carried out in such a manner that the system runs smoothly. When the opponent jumps to press, we begin our build-up routine, when the winger receives the ball the underlapping run is made — every time without fail.

This is why coaches use the term ‘automatism’ to describe scheduled and repeated processes. It comes from the coach’s desire to make actions automatic, and its a delicate balance to strike. If the coach goes too far in realising this mechanistic ideal they risk the players becoming automata, mannequin simulacra of what once felt and loved.

Until De Zerbi’s recent innovation — which uses the opponent’s press as a stop-start trigger mechanism — most Positionist coaches have preferred to continuously circulate the ball around their various in-possession structures. While the rhythms, durations and sequences of this circulation vary from coach to coach, the overriding principle is the same: the system’s tempo must be maintained.

Jorge Valdano once described Juan Roman Riquelme as a ‘tollbooth’ referring to the number 10’s habit of slowing the game down as soon as the ball arrived at his feet. Ganso is of a similar ilk, but in Sampaoli’s modernized game the tollbooths have been removed, the ball circulates with the standardised tempos, rhythms and durations governed by the universal system.

Figure 2.2

In Figure 2.2 we see Sampaoli’s ball circulation in action. The players form a positional structure and move the ball quickly from point to point. Ganso’s natural game is to come close to and combine with the ball carrier, but here Sampaoli has him positioned high in the right half-space.

Figure 2.3

Figure 2.3 shows Ganso making an approach to the ball-carrier, Nasri. Ganso’s move affords a tabela with Nasri who has the technical ability to make the pass and toco y me voy. But in Sampaoli’s system the associative play is refused in favour of a wide circulation.


In Figure 2.4 we can see Ganso break the system’s circulation rhythm by initiating an inside play to N’zonzi. Ganso moves to receive the return pass (toco y me voy/tabela) but N’zonzi isn’t primed to connect in this manner. N’zonzi controls the ball and continues the circulation back to the defensive line. Ganso is visibly frustrated that he didn’t receive the wall-pass.

Figure 2.5

This unwillingness of teammates to tabela was a repeated motif of Ganso’s short spell at Sevilla (Ganso appeared only 18 times for the Andalucians). In Figure 2.5 Ganso again initiates a forward movement with a toco y me voy. Once again he is ignored in favour of more risk-averse ball circulation.

Figure 2.6

In Figure 2.6 Ganso plays to Vitolo before taking up a supporting position. One of Ganso’s (and many other playmakers) main strengths is to initiate play from positions just like this, ‘steering from the base’ with players in front of him to connect with. But Vitolo rushes to play forward himself.

Figure 2.7

Figure 2.7 — It often seems as if the Sevilla players simply cannot see Ganso. His teammates are so blinkered by Sampaoli’s instructions to carry out fast, intensive actions that they are unable to perceive what is right in front of them. Ganso appears like a forlorn figure standing motionless amidst the blurred chaos of a crowded city street.

Figure 2.8

Like his primary influence Marcelo Bielsa, Sampaoli’s ball circulation tempo is a furious perpetual motion. Under these conditions Ganso too often becomes a bystander as the play whizzes around him. In Figure 2.8 the ball is driven forward and to the wings without consideration for unusual variations of rhythm.

Figure 2.9

Despite the obvious clash between player and system, when Ganso did receive the ball at Sevilla his actions were often excellent — see Figure 2.9. Ganso had numerous positive performances but Sampaoli repeatedly left him out. To this day there is ill-feeling between the two, Ganso hasn’t spoken to Sampaoli since leaving Sevilla and later accused the Argentine coach of ‘not even accepting laughter’.

Figure 2.10

In this sequence against Eibar in Figure 2.10 Ganso was again repeatedly ignored by teammates. On three separate occasions there are relatively simple and obvious passes available to Ganso, but on all three occasions the ball is circulated around him.

Figure 2.11

The constant, high-tempo ball circulation around the expanse of the pitch was a hugely dysfunctional aspect of Ganso’s relationship with Sampaoli’s system. Figure 2.11 shows N’Zonzi turning away from Ganso (and three other players in close proximity) to drive the ball wide. Ganso’s greatest qualities emerge when he is afforded the opportunities to combine with teammates over short distances.

Figure 2.12

Interestingly, this issue of midfielders automatically turning away from the nearby playmaker to drive continuous circulation was also visible during Fernando Diniz’s first games as interim head-coach of Brazil. Figure 2.12 shows Newcastle Utd’s Bruno Guimaraes twice ignore Neymar in favour of, somewhat mindlessly, switching play to the opposite side.

Today, playmakers like Ganso are writers rendered obsolete by AI-generated scripts. Processes are more efficient when you aren’t having to constantly adapt your time-signatures to the irregular beat of a playmaker.

The supremacy of the game-model’s artificial tempos over the organic rhythms of the players is in-keeping with the modern world’s attitude towards nature and its cycles. When once humanity adapted to nature, we now demand that nature adapts to us.

If time is just one abstracted thing, disconnected from the dynamic variety of its environmental flows, then all movement and emergence will be conditioned to conform to the constraints of this ‘one-thing’. If we accept this universalist proposal we inevitably converge on what Juanma Lillo called the ‘globalised methodology’, an ideology which insists that players adhere to the rule of the system clock.

Lillo calls it ‘two-touchism’, tick tock tick tock, its like clockwork; take the ball pass the ball take the ball pass the ball…


Partitura de Jazz

As long as time remains on its hinges, it is subordinate to movement

– Gilles Deleuze

The rationale behind the implementation of centralised time-systems is always increased functionality. Centralised time is simply a superior operating system which leads to more streamlined optimisation and efficiency, in other words: its just progress.

But it is a grave error to accept this reasoning without careful inquiry. We certainly don’t need to look very far for examples of how a laser-focus on optimisation and efficiency of production can ultimately come at the expense of an environment’s natural resources leading to large-scale system-failure.

Is it progress? Sure. But it is progress along a particular trajectory, a path down one of many possible timelines. Alternative lines of flight towards unknown future points are also always available.

Football’s game-theory does not evolve in a vacuum. Its proposals are propped up by the systems of power in which they are embedded. The gargantuan wealth inequality which has historically existed between European clubs and those throughout the rest of the world has ensured that tactical ideologies favoured in Europe receive the best possible resources to aid their development and roll-out.

What if clubs in Brazil or Argentina were the richest? What if the planet’s best talents flocked to cities like Rio De Janeiro or Buenos Aries instead of Barcelona or Manchester? Perhaps the tactical landscapes anchored in these cultural milieus would look very different to the Eurocentric picture we have today?

With unlimited funds and the world’s best players at their disposal maybe coaches who favour a football based on in-possession spontaneity and surprise would be looked on as something other than primitive oddities. The cheap caricature of all non-Positional coaches as folksy ‘vibe’ guys lacking in strategic nous is already waring thin.

Just as it is a mistake to assume that tactical systems must always use artificial, standardised timings, it is also wrong to conceptualise football tactics’ wider evolution as a straight-line process moving ever forward in a linear sequence of incremental optimisations.

Football tactics emerge from the streets where the purist football is played. Every action is tactics, and, at their base, these tactics possess the same mysterious qualities as the genius players who embody them.

Just when you think you understand their movements they can suddenly shift and pull the rug out from under you.

Like all great magicians Ganso re-appears when you least expect it, and the remarkable renaissance the now 34-year-old has enjoyed over the past 18 months seems to have caught the football world completely by surprise.

Precisely at the moment when it felt as though he’d been completely forgotten, Ganso has re-emerged as the creative force driving the rise of Fernando Diniz’s now world-renowned Fluminense side.

It’s no coincidence that it has taken a coach with such radical methods as Diniz to afford Ganso an environment in which he can thrive amidst the virtualised football of 2023.

Diniz is known for stubbornly refusing to set his players to the linear tempo of an artificial systems-clock, insisting instead that the players take responsibility for the nature of their own actions. This Relationist approach utilises certain players as the generators of the team’s rhythms and tempos — these players are the ‘playmakers’.

When Brighton’s Lewis Dunk places his foot on the ball and freezes the play it is not Dunk who has imagined this as an appropriate moment to pause, Dunk is merely carrying out a temporal requirement of Roberto De Zerbi’s system.

When Ganso brings Fluminense’s play to a standstill it is his decision to do so, suddenly the ‘number 10’ has been empowered to show himself again; football’s most priceless artefact returns to a game which now barely even recognises it.

Figure 3.1

Figure 3.1 — In Lima, Peru, Ganso receives at a standstill and is immediately pressurised by a Sporting Cristal defender. Ganso evades the pressure and beats two further opponents by placing his studs on the ball, continuously assessing the situation and rolling away into space to begin an attack.

Figure 3.2

Ganso has always possessed this otherworldly ability to evade intense pressure whilst barely moving. In Figure 3.2 we find Ganso suddenly arresting the motion of the play for Sao Paulo against River Plate in Buenos Aries. Once more we see Ganso use his studs to roll and manipulate the ball to escape from a seemingly impossible situation.

Figure 3.3

Figure 3.3 shows a perfect example of how Ganso’s pause seems to hypnotize defenders for a moment. Why doesn’t the River Plate defender just try to take the ball from Ganso? The ball is there to be won. Ganso’s strange, sudden change of rhythm has the effect of a snake-charmer’s melody, freezing the opponents in suspended animation before he slips through the killer pass.

Figure 3.4

In Diniz’s system, Ganso has the freedom to roam, to go wherever he feels he can help the team most — this is often in the build-up. Rather than executing scheduled automatisms, the players look to Ganso for their temporal reference points. In Figure 3.4 Ganso draws pressure from two opponents before dropping into the vacated space and exiting with a reverse pass.

Figure 3.5

Ganso initiates play from the goal-kick restart in Figure 3.5. Notice how Andre simply gives the ball back to his nearby playmaker. Ganso steers from the base with a toco y me voy and moves forward to receive at a future point. See how the other Fluminense players (Samuel Xavier, Martinelli, Nino) also move forward in search of future points after releasing the pass.

Figure 3.6

In Figure 3.6 Ganso drops to assume his role of steering from the base — its like the helmsman of a rowing boat calling the timings of his team’s oar-strokes. Ganso initiates the play and then moves forward with his teammates. Again see how Andre leaves the ball to Ganso allowing the 10 make the play by threading a signature through pass.

Figure 3.7

Figure 3.7 — Ganso embodies the irregular rhythms of the human playmaker — its just as likely for Ganso to go ahead of the play and suddenly appear with the key to the move’s progression. Sometimes all he needs is one, perfectly timed touch to set the attack into motion.

Figure 3.8

The Fluminense player’s ability to harmonize with Ganso’s spontaneous cues is what makes the team so fluid and dangerous in possession. In Figure 3.8 Ganso initially plays as the highest of the three midfielders. After he plays the corta-luz on the escadinha, Ganso drops with Martinelli going ahead to receive at the future point.

The ‘future point’ was a term used by Claudio Coutinho, coach of the legendary Flamengo team of the late 70s and early 80s. It refers to some, as yet unknown moment when a player receives the ball higher on the field.

Figure 3.9 shows Ganso exchange close passes with Cano before moving forward on the right side. This movement allows Samuel X and Martinelli to toco y me voy and receive at the future point from Arias.

Figure 3.10

Figure 3.10 shows footage from Brazil’s 1982 World Cup group-stage match against New Zealand. Notice how every Brazilian player moves forward immediately after releasing the pass.

Tele Santana’s famous system was based on a collective understanding of toco y me voy to meet with the ball again at a future point.


Unlike in the earlier examples from Sevilla, Ganso’s toco y me voy forward movements are usually met with return passes at Fluminense. In Figure 3.11a Ganso’s forward run affords a corta-luz/escadinha and a goal chance for Cano.

In Figure 3.11b we see another example of Ganso’s brilliant contextual awareness. Its as if Ganso has eyes on the back of his head to see Cano available for the subtle backheel connection.

Figure 3.12

Wherever Ganso has played he as always thrived in environments where his toco y me voy movements are reciprocated with return passes which find him at the future point. Figure 3.12 shows one such sequence for Sao Paulo in 2016 just before Ganso’s departure for Sevilla.


In Figure 3.13 we see Ganso setting the tempo in his role as conductor. Martinelli comes too deep leaving a ‘dead space’ ahead of the ball. Ganso tells Martinelli to move forward to receive at the future point. In this example Martinelli makes the corta-luz for the escadinha when the pass finally arrives.

Figure 3.14

When they’re at their intoxicating best, Fluminense’s currents flow through Ganso. During the entire sequence in Figure 3.14 Ganso barely moves. When he receives with his studs Samuel X and Arias progress to future points. Ganso stays and becomes the steering wheel, when the ball arrives back at his feet he nonchalantly flicks the ball around the corner to instigate the attack on the inside.


When Fluminense are moving to Ganso’s rhythms they become something different. Their shapes and forms are so unpredictable that defending them becomes problematic and confusing. In Figure 3.15 Ganso’s teammates repeatedly return the ball to the number 10. It is the opposite of what happened under Sampaoli at Sevilla.

Now Ganso is the playmaker. The system’s timings are subordinated to the intuition and romance of human interpretation and movement.


So we might ask ourselves: what is a playmaker? Is it the player who can most seamlessly align their attacking actions with the ordered timings of the system? This idea would correlate neatly with the ‘metronome’ metaphor attributed to players like Rodri at Manchester City. Or is the playmaker a player who calibrates the system’s timings themselves, piecing together temporal clues gathered from the chaos of the play?

Of course, the great fear of coaches is that if they rely too heavily on a player to shape the team’s time signatures, then what happens if that player is unavailable?

Humans are annoyingly unreliable, they get injured, catch colds and have bad days, so it is deemed prudent to standardise this creative aspect and outsource it to a less biologically unstable artificial intelligence.

This neurosis has fuelled the construction of a dominant coaching methodology focussed on reducing this risk, and thus on the centralisation and standardisation of time.

Coaches might be more willing to allow natural tempos if they had more players capable of using such power effectively — if the coach has two or even three players who can handle this responsibility then perhaps there wouldn’t be such a worry about one of them being unavailable.

The vicious cycle of the coach’s anxiety bleeding into player development curriculum has created an ordered series of closed feedback loops.

Rather than seeking to design training environments which are fertile grounds for the development of radical, time-bending playmakers, we’ve gone the other way and embraced a tactical ideology based on centralised time, risk-aversion and a deep-seated rhythmic conservatism.

To break from this stagnant timeline we must see the disappearance of the playmaker as a provocation, an invitation to question the direction modern football’s obsession with systems of control has taken us.

By disappearing in front of our eyes the playmaker allows us to see more clearly the shape of the system we have created.

Football’s truths will always be invisible, and, in time, Ganso’s great vanishing-act might yet turn out to be the greatest trick the number 10 ever pulled.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top