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Stuck in the Middle – The World Class Defensive Midfielder

3 years, 2 league titles and a Champions League title. At some clubs this would guarantee hero status, at Real Madrid it led to an acrimonious departure. You would be forgiven for assuming this was the fate of an out of favour manager fallen foul of the hierarchy (Madrid, a club containing more politics than a Question Time omnibus) however the departing party was no disgruntled coach, but rather the anchor of Real Madrid’s midfield, Claude Makelele.

I use this example to illustrate one of football’s most overlooked positions, the defensive midfielder. When Makelele, the man many credit with, if not inventing certainly perfecting the holding role in midfield, left Real Madrid it was not to well wishes  but rather to vitriolic potshots from President Florintino Perez, “”He wasn’t a header of the ball and he rarely passed the ball more than three meters,” Perez said. “Younger players will arrive who will cause Makelele to be forgotten “(they didn’t). It was simple economics, Makelele was not Beckham, Zidane or Figo, but while he may not have been the top seller in the club shop, his presence in a Madrid shirt was a welcome sight for his team mates. It was Makelele’s mastery of the subtle that fostered the sublime of the Glacticos, as Zidane put it, “Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?” In five years at Chelsea, Makelele helped win two Premier League titles, an FA Cup and two League Cups.

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Football as a whole however has still failed to take such players to their heart. Arsenal, Chelsea and Man United, despite a noticeable deficiency in the area, all started this premier league season without addressing the centre of their midfield, (although we saw arrivals to Arsenal and United in the form of Flamini  and Fellani respectively).  The holding midfield role, perhaps more than any other is most susceptible to a sort of tactical shoehorning, Man United’s midfield at any time can cycle between, Phil Jones, a natural CB, Tom Cleverly who does not appear at all as Scholes heir, Fellaini who seems to operate in some sort of nihilist fantasy, a man without a position, while even Wayne Rooney has been drafted in to try and add some squareness to that which is rather round. Chelsea for their part appear to have settled on a midfield of Ramires and Lampard, a duo who doubtless have their talents, are not natural holding midfielders. While Arsenal seemed to be content to stick with a midfield, while technically gorgeous at times, perhaps lax in their defensive responsibilities. Indeed the return of free transfer Mathieu Flamini to the Emirates was treated with derision and even resentment by some quarters, ignoring the important role the Frenchman played in the Arsenal midfield before his departure.

So what constitutes a good defensive midfielder? Indeed, pundits and fans alike seem perplexed by the position, leading to the phenomenon of, “well they don’t do very much”. On the surface level the defensive midfielder is there to, well defend the midfield. This is certainly an important aspect of  the role.  The ‘destroyer’ of the midfield however is becoming something of an antiquity in the modern game. There is a common misconception that to excel in this area, one must channel the likes of ‘Chopper’ Harris,Vinne Jones or Roy Keane, alas though acting as  the ‘hardman‘ of the midfield is not enough these days. The true defensive midfielder operates like the blurb of a karma sutra, position is everything. Less emphasis is placed on successful tackles and instead statistical analysis relies heavier on aspects such as interceptions.  Indeed the role of the ‘destroyer’ is now more akin to a screener, less the bomb disposal expert than the package scanner at the post office, identifying danger before it becomes a threat. Players such as Mikel, Lucas Leiva, Khedira and Busquets excel in this aspect.

This is not to say such players act as a passenger when it comes to attack. A truly great holding midfielder will aim to involve himself  more effectively with the offensive aspect of the game. This is where misconceptions about these midfielders effectiveness usually arrive. Unlike strikers or attacking midfielders, the statistical evidence can be something of a red herring. If we look at a player such as Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets, we can see a perfect example of this. Looking at his personal stats for 2012/13, a return of 2 assists and 1 goal seems a disappointing return from the midfield of such a stellar team. If you indulge me another metaphor, in Hollywood terms (hold any quips about his abilities as an actor), Busquets is not the ‘director’ of the game like his compatriots Xavi or Iniesta, but rather takes the less celebrated role of the ‘producer’, someone who keeps the show running and indeed gets the ball rolling. The same season Busquets finished the season with a 92% pass completion rate, giving the ball away a miserly 23 times throughout the campaign. It is exactly this economy with the ball that serves as a hallmark of the best holding midfielders.

That is not to say that such players are consigned to the shadows of the football pitch, which leads us to the deep-lying playmaker. In 2011, A.C. Milan committed an act of football blasphemy when they allowed Andrea Pirlo to run out his contract and join rivals Juventus for the grand total of zilch. 2 years, 2 titles for Juventus (notice a trend) and 1 terrific beard later and Berlusconi was surely crying in his Bond villain underground lair. Anyone who has witnessed Pirlo’s stellar displays in the last few seasons can’t help but be impressed with his performances, spearheading Italy’s run to the Euro 2012 final and consequently helping to persuade the casual observer of the beauty present in the position. The deep-lying playmaker or registaas typified by the likes of Xabi Alonso, Ilkay Gundogan and Bastian Schweinsteiger act as the quarterback of the team, able to identify the right ball to play at the right time.

The important development of the holding midfielder is that teams no longer just play one type or the other. With the growing trend of the 4-2-3-1 dominating the formations of the top clubs, the role of the double pivot is crucial. Usually a defensive midfielder will be paired with these registas or even a more traditional box to box midfielder (i.e. Vidal, Yaya Toure). This allows the team to both effectively press and win the ball, while at the same time making sure that there is the ability to capitalise on their possession.

While a casual viewing of Alan Shearer on a Saturday night may overlook the role of Fernandinho’s clever use of possession  in Manchester  City’s win, the impact of the position can not be overlooked. Since Makelele was dumped out of Real Madrid they have never acquired another Champions League trophy. A.C. Milan currently sit in mid table drudgery while Pirlo’s Juve looks set for a 3rd title in a row. Unless those involved with football learn to appreciate the understated aspects of their success, history may be doomed to repeat itself

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