Defending the Defensive Midfielder

CAPE TOWN, July 3, 2010 Thomas Muller (R) of Germany vies with Javier Mascherano of Argentina during their 2010 World Cup quarter-final soccer match at Green Point stadium in Cape Town, South Africa, on July 3, 2010.

During the excellent world cup coverage on my home channel RTÉ, two ex-footballers decried the rise in the defensive midfielder. Johnny Giles and Liam Brady are two certified legends of Irish football both won multiple trophies at club level and Brady is currently the director of Arsenal’s famed youth system. Both were also midfielders who played at an elite level for most of their careers and have commented on football and have provided genuine insight into the game.

Their point of contention on the evening in question was the rise of the defensive midfielders, they made reference to the fact that the position didn’t exist when they played football as they were able to both defend and attack effectively. Not so in the modern game, the rise of the technically limited ‘reducer’ has led to players like Nigel De Jong taking up prominent roles in elite teams. Giles and Brady saw this as an indictment of the modern game. Despite my respect and admiration for the men I have to disagree, much like the rise and fall of the Libero and the now ‘Old-fashioned’ number 9, football is an evolving and changing game where the tactics, players and mentality have all changed and continue to change.

Jack Charlton had once said of his game “I couldn’t play football, but I could stop you from playing it”. Defense is a key-part of any sport and in football it is role that goes unsung. Only on the very rarest of occasions are the defensive merits of a team the talking point of a competition. So it was that in 2006 Fabio Cannavaro won the Ballon D’or and a season before that a Chelsea midfielder was named their player of the year and it wasn’t Frank Lampard.

The modern defensive midfielder is exemplified by Claude Makélelé; his role in Chelsea’s success can be seen as the jumping point from where other managers took up the idea. However it wasn’t Makélelé’s inherent talent that led to this rise but rather the system he was employed in.  Makélelé was a periphery part of Real Madrid’s galactic system. When he handed in a transfer request after a dispute over wages Florentino Perez said:

 “We will not miss Makélelé. His technique is average, he lacks the speed and skill to take the ball past opponents, and ninety percent of his distribution either goes backwards or sideways. He wasn’t a header of the ball and he rarely passed the ball more than three metres”

Surprisingly similar to the remarks made by the Irish pundits, after a season under Ranieri at Chelsea, Makélelé came to the fore when Jose Mourinho took charge. At Porto Mourinho had used Costinha effectively in a similar role, but in Makélelé Mourinho had the best in the world in this specific role. In terms of tactics Makélelé’s role was to break up attacks through timely tackles or interceptions in the gap between midfield and attack. However he would also be required to effectively cover the full-backs who would need to press higher up the pitch to support the forwards. The reason for this move is that counter-attacking football had become so effective that having a dedicated defender who could cover several positions was elementary in preventing goals. Through this tactic and an excellent defense and goalkeeper Chelsea had the best defensive season on record with only 15 goals conceded.

This brand of football was highly successful but far from beautiful. Many teams have been praised for winning ugly when they have to but Chelsea had made a habit out of it. What followed over the next 4 years was that those limited midfielders with good positioning and tackling were able to make a career for themselves. Players like Javier Mascherano, Nigel De Jong, Sergio Busquets and Thiago Motta were taking pivotal roles in hugely successful teams. As Javier Mascherano prepares to leave Liverpool there is a sense of ‘good riddance’ as over the past season he and Lucas were unable to provide something going forward. This ignores the fact that Mascherano is being chased by the current and former European champions and the ‘key’ member of the Argentina squad. Mascherano bore the brunt of Liverpool’s ire over the past season as the team struggled to score goals. Never mind that their main attacking talents were injured and his playmaker partner sold, the perfect defensive midfielder would be able to break up attacks and launch them but very few of these players exist. Modern elite midfields consist of the Spoiler, the Deep Lying Playmaker and the Creative Midfielder with no defensive duties (Mascherano, Alonso, Gerrard. Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta.)

The problem with this role is the temptation to put ‘no-nonsense’ reducers in this role which can lead to scrappy games with a high card ratio. Players like Lorik Cana, Nigel De Jong and Michael Brown exemplify this combative and abrasive role and can stop better teams in their tracks through negative tactics. That’s not to say that there is no place for this in football, quite the opposite, whatever tactic that wins is the best one. It’s just that this can lead to talented midfielders not getting the chance in lower teams to establish themselves as creative or a playmaker. If they are big, physical players ahead of them they are more likely to play. It is these teams that spark the debate over the role of defensive midfielders in the modern game and cause worries over the development of young players in some countries. A player who should not fall into this role would be Jack Rodwell, a player with the physical capacity to play at the heart of a Premiership midfield or defence he also has sublime technical skill under a less talented manager than David Moyes he could be consigned to the ‘reducer’ role. In Moyes capable hands Rodwell has the talent to develop into a true box-to-box midfielder in the mould of Roy Keane or Patrick Vieira in their prime, unfortunately Rodwell is the exception rather than the rule.

If Liverpool do lose Mascherano, they can use the considerable funds to purchase another defensive midfielder, though probably not as an effective one. Mascherano may be limited technically but so was Claude Makélelé. Liverpool will be losing a world-class player but one which their midfield no longer needs. In response to Johnny Giles and Liam Brady I would contend that in the modern game where pace and power have overtaken some of the more technical roles in football (we will not see another Jan Molby) the game no longer develops at a pace where midfielders can do two roles, only the Legends of Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira have displayed this recently. For the same reason as there are no Beckenbauers, Sammers or Matthaus’ either. In the counter-attacking and set-piece nature of modern football a defensively minded midfielder is necessary if teams are to succeed. Arsenal, AC Milan and Real Madrid have all suffered without one whilst Chelsea with Makélelé and Barcelona with Busquets now flourish with them.

22 thoughts on “Defending the Defensive Midfielder”

  1. Good article, surprised you haven’t mentioned Cambiasso though considering he is the best DMC in the world at the moment

    I think it all stems from the need of excitement that many fail to recognise the role these players have. Many people I know called the second leg between Barcelona V Inter in the Champions League “boring” but I loved it, I appreciated how well Inter defended with 10 men (and to back up my above point, despite Thiago Motta being sent off, Cambiasso acted like 2 DMC’s).

    Many people in England go on about Mascherano and I think he is a good player, but he has a tendency to lose his focus and concentration at times. If you’re looking at every aspect of the game, you should appreciate and enjoy how well teams can defend when they’re on the back foot.

    1. I felt Cambiasso was in the Essien mould, box-to-box. If anyone was the DM at Inter I felt it was Thiago Motta and Zanetti. Much like I said above, the Defensive Midfielder needs that foil.

  2. Also on another point, Daniele De Rossi is capable of being a box to box midfielder, he has shown for Italy and Roma he is capable of both attack and defence.

    And even if Liverpool sell Mascherano, I’m not too sure they’ll have the majority of those funds to spend on players, considering their massive debt.

  3. Spot on article.I think it is those midfielders who need praise.Essien is effectively the reason why lampard scores 20+ goals in a season but struggles in a national setup.It is why gerrard is so potent when they had masch and alonso doing the dirty.We cannot and i emphasise cannot overlook the roles these people have in success of their teams.More often than not we fail to see that.Perez as usual failed to recognize that leading to failure of the galicticos.Makelele was a huge reason chelsea was able to win those titles under mourinho.One can say if u effectivly have a strong defence you cannot be beaten.A sad day for Lfc as masch is leaving.he breaks up attacks and play simple passes.But then he was never supposed to score goals or create then.There is a playmaker in 4-2-3-1 formation to do that.I really hate the facts fan indicate to goals masch as scored but then if goals decide a player to be effective or not reina and carragher wuld never be in the team.A team of 11 defenders would win over a team of attack minded players any day

    1. I agree, there was a story about the Barcelona years that cropped up twice on the Guardian that they took the best attackers in the team and gave them a numerical advantage. But against an organised defence they couldn’t score. Also a good Mourinho anecdote was that when he saw the Arsenal4-3- Tottenham result he said “If it got like that in our 7-a-sides i’d stop the game as one team isn’t defending properly”

  4. Decent analysis, main difference between the holders of yore and today, before, the holding midfielder was there to counter the attacking midfielder behind the strikers, today, without many true number 10’s, holding midfielders are like auxillary defenders, so why have 2 holders in front of 2 defenders?

    This is why it hasn’t translated to Argentina, that produce combination players or man markers to combat the 10, other teams just play holders even if they are not required with this 4-2-3-1 business.

  5. These types of players may play in front of the back four but they really are just fifth defenders – or fourth if it is a back three. We would not be nearly as tolerant of them if we just called them defenders. Although the position of Brady and Giles is mentioned I am not sure it is one that is adequately refuted. Just stating “football is an evolving and changing game where the tactics, players and mentality have all changed and continue to change” does not counter their position that the popularity of such technically limited players is an indictment of the modern game. Your acceptance of a change in mentality is exactly what Giles and Brady are talking about. The move from one defensive midfield player to now two is a massive indictment of the modern game. We only have to look at the World Cup to see countries that formally were known for their progressive ways reverting to the use of six or sometimes seven defenders and then hoping that a gifted front three can pinch a result.
    Perhaps we should be looking to Germany’s general performance in South Africa and the decision to play without such a specialist(s) as a template for the future. Schweinsteiger sat deep but in a Pirlo type role while Khedira was given license to get forward when Germany had possession.
    (As for Essien – he is not a defensive midfield player but a box to box midfielder who can fill any role asked of him – he has popped up as right back and centre back from time to time to very good effect. What the game needs is more Michael Essiens).
    I think Arrigo Sacchi sums up the issue of defensive midfielders very well with this quote “But that’s reactionary football. It doesn’t multiply the players’ qualities exponentially. Which actually is the point of tactics: to achieve this multiplying effect on the players’ abilities.”
    “In my football, the regista – the playmaker – is whoever had the ball. But if you have Makelele, he can’t do that. He doesn’t have the ideas to do it although, of course, he’s great at winning the ball. It’s become all about specialists. Is football a collective and harmonious game? Or is it a question of putting x amount of talented players in and balancing them out with y amount of specialists?”
    Ultimately it comes down to the type of football you want to encourage and watch.

    1. Excellent response, and I couldn’t agree more. It really does come down to what kind of football you prefer.

      While I have great admiration for players like Makelele and Mascherano, their limited abilities while serving as crucial cogs for their respective teams’ success is an indictment, or perhaps just a true observation, of the modern game. I love it when it works for my club, but hate watching other teams’ defensive mids snuff out an attack. Yes, as a football fan, I would rather see a flowing attack, and maybe unlike others, I like an open game.

      I’d also say that while the defensive mid specialist may be necessary to counteract the power and pace in England, it is not necessary in other leagues where a premium is put on skill.

      I also would say that both Essien and Xabi Alonso are prime examples of two-way, box to box players, that may set up deep, but can drive forward, score goals and pass efficiently, something that players like DeJong and Mascherano are not particularly good at doing.

      Finally, I don’t know of a lot of Liverpool fans and supporters that directed their ire at Masch last year. A lot more grumbling was made about Lucas’ efforts in that role and why Rafa bought Aquilani, placed him that role sometimes when he wasn’t a fit there, or why he wasn’t playing at all. LFC fans are displaying the inevitable backlash now against a player that says he wants to leave and focusing on the negatives of his game. This is standard stuff.

    2. “The move from one defensive midfield player to now two is a massive indictment of the modern game”

      Is it an indictment of the modern game? Or an indictment of the current hyper-reactionary state of football where managers get fired so quickly?

      And can we really jump on Makalele for being a ‘reducer’? Defending is half the game. That he went from being a sow’s ear at Real Madrid to being a silk purse at Chelsea seems like the work of a manager with a great sense of reality and potential value for the dollars he’s spending.

      OP makes a good point about not turning players with greater potential into “reducers”. That would be lazy managing. But sometimes players are what they are. And if you can squeeze 8-million pounds of value out of a 3-million-pound player, that’s pretty good.

  6. Well, as someone who is not a Liverpool supporter, Mascherano is one of my least favorite players, because of his negative tactics and his lack of contibution in moving the ball forward. He just makes the game less enjoyable, and he risks injuring many of the best opposing players. Liverpool would be so much more fun to watch without Mascherano, even with Torres/Gerrard out and Xabi long gone. Schweinsteiger is a joy to watch, because he tackles hard but fair, and then he passes crisply ahead whenever possible. Whether he moves into the attack himself or not, I don’t care – same as Essien.

  7. I may get jumped all over for this one, but I think you have to start looking at Darren Fletcher as another box-to-box guy who typifies more of a classic defensive midfielder, ala Keane. Sure it’s taken him several years to morph into the player he currently is, but he continues to improve each year. Good in the tackle, intelligent about when to foul and I don’t cringe when he’s involved in the attack or has the ball at his feet. In fact I think he’s quite an excellent passer of the ball. He’s Keano 2.0 in progress.

  8. Just a few points for the few people who are unappreciative of the defensive midfielder:

    (1) for a start, I would say that to call them technically limited is slightly unfair. I know what you mean – maybe many of them can’t spray visionary passes around, or jink past a guy with a tricky dribble, or curl a shot into the top corner. But in their defense, I’m sure a lot of them CAN do these things (to some extent at least), but they choose not to because of their position and their responsibilities. When you’re sitting in the crowded space in front of the defence, it’s not the place to be trying out tricky dribbles, nor do you get the time to pick out a bechamesque pass. Your job is to just win the ball, and keep the ball, with minimal risk of losing it.

    Furthermore, to call them “technically limited” is unfair for another reason. They may NOT possess those crowd-pleasing skills, but they DO possess other equally technical skills -tackling fairly, positional awareness & anticicpation, safe passing, marking. So to call them “technically limited” just because they don’t have the offensive skills is like calling Kaka or Ribery technically limited just because they rarely if ever demonstrate the ability to tackle or intercept a pass.

    (2) People talking about the modern trend of two DMs is also somewhat misleading – I would say that very few teams play two DM’s in the sense that we’re talking about here (the “technically limited”, Makalele style destroyer).

    Holland may be the exception (with De Jong and Van Bommel), but most teams I can think of that play with two “deep-lying” midfielders tend to play with one “destroyer” and one deep-lying playmaker. I’m thinking of partnerships like Pirlo-Gattuso, or Xavi Alonso-Mascherano/Keita.

    (3) I don’t think the rise of the DM is necessarily just a defensive phenomenom. One of the main reasons to have a DM is to allow the LB and/or RB to push forward more, thus actually increasing the attacking capability of the team. This has long been common in the Brazilian style, and you can see that Germany and Spain also both have marauding full-backs.

    Johnny Giles and Liam Brady may well boast that in their day, there were no defensive midfielders. But the other side of the coin is that in their day, there were no full-backs in the style of Ramos, Lahm or Dani Alves (or certainly not in Giles and Brady’s teams).

    1. Good points, but i feel in football skills can be lumped into certain categories. There are the ‘technical’ abilities, passing, touch, dribbling, flicks and tricks. When Robben strikes a ball you can hear people go “what great technique”. However tackling is a technique and this is where they excel but i don’t think it removes the ‘technically-limited’ moniker.

      On the other side there are the Mental abilities. Composure, concentration, positioning, determination, decisions. The abilities that make good defenders and finally the physical abilites Jumping, strength and pace.

      To call them technically limited means to say they are below average for midfielders of that level.They’d run rings round me, flick it over my head and score easily just as much as they’d take the ball off me in a second.

      1. Ok, I agree that when we talk of these guys being technically limited, we are talking about the “exciting” technical skills rather than anything related to awareness or mental discipline.

        But I would still argue that at least some of these players may well have a those offensive technical abilities, but we just don’t see them demonstrated because of the style they are required to play in. For example, Essien and Jon Obi Mikel both have attacking capabilities, but they rarely demonstrate them because they’re generally asked (because of their athleticism and mental qualities) to play at defensive midfield.

        1. As i’ve said, i think Essien is a true box-to-boxer and doesn’t qualify for this debate. Jon Obi Mikel has shown none of the promise he was signed for. Consistently put out but very rarely shining, I was at Stamford Bridge to watch he and Michael Ballack get destroyed by Cambiasso, Motta and Sneijder.

          1. I’m far from an expert on Chelsea, but I just used those two guys as examples because I believe they usually play something approaching a DM role. I agree that Essien is naturally a box-to-box style player, because he has probably the best all-round game of any midfielder in the premier league, and he is also athletic enough and clever enough to play at CB or full-back from time to time. But I was under the impression that he generally played at DM when everyone was fit. Also, I agree that Mikel has been pretty underwhelming, but for a large part it’s because when he first came to England, it was in the guise of an attacking midfielder, but since then he’s nearly always been used as a DM (often as cover for Essien when he’s injured). I don’t think he’s performed particularly badly back there.

            But anyway, I’m waffling. Perhaps a better example of a player who undoubtedly has the various “technical” abilities, but still rarely displays them because of the position he plays, is the player you named – Esteban Cambiasso. I believe he also started out as an AM, but has gradually settled into something more like a DM.

            I guess my point is, that there are some technically capable players playing at DM.

    1. Oh, snap!

      Seriously, there are only so many topics to talk about in football – analysis by various blogs / media generally overlap from time to time.

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