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.