Researching or studying football tactics can seem like an overwhelming task, simply because aside from the basic framework provided by the rulebook, so much else is left fluid. Formations, player roles, player positions, they all mean something different depending on the context and meaning of the speaker.
Is a striker always a striker? What about when he’s a false nine? Is a midfielder always a midfielder? If his main job is to tackle and shield, wouldn’t that make him a defender? Football’s most loved characters and teams have been the ones that transcended the duties of their positions, rising to a higher plane. Franz Beckenbauer scoffed at the idea that a defender should be confined to a third of the pitch. Total Football placed players anywhere they could be useful. Positions are changing constantly, and by extension so are the players that fill them.
At one point in the recent past the holding midfielder was expected to resemble Claude Makelele. In teams such as Real Madrid and Chelsea, it was Makelele’s defensive skillset that allowed the attacking players in front of him to flourish. Zidane in fact referred to Makelele as the “engine” of the 2002 Champions League winning side. The Frenchman tackled, broke up plays, and was composed enough on the ball to successfully pass it to a more creative teammate close by.
Now, the role as changed. It is no longer the “Makelele” role, but the “Guardiola” role. Whereas Makelele thought tackling was his main responsibility, the holding midfielder now sees his main job as to recycle possession. Build attacks. Claude Makelele was the prototypical holding midfielder, but the new breed is Sergio Busquets. Physically slight when compared to the burly Makelele the Spanish midfielder never the less plays an extremely important role for Barcelona with his positional sense and technical ability. Old-style holding midfielders such as Javier Mascherano are increasingly being converted to center-backs, where they fulfill a useful role in playing the ball out of defense while not sacrificing strength in the challenge.
Football is cyclical, Guardiola said himself towards the end of his career that he believed players like himself had become obsolete. But there needs to be a reason why the holding position has undergone such a dramatic change. Refereeing is certainly one argument, with successful tackling becoming one of the hardest skills to master in the modern game. Top sides are increasingly reluctant to field a player who is unlikely to last 90 minutes. Even when sides are looking to shut up shop, such as France against Spain or Chelsea against Barcelona ensure that their central midfielders are skillful on the ball and not too aggressive.