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.
A more substantial argument is that the dominant style of play has changed around the world thanks largely to Barcelona and the Spanish national side. Those Chelsea and Real Madrid sides were great, but they didn’t emphasize possession like Barcelona and many other top sides do now. Teams are rushing to include as many technically gifted players as possible in their eleven. Players capable of slick passing and quick movement throughout the pitch. Manchester United this summer is a pertinent example. With his side crying out for defensive reinforcement Alex Ferguson instead purchased Shinji Kagawa and Robin Van Persie, a sign of how he intended to build his team. Throughout Europe’s top leagues the 4-4-2 has largely been abandoned in favor of a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 where much of the action happens in the middle of the pitch and a pure holding midfielder finds himself outnumbered and played around.
A sure sign that the traditional holding midfielder had been made obsolete at the highest level by this new wave of up-tempo football was Javier Mascherano’s dismantling at the hands of Germany in South Africa. Playing with five offensive players in front of him in Maradona’s midfield diamond Mascherano was trusted as the lone midfield shield. The Germans made Argentina’s captain obsolete by using superior central numbers to play the ball around him.
Most sides are now relying on technical partnerships in the center of the field to ensure that type of result never happens. Sides like Barcelona have no need for a Makelele in the center of the field because their primary defensive work is done with the ball, having possession means the other side can’t score. Indeed having a player with such a limited range of passing is often a liability for such a side, if possession cannot be recycled safely then they are vulnerable to counter-attacks at speed.
In this day and age Claude Makelele appears a product of a bygone era, where football sides were disjointed. Offensive players largely stayed forward with the knowledge that all their mistakes would be cleaned up by a stationary player behind them. Now the game is much more fluid, sides defend and attack with almost the same number of players. Playing with a broken side and depending on a single Makelele doesn’t work anymore, teams have to work as a whole.
In the future, and the progression may be taking root right now, the world will develop a counter for possession football. Staying narrow with some out and out wide players left upfield to catch the opposition fullbacks high up the pitch, looking to strike on the counter. When that style becomes the norm a dedicated holder capable of shuttling across the pitch and winning the ball may come back to prominence. Now, however, the central midfielder has a new purpose.