Ah yes. The double holding midfield pair. How I love to watch them. The joy of viewing a perfectly weighted backwards pass, the ambition and invention of a lateral pass, and the beauty of a tactical foul. You can’t help but admire their fire-fighting skills.
Think of the names. Lucas Leiva. Scott Parker. Sandro. Steven N’Zonzi. Nigel De Jong. How many of us can really say that they are not our favorite players? Is it not heart-warming that of those names, two are Brazilian internationals?
Think of where we would be if there was a 4-2-3-1 formation throughout football history. No room for Zidane, or ‘The Glide’ as Ruud Gullit likes to call him. He would have far less space to operate and would likely struggle more.
If you think that is a lucky escape, go back further, to the days of the 1970’s and 1980’s when the ‘Libero’, personified by Franz Beckenbauer, was on the rise. Number tens flourished. Zico, Maradona, Platini. These players had vision and exceptional passing skills but what is traditionally, and highly overlooked, is their leadership on the pitch. The rise of the holding midfielder killed both the attacking Libero and the Number ten. The two most aesthetically pleasing positions, where the ballers’ get to strut their stuff, were becoming as endangered as a Siberian Tiger.
Roll forward to the 1990’s. Gheorghe Hagi, Roberto Baggio, Jari Litmanen. Even Matt Le Tissier. Still defying the odds. Making an impact even as the walls are closing in. The holding midfielders are coming for them. They are becoming more tactically astute, fitter, more disciplined at closing space, displaying more concentration in stopping number tens play. Carlos Valderamma considers shaving his head.
The 21st century has arrived. Juan Riquelme, last of a dying breed. The rest of the Mohicans are getting squeezed out. Gattuso, Nicky Butt and Lee Carsley are snapping at his heels. His soulmates, Jay Jay Okocha and Manuel Rui Costa, are sinking. His coach at Villarreal, Manuel Pellegrini, can’t swim against the current any longer. The one man band goes home to Boca, a less harsh habitat. Mascherano seizes his chance to impress. Kleberson and Gilberto Silva win the World Cup. Dietmar Hamann and Jens Jeremies get to the Final. Not a number 10 in sight.
Zidane takes up the mantle. He is the returning crusader after the Greek style of winning football at Euro 2004. Kindred spirits such as Kaka and Pablo Aimar have fallen by the wayside. Virtuoso displays lead all the way to a World Cup Final. He dinks his penalty against Buffon in off the bar. Vision, passing, leadership, all on display. He will not go quietly. Children and coaches the world over sit up and take notice. The number ten can become glorious again.
The rest is history. For the children, it is easier to become a holding midfielder. The skill set is much less demanding. For the coaches, the number ten has to have defensive attributes, to win the ball back high up the field.
The holding midfielders have won now. Every squad subscribes to have at least one. Deco is finished. Ganso can’t live with the pressure, and baulks at a move to Europe. He wonders will he be continually denied space by the grafters. He decides not to take the chance to find out. He makes a big money move from Santos to Sao Paulo. It says everything. The heir apparent to Riquelme, refusing to sit on his throne. He loses his place in the Brazil squad.
The tens have now become holding midfielders themselves. An Orwellian type scenario. Survival of the Fittest. Adapt and lessen the spectacle. Put Pepe and Phil Jones in midfield. It’s the only way now.