In the past, defensive midfielders were widely considered to be the midfielders who did the “dirty work.” Defensive midfielders were and still are underrated and appreciated. They are generally viewed as aggressive, wild and cynical; which, of course, many are. However, they also possess other traits. While a defensive midfielders’ primary role is to shield the defense and goalkeeper, they are also required to begin their teams’ attacks immediately after breaking down the attack of the opposition.
So far, in the 2013/2014 season, there have been stand out players in the holding midfield role in Europe. Some perform in the traditional role of a defensive midfielder while there are those who have redefined the role. Top teams have top players in this role. For example, take a look at the current top teams in the major European Leagues such as Arsenal F.C, Barcelona, Juventus and the current European Champions, Bayern Munich. The players currently playing in the defensive midfield role for these teams are Mathieu Flamini, Sergio Busquets, Arturo Vidal and Philipp Lahm respectively.
In September of 2012, when referring to his squad, Arsene Wenger stated that “there are no defensive midfield players at the moment.” So it was no surprise that Arsenal were in the market for a traditional, tough tackling midfielder to partner Mikel Arteta at the heart of his team. What did come as a surprise, however, was who he signed. In August 2013, after training with the squad to maintain fitness, Mathieu Flamini signed for Arsenal for the second time. While the signing was not met with the same excitement as the £42m signing of German superstar Mesut Özil, his impact cannot be overstated. Flamini performs in the traditional role of a defensive midfielder; he sits in front of the defense and sticks out a leg or both whenever necessary in order to protect the back line. Flamini is always on the move to nullify an attack by the opposition. He is also a leader, always shouting in order to keep the defense organized. Flamini is the type of player Arsenal has missed ever since the departure of, well, Flamini. He stated that he had “unfinished business” at Arsenal and with the way he has begun his second spell at the Gunners, he may well finally finish what he started.
While many may not view him as anything special, Sergio Busquets has been one of the best players in Europe over the last four years. Breaking into Barcelona’s first team in 2008 after coming through the ranks, Busquets has amassed 16 major titles, including two UEFA Champions League titles. Spain manager Vicente Del Bosque stated “If I were a player, I would like to be like Busquets,” simply summing up his importance to not only his club but country. Busquets has redefined the role of the defensive midfielder. Rather than being strictly a tackler, Busquets is also the player who most attacks seem to go through. He is always available for a pass and when he is on the ball, he is excellent at retaining possession and he always makes the right choice when he distributes. He is adept in pacing the game, knowing whether to perform a quick pass to his midfield partners; often Xavi, Iniesta or Fabregas, spread the play by passing to overlapping full backs or pass directly to the danger man, Lionel Messi. There are those who believe that Busquets’ role in Barcelona’s midfield is simplified due to the players around him. If it was easy, then Barcelona would play the same with another player in this role. Well, they don’t. Barcelona are not the same with Alex Song in Busquets’ role. No one can replace Busquets at Barcelona. Busquets, due to his style of play, attracts many fouls, which has resulted in him being branded as a “diver”. While there have been instances of him diving, he is still a brilliant and criminally underrated footballer.
Arturo Vidal signed for Juventus in 2011 for €10m. That now seems like a massive bargain. Vidal is not a traditional defensive midfielder but more of a box to box midfield player. He does everything — tackle, distribute, assist and score. Partnering Pirlo in the middle of the pitch, Vidal may just be more important to Juventus than his experienced teammate. According to whoscored.com, Vidal averages 4 tackles and 1.2 interceptions per game in Serie A and 5.4 tackles with 1.4 interceptions in the Champions League. Vidal has also completed 84.3 percent of his passes in Serie A this season. He has also scored 30 goals for Juventus, making him the top scorer since he has arrived, along with that he has 17 assists. Vidal’s driving runs from midfield coupled with his willingness to track back when not in possession make him the ultimate midfield player. Is he the most complete midfield player in Europe? The fact that Vidal defends, creates and finishes with equal levels of effectiveness makes him a strong candidate. One thing that is for sure is that he would improve any team in the world.
Why would any manager play the best full back in the world as a defensive midfielder? That’s because Philipp Lahm, along with being the best full back, is an overall world class footballer. When Pep Guardiola moved Lahm from right back to defensive midfield, questions for his decision were only natural. This team won the treble last year with Lahm at right back, why fix what is not broken? While the double pivot of Javi Martinez and Bastian Schweinsteiger was brilliant last year, it was not what Guardiola wanted. He wanted to utilize only a single defensive midfielder and in Lahm, Guardiola found his man. Lahm has been described as “the most intelligent player I’ve ever coached” by Guardiola, a valuable trait in this role. The Bayern manager, in an interview with adidas, shared his reason for Lahm’s position change:
“He understands the game. Not all players do. A lot of players understand his position. Philipp can play in all positions. Football is a game where people move and you have to decide in one second what’s going on in your position as well as all around the field, and what he decides in that moment is right.”
Lahm plays the same role for Bayern that Busquets plays for Barcelona. Like Busquets, Lahm is the least likely player on the field to make an error. He makes the correct decision constantly and this allows Bastian Schweinsteiger to operate further up the pitch with more freedom. Whether or not the switch from full back to defensive midfield is a permanent one, Lahm seems comfortable in both positions.
Defensive midfield has, is and may always be an underrated position in football. What they do shall never be looked at in the same class as a goal or assist. But, ask yourself this, would the top teams in the major European Leagues be top without their defensive midfielders? I don’t believe so.