Tottenham Hotspur first team coach Les Ferdinand has criticized the defensive midfielder position and says that Claude Makelele is the first worst thing that happened in the Premier League, in a revealing interview in the Tottenham Journal newspaper.
Ferdinand’s words shine new light on how new Tottenham manager Tim Sherwood believes in playing compared to former manager Andre Villas-Boas who was a lot more conservative and defensively-minded in his tactics and player selection.
“I know there’s a lot of talk about holding midfield players, and I’m always arguing with Tim [Sherwood] and Chris [Ramsey] about this – and they agree.
“I don’t like holding midfield players. I like players to understand that if one goes forward, the other one tucks in for them. I don’t want someone who just sits in front of the back four and doesn’t go anywhere, but that’s just my own personal view.”
Ferdinand elaborated more, providing examples of current and former footballers in the Premier League, and how the position impacted their team’s performances:
“I was saying to William Gallas when he was here, the worst thing that happened in this league was Claude Makelele.
“When he came into this country he wasn’t a holding midfield player. He was a player who had the intelligence to say ‘Frank [Lampard], you can score more goals than me so if you go I’m going to tuck in here for you, and I’ll hold. You keep going forward’.
“Then everyone went ‘right, we’ve got to have a holding midfield player’ – and what we’ve done is produce a crop of players who don’t want to go over the halfway line, who don’t want to pass over the halfway line and are happy to just sit in front of the back four.”
From my vantage point, Claude Makelele was the most influential player in the Premier League as far as how soccer was played in the era immediately after Roman Abramovich’s takeover of Chelsea. Obviously Les Ferdinand doesn’t agree.
The former Spurs, Newcastle, QPR and England attacking player labeled holding midfielders as “overrated.”
In my view, Ferdinand is off the mark. Players like Makelele gave defenders the ability to go forward with confidence and also were able to dictate the tempo of play in the midfield. From a tactical perspective Makelele was transformative and everybody felt they needed the same sort of player. Gareth Barry was a left-back at Aston Villa who eventually was converted into a Makelele type player in a title-winning Manchester City side. Michael Carrick, a midfielder who was more or less a box-to-box figure at West Ham and Spurs filled the role for multiple title winning Manchester United teams. Owen Hargreaves proved to be the most outstanding player in England’s 2006 World Cup campaign by playing a similar role and keeping the Three Lions in games where the attack was completely misfiring.
Mobility is a key to a holding midfielder’s play. As English clubs have looked for more mobile midfielders, they’ve been able to take more chances going forward. Tim Sherwood, Ferdinand’s boss seems to think multiple central midfielders should be of the box-to-box variety. While the early returns from that tactic are promising for Sherwood’s tenure, one must wonder how he will steer a club with a hodgepodge of big money buys forward particularly when the team hits its next rough patch. At that point in time Sherwood may realize that employing a destroyer in midfield that can win the ball back quickly and dictate tempo is more important than having multiple players who fancy attacking football in the center of the park.
Ferdinand also shared his opinions about Manchester City:
“Do Man City play with one [a holding midfielder]? They’ve still scored 100-odd goals.
“People say Yaya Toure is a holding midfielder. No he isn’t, he’s getting forward and getting goals – but if someone else goes he’ll stay in there.
“Fernandinho’s scoring goals. Why? Because he’s a holding player? No. They’ve just got an understanding: ‘If he goes, I’ll hold, and if I go he’ll hold’.”
Fernandinho is a more dynamic player in the holding role than Gareth Barry who played deep under former manager Roberto Mancini. However, to describe the Brazilian as anything but a defensive midfielder would be a mistake. Often times during Manchester City matches, it is Fernandinho playing deep covering for defenders who are poorly positioned or have bombed forward. Much like Makelele, he provides a shield for the back four and the fact he goes forward occasionally on counter-attacking moves does not mean he isn’t playing a more defensive role.
Ultimately Ferdinand may be on to a changing trend in the English game. His boss, Tim Sherwood has adopted the philosophy and time will tell whether this is a permanent transformation in how central midfielders play or simply a temporary blip.