I was ruminating on the importance of the defensive midfielder in today’s world soccer, which brought about plenty food for thought. At the same time, I was wondering how successful Pep Guardiola will be as he continues his nomadic journey that many of us have followed to this point in awe. If we look at the success of teams, domestically and across Europe in the UEFA Champions League, you will notice that most of them had a defensive midfielder that was essential to their squad’s success. Examples of these are: Busquets (Barcelona), Matic (Chelsea), Marchisio (Juventus), Kante (Chelsea), Fernandinho (Manchester City) and Saul Niguez (Atletico Madrid). If we go further back, we can see other examples in Carrick, Keane, Gilberto Silva, Patrick Vieira, Makelele, Gattusso, Cambiasso and Redondo, to name just a few.
This position requires having excellent yet controlled awareness of positioning, allowing attacking players to get forward but having enough discipline to resist joining the party up front. A defensive midfielder should be able to take the ball from opponents either effortlessly or, if need be, forcefully with utmost discipline. A good defensive midfielder will always find himself in the right place at the right time, plugging gaps, intercepting passes and finding his teammates with short, simple and crisp passes. And in the event that a defensive midfielder should go on the odd foray up to the attacking third, he should have enough sound judgement to make a decision that will not hurt his team and leave him out of position.
Many great playmakers have thrived with a great defensive midfielder behind them. Gattuso brought the best out of Andrea Pirlo until the native of Calabria became more bark than bite. And to greener pastures, Pirlo moved in the form of Juventus, where a now younger and fiercer group of defensive midfielders had been assembled in the form of Marchisio, Vidal and even Paul Pogba to some degree. It is reassuring for a playmaker to know that players will clean up after them should they not get an incisive pass or some deft skill to come off perfectly. It gives them less pressure.
The last time Arsenal won the Premier League, they had players like Gilberto Silva and Patrick Vieira in their team. Gilberto Silva is one of the more particularly selfless players I have ever seen. After watching a match, one could be forgiven for forgetting he was on the pitch — nothing showy at all, he just played his part and kept everything in sync. Vieira, with his spidery legs and amazing ball-winning ability, also was great with defensive duties but he had much more flair than Silva. But the point is that Arsene Wenger since then has had Flamini and Coquelin who have not failed to propel Arsenal to the same glory. Wenger often seems to be of the mind that he can reach Premier League glory without a quality, more experienced defensive midfielder, which was once part his recipe for success.
Wenger believes that if he can obtain enough diminutive, technically gifted midfielders, that they will somehow dismantle each and every football team with ‘pure football.’ But the truth is that the game is about having a balance within the team. But without the aforementioned quality defensive midfielders that are equipped with experience and leadership qualities, then there will be matches that he will be ill-equipped for. Is Arsene Wenger so arrogant as to believe that his team will never lose the ball and need to retrieve it?
This brings me to Barcelona and Pep Guardiola. Pep is not the biggest fan of defensive midfielders. This is not to say that he did not utilize them, but he will generally opted for one maximum. When he went to Barcelona, he got rid of Yaya Toure and maybe it could be argued that both he and Busquets could have played together. When he went to Munich, he dismantled an iron hard midfield of Luiz Gustavo and Javi Martinez (the former he sent packing to Wolfsburg, and the latter he converted into a center-back – a position I believe does not suit him).
At Barcelona, even though they possessed Busquets, Pep made the team the defensive force. They pressed when they lost the ball.
This was also at a time when the football world was rebelling against tiki-taka. Opposing teams spent so much energy trying to win a ball from Barcelona’s back-line and players such as Xavi and Iniesta who are pristinely adept at holding possession and would dance circles around opponents, making them work extra hard, when opponents did eventually win the ball, they were tired and Barcelona players were rushing them. This tactic shocked global football, but eventually teams adapted. No longer would they chase endlessly. They realized that eventually Barca would come sneaking and probing in their own half, let Xavi and Iniesta pass a million times until it comes there it does not matter. Now teams save their energy, win the ball in the final third, and counter fearlessly. These teams I mention are generally outside of Spain, teams in Spain often (like Pep) prefer to pass the ball back rather than make use of a counter attack when it presents itself. Pep could have used the Messi’s, Pedro’s and Alexis’ for defensive duties but how long do attacking players want to put in 100% attacking and defensive work?
A team will get tired and thirst for their defensive midfielders eventually. It happened to Barcelona. I have heard many fans say that their press is not the same. It happened to Dortmund who ran just as hard with the ball and without to make it to the UEFA Champions League final in 2013. The following season, the fatigue caught up with them.
At Bayern Munich, Guardiola’s team dominated through possession and expert wing-play but I saw a few matches where Xabi Alonso looked past his best and clumsy when taking up defensive duties. Even many a Madrid fan still to this day believe that Madrid’s team chemistry was at its best when Makelele was in the side.
This all brings me to Pep’s journey. I can recall many articles stating how Nigel De Jong’s defensive midfield ability was always synchronized with Manchester City’s best attacking football. Often when he was injured, their performances dropped. Pep has brought in a plethora of young, attack minded players, but will he be asking them to constantly win the ball off of players in the most physically demanding league and will it work week-in and week-out?
The Spanish national team, which is often said to have been heavily influenced by Pep’s Barcelona, started their golden winning era with a forgotten man in the form of Marcos Senna in the side. Spain, at their best, had Carles Puyol at his best. A really fast and precise centre back can take the place of a defensive midfielder if need be, but a team becomes in danger of being over-reliant that way.
I mentioned Arsenal earlier because they (and maybe Liverpool) are the only teams that have attempted (and come close) to winning the Premier League without strong and experienced defensive midfielders. Pep follows their footsteps in style. He does have at his disposal Fernandinho who he may or may not utilize as a centre back and Fernando who surprisingly had one of the best passing rates in the league last year at 89%, even more than Yaya Toure. Fernando has had some injuries and was brought in for his uncanny tackling ability but is yet to really show all round quality and consistency.
Pep likes teams with lots of attacking technical ability and generally likes a probing style of play, chiseling away at defenses and looking for the tiniest openings to take advantage of, but opponents are now familiar with this style and they will not do like teams in La Liga and pass back. They will attack, and then who will win back the ball for City?
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