Whatever Happened to the Defensive Midfielder?
“United need a new Roy Keane!” blares the tabloid press.
“Arsenal has to have an heir to Patrick Vieira’s throne!” an ex-player opines.
“Chelsea must find someone for the ‘Makelele’ position!” A pundit enthuses.
Time and time again we’ve heard of the top clubs’ need for a ball-winning, defensive midfielder. There are a multitude of reasons given, for example: “the defense needs protection”, “the team needs someone to break-up play”, “this type of player is needed to make a mark on the game.” (Lee Cattermole, how are you?)
But if you come to view the personnel at top clubs you’ll find that, arguably, the defensive midfielder is being overlooked in favour of a deep-lying playmaker and that current preference in formation, style or tactics do not accommodate the inclusion of a ball-winning protector.
Roberto Mancini last season tended to prefer Gareth Barry in the deep-lying position over Nigel De Jong. Whilst it can be argued that Barry was operating as a defensive midfielder his passing statistics seem to indicate a deeper tactical importance to the team. Indeed he completed 86.28% of his passes last season, a season which was regarded as one of his best in a City shirt. His work allowed Yaya Touré, who was considered a defensive midfielder, to move further forward in order to provide an attacking threat. This could be the plan for Jack Rodwell once Touré is phased out.
The much-maligned Michael Carrick at Manchester United always seems to get the nod and gets in the team, but why? Perhaps a near 90% pass completion rate is the reason he gets selected each week. Paul Scholes was brought out of retirement for his ball retention skills, Tom Cleverly is schooled that way too.
At of the time of writing Arsenal don’t have a true defensive midfielder and whilst Alex Song was notionally designated that role he seemed to play that position as a deep-lying playmaker contributing a total of 11 assists last season. Arsenal’s midfield consisting of Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Abou Diaby against Sunderland was there to retain the ball whilst the formation was designed to help keep and win back possession rather than designating anyone specifically to act as a defensive midfielder.
It seems that formations play a big role as to whether a club needs a defensive midfielder or not. Tottenham nominally played a 4-4-2 last season and relied on Scott Parker to do the diligent donkey-work whilst to a lesser extent Cheik Tioté can perform the same role too though Newcastle seem to prefer 4-3-3. It was noticeable last season how Spurs struggled without Parker, the designated defensive midfielder, and it’s interesting to see how Andre Vilas Boas will set-up Tottenham this campaign.
Over recent seasons, it seems that the emphasis in terms of tactics and formations has been towards ball retention in either the 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 framework. We’ve seen the best teams adopting this tactic be it Barcelona, Real Madrid, Chelsea or the Spanish team (who tinkered with a striker-less formation).
Indeed Wigan’s surge up the table last season can be traced to the adoption of the 3-4-3 formation and arguably there isn’t a classic defensive midfielder in the Lactics either.
But why the sudden ‘demise’ of the defensive midfielder? It could simply be that the laws in the modern game, doesn’t allow hard-tackling defensive midfielders as much slack as it used to. Sir Alex Ferguson, who’s not one to let the game leave him behind, noted as much stating “in the modern day game, you don’t need tacklers the same way you used to, there’s no call for it. It’s about anticipation and reading the game. The refereeing is also of such a standard that you can hardly tackle anyone, so that sort of thing isn’t the same issue as it used to be.”
Then there are the 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 formations, which allow for teams to quickly revert to five in midfield in order to defend and win back possession and on the other hand spring into a three or four man attack when the ball is retrieved. Tactically the system allows more flexibility in terms of player movement both defensively and attacking wise as well as dictating the pace of the game. In effect the position of defensive midfielder has been superseded by the 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 formation. The role of ball winner has been spread collectively to the team in those formations rather than designated to one particular individual.
Can it be done in a 4-4-2? It is possible but 4-4-2 is tactically inflexible insofar as it requires players to stick to their positions, arguably, rigidly and forces play to go in straight lines rather than diagonals and angles. The knock-on effect is that demands that players keep to a shape lest the midfield get overrun if a player moves too far out of position. If played with discipline it’s extremely hard to break down as England demonstrated at Euro 2012 but it tends to restrict the team using a 4-4-2 to a certain style of play and leave sides utilising that formation open to being swamped in midfield.
So taking into account the trend towards 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 it seems that the defensive midfielder is fast becoming obsolete and in the case of the likes of Touré there’s more of an argument to have a marauding, rampaging midfielder wreaking havoc on the opposition’s defense rather than being a defensive shield. Moreover in terms of efficiency these formations allow for increased movement, better ball retention, defensive and attacking flexibility and creating a more collective unit.
With that being the case, is there really a need for a defensive midfielder when you can trust your formation to give you a solid defensive and attacking base? So long as the players understand the instructions defensively and gear themselves to a possession-based game, they’ll have the freedom to play more expansively within a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 framework. The best teams and most successful teams have made this work already and have reaped the rewards. That’s why the likes of your Xavis, Iniestas and Pirlos are more highly prized in this day and age than a modern Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris or Andoni Goikoetxea, the philosophy being “why win back the ball when we can keep it?”
So is there really a need any team to find a new Keane? Vieira or Makelele in the defensive midfield? For a start it does the last statement does those three a great disservice. Keane and Vieira are arguably the most complete midfielders the English game has seen whilst Makelele’s tactical sense and awareness set himself apart from the rest of the pack. Simply put the defensive midfielder, for the time being at least, has been shunted aside in-favour of a midfield three sharing the defensive responsibilities and dictating the pace of play. That said, I wouldn’t mind seeing a midfield trio of Keane, Vieira and Makelele in their pomp lining up!