The importance of the Defensive Midfielder in football today. In theory, football is (should be) a simple game. Eleven players attempting to put the ball in a net, in the process moving it among themselves and keeping it away from the grasp of the opposing team. In practice though, the task of scoring a goal has become far more nuanced and intricate. It wasn’t’ always so.
When the rules of the game were drawn up in the 1860s, the approach to scoring a goal was far simpler and a lot more primal than it is today. Simply put, a player would pick up the ball with his feet, run towards the opposing goal, all while his teammates attempted to shove, push and block the oncoming players of the opposing team away from him, thus keeping his path clear. As soon as he was tackled and possession was lost, another member of the team would take control of the ball and repeat the same task until a shot at goal was within reach. Matches regularly concluded with multiple broken bones on either side but, as a doting wife in Victorian England egged you on, a standout performance at the weekly village game could buy you a lifetime’s worth of glory. Remember, it’s still the mid-nineteenth century and there are probably worse avenues to lose a little blood and be remembered for it.
Moving on to the modern game, football is now won or lost on the tactics board. Managers that do not display tactical nous, flexibility with formations, a love for data analytics and general familiarity with software that mine player performance, fitness, conditioning, strength, stamina speed, flair etc. are considered out of sync with today’s game and dealt with harshly. Even in England, the bastion of ‘Good Old Traditional Football’, the long ball punt to the lumpy striker up front no longer finds any takers. It’s all about ‘philosophy’ (think Pep) and ‘finding the right solutions’ (think Conte) and ‘heavy metal football’ (think Klopp). At the same time, fans demand attacking football and pay big bucks to watch players that put on a show. Within this complex web of tactics and expectations, one may wonder if there is room for an additional player that neither contributes to goal scoring nor directly prevents it. After all, when you are visiting London and paying close to 100 pounds for a day out at the Emirates or perhaps at the Bridge, you can be forgiven for wanting to be thoroughly entertained for all 90 minutes. An extra shield in midfield, apart from the four defenders (in a 4-4-2) and goalkeeper makes it six players that are primarily involved in preventing the occasion of a scored goal. Moreover, let’s say you are a neutral and could care less which team won. All you want for your money is to see a high scoring, frenetic, end to end game that is memorialized on Youtube for generations to come just so you could say “I was There Lads. I saw it with my own eyes!”. The sight of N’golo Kante in front of the Chelsea defence however, is makes you a little sick and you wonder if you should go back to the ticket window and plead for your money back.
No one starts out in football dreaming to be a holding or a defensive midfielder. The role itself is recent in the history of the game. DMs don’t sell millions of dollars’ worth of jerseys, they don’t make it to the cover of the latest FIFA Installment, and they stay far away from the back pages of tabloids. Basically, they come with minimum fuss, do their work, go home and go to bed. Just like the rest of us. Except if you ask any decent coach in the world today, what it means to have a Kante or a Matic or a Casemiro in their side, an entirely different perspective is revealed.
In 2004, the idea of a central midfielder who could win possession back around the center circle and spray the ball in either direction to initiate a counter attack was not entirely new. Mourinho though, gave it a fresh lease of life. He made an ageing Claude Makelele, recently spewed out of Madrid unceremoniously, the mainstay of his back to back title winning seasons. If you looked purely at numbers, Makelele scored a single goal (a weak penalty from the spot followed by a more confident tap in at the rebound that sealed the Blues’ second title in ’06) over 67 league appearance in 2004-05 and 2005-06 However, his relentless and tireless presence in midfield freed up the likes of Lampard, Duff, a younger sprightlier Joe Cole and other players of the kind. The Premier League sat up and took notice. Chelsea conceded a meagre 15 goals on their way to the title in 2004-05. That Madrid did not win another league title, despite signing Galactico after Galactico, for four years is no mere coincidence. That in their next La Liga triumph a certain Mahamadou Diarra featured in 33 out of 38 league games is further proof that the ‘Makelele Role’ was now a real thing. To win in Europe now, to win big, you needed your own Makelele in midfield, you needed a grafter that was never more three feet from the action, a hunter that hunted everything, someone that broke opposition plays, sprung attacks, mopped up loose balls, was first to every second ball, never broke down and played every minute of every game. Eden Hazard once said of his teammate (Kante) – “I think sometimes when I am on the pitch, I see him twice”.
Mourinho would go on to use the role masterfully in his time at Italy with the likes of Esteban Cambiasso and Thiago Motta. Any willing student of the game must watch the second leg of the 2009-10 UEFA Champions League Semi-Final at the Camp Nou. Barcelona laid siege for the better part of the game. Inter held on, after going a man down at the half hour mark, using the likes of Cambiasso and Sneijder as make shift DMs. Again, in Madrid, he used Sami Khedira masterfully to snatch a league title from Pep’s ominous Barca, their first in four years. In his second spell at Chelsea, he never really got going until the re-signing of Nemanja Matic, following which Chelsea coasted to the title in his second season.
But this is not merely a development attributable only to Mourinho, rather a shift in managerial mindset since Italy’s victory at the 2006 FIFA World Cup. To do it at the club level is commendable, but to influence tactical innovation at the international stage is another ball game altogether, literally. Marcelo Lippi went with the dual force of Genaro Gattuso and Andrea Pirlo at the center of the pitch for the Azzuri.
The Italians conceded only a single goal in the Knockout Stage of the Finals and scored 9 in return with the two at the heart of everything. Interestingly, instead of playing ahead of Gattuso, the more creatively abled Pirlo dropped deeper, almost like a quarter back and dictated play from his own half. A lot of the balls that were won by Gattuso were in fact played sideways or backwards to Pirlo who could launch attacks with his deep balls and laser guided vision. It is impossible to pin point the classic defensive midfielder among the two but the partnership worked. Pirlo, in fact, with age kept falling deeper and deeper in his own half, to compensate for his reduction in pace and stamina.
A similar partnership was visible in the finalists at the subsequent World Cup. Holland went with Van Bommel and the feisty De Jong while Del Bosque place his faith in the evergreen Xabi Alonso and dependable ‘Master of the Dark Arts’ Sergio Busquets, who by now had become a household name in Spain after two stellar seasons with Barcelona. The match was a tight affair and any creative impetus was being stifled by Busquets and De Jong. The match would be won in midfield and the midfield was being controlled by the two best defensive midfielders of the time. De Jong’s ‘Kung Fu’ kick on Xabi Alonso has become the most enduring image of the tournament. The Dutch manager Bert Van Marwijk blinked first and took De Jong off in the first half of extra time while Del Bosque held on to his midfield lynchpin. The move backfired for the former. Deep in the second half, as Jesus Navas charged ahead with the ball, the Dutch had three chances to intercept and clear the ball but all three attempts were in vain. The ball found its way to Iniesta who slotted it neatly to take home the Cup for Spain. Poor tackling in an important run of play cost them, too bad their number one tackler was already back in the shed.
The task at hand for the modern holding midfielder is not, conceptually, a whole lot different than the ‘path clearing’ ways employed in the early days of association football. His main role is to enable the game of more naturally gifted and talented players in the side. Sergio Busquet’s role in the Barca midfield offers an accurate case in point. In the first leg of the 2010-11 UEFA Champions League Semi-Final against Madrid in front of a raucous Bernebau crowd, Lionel Messi scored, what many argue is the most iconic goal of the Champions League era. A solo run across three helpless Los Blancos defenders before finishing with his swinger past Casillas. What happened three seconds before he began his run is crucial to understanding the anonymity and at the same time the ubiquity of the modern-day DM. Messi, seemingly out of options, played a harmless short pass to Busquets. Busquets, with his back to goal merely held the ball for the onrushing Messi, who had already spotted a gap between Lassana Diarra and Xabi Alonso in midfield. Busquets for a couple of seconds almost stopped time, just let the ball die at his feet before getting out of the way lest he come in the way of history. Most will recall the goal from that night but few will recall the assist. Be of help. Clear the path. Get out of the way. Simple.
In time, Madrid learnt their lesson too, if only the hard way. It took a former Champions League Winning player to take over as manager for them to realise the value of a ball winning midfielder in Casemiro. Zidane was a member of the 2002 Champions League winning squad and he must have known the importance of Makelele even back then. Barring Mahmadou Diarra and the lesser established Lassana Diarra, they were without an engine room for the better part of a decade. By integrating an intelligent, hardworking, traditional, un-Madrid like player like Casemiro, he unlocked the potential of an otherwise star studded squad and landed back to back Champions League titles, a feat never achieved before.
It would be unfair to label DMs as the sole reason for any squad’s success over the past decade and a half, but there is an undeniable pattern of them showing up in trophy winning teams. Whether it be Mascherano with Barcelona and Argentina, Luka Modric and Casemiro during Madrid’s Champions League sweep, N’golo Kante with Leicester and Chelsea, Willian Carvalho with Portugal at the 2016 Euros – managers can scarcely overlook their presence or their importance. With the game progressing to a newer and higher tempo in the past few years, the DM has also evolved into a force of nature in his own right. Players like Tiemoue Bakayoko, Ander Herrera, Axel Witsel, Marouanne Fellaini and Blaise Matuidi are blurring the lines between a DM and a CAM (Central Attacking Midfielder). One could say that these modern versions of the ‘Makele Role’ are box-to-box midfielders, ball winning midfielders, deep lying playmakers and trequartistas all packed in one.
The modern game cannot afford any player to be limited to a single role anymore, hence the DM’s workload will increasingly include more attacking responsibility, that allows a team to utilize an additional player in the opposition’s half instead of the four or five that are usable with conventional formations. In an ideal world, a world governed by sensible free market capitalism, it is likely that one day a Kante’s asking price could match that of a Neymar, as the work done by the former is no less important in winning a game anymore.
However, the lack of a burdensome price tag also offers relative anonymity in the media, and allows players like Kante to be less mindful of their cost and more worried about racking up tackles and interceptions, week in week out. In a footballing age, full of prima donnas and semi gods, perhaps kids would do well to idolize defensive midfielders like Kante, who are team players, who work hard, work for others and do not expect to be at the center of everyone’s attention all the time
Xabi Alonso- Wallpaper Cave
Claudio Makelele- Art Station
Sergio Busquets – Wallsdesk
N’Golo Kante – Pinterest
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