The Mysterious Debate of the Defensive Midfielder

Ah, the defensive midfielder. A midfielder who likes to defend… NEXT! It’s a toughy this one, but, always a conversation I love having.

Okay, so if you follow the people I do on Twitter, your Gary Nevilles, Jamie Carraghers, MessiMinutes… you’ll know there is such a heated debate over the position of the defensive midfielder. In fact, I’m not calling it that anymore, it’s now known as the ‘mysterious role’! The lack of conviction most midfielders now posses when defending is slightly worrying, so I’m going to dig deep, likewise with the hunt to find a player like this, and get to the bottom as of why.

Okay so the defensive midfielder, ah I mean the mysterious role! I like to think of him as the invisible wall. The anchorman as such. A player who is pretty much completely defensive minded who, in my opinion, is one of the most important players on the pitch. Nowadays, they seem rare… Javi Martinez, Busquets, Javier Mascherano and Matic are the standout few I can name who are world class. Well Matic isn’t quite as elite as the aforementioned. But anyway these players are key, these almost act as the third centre back in many ways, coming short and in between when defending and receiving the ball. In fact, the fascinating thing about this rare breed of player is that they often fill in at centre-back and that’s what seems to be taking them away from us.

Pep praises Xabi for his Man of the Match performances at centre-back.
Pep praises Xabi for his Man of the Match performance at centre-back.

Pep Guardiola has enjoyed a very successful and golden career as a manager, a tactical genius whose footballing style is the best around. Javi Martinez and Xabi Alonso are the most recent defensive midfielders to join him within the Bayern ranks, and funnily enough, neither of them have a chance of playing in their preferred position. Granted, securing an ageing Xabi Alonso for a cut price, lucrative deal shows the immense talent of Pep, and with two MOTM performances at centre back, Xabi may lack the pace he once possessed in the holding mid role at Liverpool and Madrid. Javi Martinez, injury-stricken nonetheless, signed as a centre-half from Bilbao and has certainly proved his worth as the ‘invisible man’ I’d say, and if it wasn’t for him in the 2012-13 season, we would not have seen such a majestic, well-balanced Bayern side do the treble! Lahm has stepped in at Bayern now, the best right back within the past 20 years without a doubt, and now World Champion. But his technicalities suit the role, and is quite the ‘makeshift’ replacement. Anyway… on with the qualities…

They break up play and are generally very physical. Standing tackles. Interceptions. That sort of thing! I’d say Flamini is Arsenal’s best classed ‘defensive midfielder’. Always see the lad in between Per and Koscielny, and he is very disciplined positionally. Just a shame he’s a bit of a nutter and is guaranteed a yellow every game. But then again, the aggression is needed in that role sometimes, shown by Busquets. When breaking up play and sniffing out the danger before it even arises, the chances are, their timings will sometimes be reckless… and as we always see, the middle man will go in the book. A sacrifice any team will have to take, but it is expected.

Flamini sees red. Again.
Flamini sees red. Again.

Gilberto Silva, Makelele and Roy Keane are other examples from the past. Some even have a thunderous strike on them. Most will have good ball distribution, but don’t expect them to still play as a play- maker. I think we have seen that from Steven Gerrard. Once a gem in the play-maker role… now only renowned for his passing ability. He’s been shoved backwards and backwards and now found in this ‘mysterious role’ but ping, after ping after ping… his long balls and distribution cannot hide the fact he can’t defend. But that’s a defensive midfielder, a lot to ask for, and they’re hard to find.

Then there’s the box-to-box. I won’t go into this much… But Yaya Toure is one. As was Patrick Vieira. Pogba. Ramsey. Vidal. Crucial at both ends, but they bring the ball forward, make the late midfield runs into the box. Grab 10 or so goals a season. As an Arsenal fan, so many get confused, saying we need Pogba. And as nice as he would be, it’s not him we desperately require. It’s a holding ‘defensive midfielder’ as aforementioned. Still though, I wouldn’t turn the man down! But we have Ramsey for this role, and in a 4-2-3-1, all we need is the holding midfielder to partner him in the centre of the pitch. One goes up, the other drops deep. You’ll often find the defensive midfielder cover for the attacking full-backs also. And that’s needed at Arsenal, the amount we push forward and commit. Lord almighty, remember Villa (home) and Chelsea at the Bridge last year!?

It was previously noted by Gary Neville that Yaya Toure was the weak link in the Manchester City side when they faced Bayern at the Allianz last week in the Champions League Group game. He played as a holding midfielder, but with the attributes he has: power, energy, dribbling, finishing and ability to bring the ball forward… he almost seemed off the pace.

Yaya down and out when required in the holding role.
Yaya down and out when required in the holding role.

Yaya Toure vs Bayern statistics:
0 Tackles – 0 Ariel Duels Won – 2 Interceptions – 0 Blocks – 2 Clearances – 2 Take Ons – 0 Chances Created – 3 Fouls Committed. 

So great, all he did was take on a few players, loose the ball and foul them. He is an elite player, however, but in this position… have a day off. When he plays box-to-box. Well, he will win you the Premier League, ask his partner Fernandinho, who sat next to the Ivorian last campaign and watched on as he ran the show, whilst the Brazilian mopped up any loose pieces around him.


Anyway, I feel that’s the difference. And a lot of people often get it wrong when it comes to this discussion. Hopefully with the introduction to the 4-2-3-1 formation we will finally see the return of the powerful holder. And maybe the perfect partnership where two midfield players can work wonders together when they get their position right. Box-to-box. Up and Down. Holding Midfielder. Down. And only down. Barcelona seem to do it the best for me in this day and age. Busquets will forever be my favourite ‘mysterious positioned’ player during the current game. His passing, his reactions, tackling and aggression is… well… in a world of its own. But watch out though! Sergi Samper, William Carvalho and Mario Pugliese seem to be coming through the ranks and bursting onto the scene around Europe. So lets have our fingers crossed that they stay there and bring back, certainly, my favourite position on the football field.

Thanks for reading,
Liam Baldock.


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