The Evolution of the Defensive Midfielder

In my last article I wrote about how Steven Gerrard’s new role may become more common in the coming seasons. It is my belief that Brendan Rodgers always intended to drop Gerrard back, and that this decision was accelerated when Lucas picked up an injury in January of this year.

Gerrard’s deeper role does not offer the same defensive cover as when Lucas plays there, but what it lacks in defence it makes up for in attack. Whilst Lucas’ defensive positioning and interceptions are a little better than Gerrard’s, Lucas’ attacking threat is far worse.

As is the case with any tactic, and as is the choice when choosing any player, decisions are made on an analysis of the advantages and disadvantages it brings to the team. Liverpool are slightly disadvantaged defensively by Gerrard playing in the defensive midfield position, but they receive a tremendous advantage offensively when he is placed there. Thus his inclusion in that role is justified.

It is clear that Rodgers likes his team to play open, attacking football. The defence is something he will no doubt work on in the summer, but even with this necessary attention, the team will still be geared to attack. The centre backs will be expected to be comfortable with the ball at their feet, the full backs will push forward down the wings, and the defensive midfielder will play long raking diagonal balls towards the strikeforce.

Pep Guardiola’s revolution at Barcelona brought the world tiki-taka football. A love of possession based, game dominance, where the opposition received death by a thousand passes. Fundamental to his footballing philosophy was the principle of ball retention. The least amount of threat to your goal was when you were in possession of the ball yourself, thus the ball was kept, not just as a method of developing attacks, but also as a method of defending.

Every area of the pitch was considered the midfield. There was no clear striker, players swapped positions and drifted from one area to another, the full backs overlapped, and the centre backs played with the ball at their feet. During games Barcelona passed the opposition off the field, and at times were simply unplayable.

Inevitably the world learned how to counter the tactic, and the team that once brushed every other aside, began to face challenges. The accusation of keeping possession for possession sake was made a number of times, the statistics pleased the eye, and Xavi’s pass count ran into the hundreds, but possession did not necessarily translate into goals, and success.

The emphasis on maintaining possession above anything else was also a shortcoming of Rodgers first season in charge at Liverpool. Joe Allen was purchased – and he could keep the ball very well – but the large majority of his passes were horizontal or backwards, there was no real penetration. According to WhoScored.com, Liverpool’s possession stats were the third best in the league that year, averaging 57.2% and yet they found themselves in seventh place come the end of the season.

For a short time, for both Barcelona and Liverpool, possession carried with it too much emphasis. The opposition were perfectly content sat behind the ball, watching the passes go from one player to another in the midfield area. In an ironic twist, what began as a defensive measure to prevent the opposition from scoring, Barcelona’s and Liverpool’s own possession had now become a tactic for the opposition to prevent them from scoring. Effectively the opposition were saying: “true, we do not have the ball so we cannot score, but though you may have the ball, you wont score either.”

Many have likened football to chess, and it is easy to see why. The tactical duel that was playing out over the issue of possession based football was like that of a chess game whereby players were facing off over possession of the squares on the board. With one team so overwhelmingly in charge of the board, the opposition sat back and waited. They relied on a strong and organised defence, and invited the team in possession to attempt to break them down.

In chess, rather than throw all the pieces of your attack at a strong and well organised defence, it may be best to draw the opposition out. To retreat a little, concede possession somewhat and find the gaps when they inevitably begin to appear. This then became the counter to the counter.

Liverpool’s possession for this season is only the fifth best in the league, and has dropped to an average of 55.8%. Yet this year they have finished in a much higher position. There are a number of factors for this, but one is inevitably the decision not to pursue possession simply for possession sake.

How does all this relate to Gerrard and the future of the defensive midfielder? Well, Barcelona’s death-by-a-thousand-passes approach focused heavily on keeping the ball. It is a tactic founded on the principle of possession. When you didn’t have it, you won it back, and when you did have it, you did not lose it. For this to work effectively their defensive midfielder needed to be aggressive, strong in the tackle and able to pass the ball quickly, and accurately to other team members. Sergio Busquets fills that role superbly, breaking up attacks, winning the ball back and then feeding Xavi or Andres Iniesta.

Lucas would play a similar role in the Liverpool team, but as we mentioned earlier, sometimes to gain an advantage, and to achieve success, you have to concede possession in order to draw the opposition out. With less emphasis on retaining the ball, and more emphasis on exploiting gaps, Gerrard becomes the obvious choice in the defensive midfield spot.

With this change in emphasis, so the role of the defensive midfielder also changes. No longer are they there purely to break up opposition attacks and play simple balls, they also need to contribute an attacking threat. In an age where players are more frequently asked to perform a multitude of tasks, no longer can a team have the luxury of selecting a player who only has one role.

Full backs are asked to both defend and contribute to attacks, overlapping on the wings or cutting inside. Wingers are asked to create chances and score goals, but they must also track back and mark the opposition when they are attacking. Centre backs are being utilised more and more in a ball playing role, requiring the ability and composure for being comfortable with the ball at their feet. Strikers must not only score goals, and create chances for others, but defend from the front, hunting down defenders and stray back passes.

Out-and-out, break-up-the-attack defensive midfielders will still continue to exist but they will become more and more rare. Teams with players in that role will come up against opposition who have their defensive midfielder performing multiple tasks, and so it will feel like they are a man down in the centre of midfield. Barcelona’s midfield trio of Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets is almost perfect, but imagine how much more damaging and threatening a trio of Xavi Iniesta and Xabi Alonso would be.

The midfield would lose the bite, and defensive strength of Busquets, but they would gain the passing prowess of Xabi Alonso. No longer would the defensive midfielder’s first pass be to one of his centre midfield teammates, instead it could be a long diagonal to a winger, or a perfectly weighted through ball to a striker. I think Guardiola was intending take this next step with Barcelona, replacing Busquets with more of a multi-tasking defensive midfielder, and the evidence for this comes from Andrea Pirlo’s autobiography where he talks of his proposed transfer to the Nou Camp. A midfield trio of Xavi, Iniesta and Pirlo would be a truly mouth watering prospect.

As ever, Guardiola is looking to innovate, and he will continue the evolution of his preferred tactics. It is no surprise that at Bayern Munchen Guardiola has played Philip Lahm at defensive midfield on a number of occasions. Lahm at Bayern poses much more of an attacking threat than Busquets ever did at Barcelona.

I believe Rodgers is walking down a similar path to that of Guardiola. The defensive midfield role is set to evolve once more, with the player in that position being required to perform multiple tasks rather than simply breaking up attacks. Pirlo and Xabi Alonso have led the way thus far, but more will follow in the coming years, starting with Gerrard.

This piece was originally published on Proven Quality.

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3 thoughts on “The Evolution of the Defensive Midfielder

  1. I agree with the Lucas/Gerrard concept, although I am unsure which would benefit Liverpool more. Perhaps with such a strong attacking force, you could sacrifice the deeper ball player. But at the same time, you almost won the league.

    I think the big distinction to make between a Gerrard and a Busquets is what lies in front of them. Liverpool don’t operate with a Xavi and Iniesta ahead of them who look for pockets of space to play into. Therefore Busquets does not need to play these searching passes and get assists. In 3 fewer games, Busquets managed over 100 more forward passes than Gerrard but only 1 assist (Gerrard had 13). Liverpool’s tactic involves breaking quickly from deep and utilising their pace and so Gerrard fits that role perfectly.

    I think you description of the evolving defensive mid might fit the one of the two major playing styles, but not the other. One style being the Atletico, Chelsea, Liverpool & Real Madrid (the variations of counter-possession), the other being the Barcelona, Bayern & Arsenal (possession based).

    I am not sure I would clasify Alonso as a defensive midfielder at Madrid. Mordic does more of their defending from midfield and they seem to play old school centre midfielders who do all jobs (Modric, Alonso & Illarmendi). They play and even deeper midfield than Liverpool, similar to what Mourinho is doing with Chelsea.

    Good blog though

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