“In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the enemy” (Ephesians 6:16)

Football is constantly evolving. The use of statistics and data analysis in player recruitment, tactical switches, nuanced interpretation of player roles, inverted wingers and John Stones shows as much. The change in tactics and player role interpretation is most prominent in the midfield and the role of the midfielder. Moreso with the defensive midfielder.

The development of three band formations (4-2-4,4-4-2,4-3-3) led to the splitting of the roles of the midfield players with the creators given license to roam and the holders tasked with providing extra cover in the central strip of the pitch.

In a conventional 4-2-3-1 for instance, the ‘2’ consisted of a ‘destroyer’ who was required to simply win the ball back from the opposition by combining excellent anticipation and hard tackling skills. He would immediately hand over possession to the ‘metronome’ who was given the brief of keeping possession, distributing the ball, setting the tempo and launching quick attacks from deep with a combination of high level technique and good range of passing.

Gattuso-Pirlo, Mascherano-Alonso, Keane-Scholes, Viera-Petit are some examples of this tactical relationship. The interpretation of the role of the defensive midfielder has changed rapidly from the tough tackling,technically deficient,ball winner in the ilk of Nobby Stiles, Gattuso, Mascherano and the high priest of the order himself Claude Makelele.

So much so even the designation ‘defensive midfielder’ seems archaic. A more up-to-date name could be the holding midfielder.

The One True Four. Claude Makalele, almost more than anyone else, embodied what being a defensive midfielder meant.
The One True Four. Claude Makalele, almost more than anyone else, embodied what being a defensive midfielder meant.

However, one thing has remained constant in the face of this change, just about every top-level team that has won trophies in the last decade has been in possession of one or a few players skilled at protecting the defence.

Barcelona are arguably the most successful European football club of the last decade. The Catalans espouse a possession heavy brand of football and have within their ranks Sergio Busquets. The Spain midfielder provides cover for the defences of both club and country in teams that are inclined towards attack.

This he does through excellent reading of the game, snuffing out danger before it’s apparent to the ordinary observer. How he does this? With interceptions, rather than crunching tackles.

Mind over Matter. Busquets hardly ever exerts himself but he remains a quality defensive midfielder.
Mind over Matter. Busquets hardly ever exerts himself but he remains a quality defensive midfielder.

He also acts as the initiator of attacks from deep and provides a constant passing option for team mates in possession. Julian Weigl at Dortmund, Emre Can(less successfully) at Liverpol, Thiago Motta for PSG and Philip Lahm for Pep Guardiola’s Bayern are other exponents of this interpretation of the holding midfielder role. It is becoming more common place especially for possession based teams.

Some players however, still operate in a manner clearly akin to that of the old guard. N’golo Kante won plaudits for his exploits for Leicester last season. So great was his influence in the title-winning team that as Jesse Lingard sashayed through the Foxes’ defence during the Community Shield Game, the unanimous verdict claimed it was all because Kante was absent.

Bite Sized. Dogged as ever, Kante remains a fitting tribute to the old days.
Bite Sized. Dogged as ever, Kante remains a fitting tribute to the old days.

William Carvalho, Nemanja Matic(when he finally remembers who he was), Victor Wanyama, Casemiro, Daniele De Rossi etc. They and others continue to lean towards the past with toughness in the tackle and a Gandalf-esque “thou shalt not pass” resilience to any and all attackers. They protect the old defensive midfielder ‘code’ if you like.

It is apparent then that whether using the holding midfielder who defends his team by keeping the ball away from the opponents more than winning it back or one who wins back the ball as quickly as it’s lost, teams that win the major honours in football this season will have their shields to thank as much as their arrows.

Article by Ernest Bosha (@Ernyy_B)

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