Football is a simple enough game. A team of 11 players tries to find a way to put a ball past a line behind 11 other players for 90 minutes. Simple, in theory. Once you delve into the strategy and tactics employed though, even a 20 minute Sunday League game becomes a complex maze of specific instructions, unique roles and intricate match plans. In today’s world, arguably the most tactically discussed position seems to be that of the Defensive Midfielder (DM). Among several notable exponents of this role, a few stand out with their unique approach to the game.
Andrea Pirlo for example is renowned for his regista role, a deep lying playmaker who maintains possession of the ball and seeks to plot attacks far away from where the defenders can reach him.
Indeed while playing for Juventus with two powerhouse box to box midfielders in front of him in Paul Pogba and Arturo Vidal, Pirlo resembles in every way an experienced charioteer, pulling the reins to guide two thoroughbred steeds in front of him as he rides into battle. Cesare Prandelli, the former Italian national team coach insisted that to pass the ball to Pirlo is to lock it in a safe, and yet the bearded genius seems more like an investment banker, protecting the ball, shielding it from opponents and releasing it when the chance to cause maximum damage arises. It has helped him amass a collection of Champions League, Serie A and World Cup medals.
While it is an extremely difficult role to play, requiring immense tactical understanding of the game, traces of this style can be seen in how Xavi Hernandez plays for Barcelona, Xabi Alonso or Luka Modric for Real Madrid and Cesc Fabregas while he was at Arsenal and in Steven Gerrard for Liverpool, albeit in a less refined, much more agricultural form. Ander Herrera, Manchester United’s new signing also seems to show signs of growing into this very role but it needs to be seen if it can suit the Premier League today. The regista requires a team built around him and with modern day lack of patience to build squads, the role is in danger of dying out.
The metronome is a wonderful tool for musicians, helping develop a sense of rhythm and maintaining a tempo. The metronomic DM is a similarly indispensable component of a well drilled passing side. Not one to pick for people’s fantasy teams, the metronome completes 90 minutes with usually the highest pass completion percentage, playing the role of an anchor and distributing the ball evenly to help defend as well as set up attacks.
The metronome appears where the man in possession needs him to be when under pressure, in front of the back four or between the midfield, offering an outlet to lessen the effect of opponents pressing hard. An unglamourous role, this position, but one that is vital to the team functioning smoothly. Notable exponents include Mikel Arteta of Arsenal, Sergio Busquets of Barcelona and a little bit of Jordan Henderson of Liverpool who has also added the box to box element to his game.
Another, perhaps more classical style of defensive midfielder is the muscler. Going along the English interpretations of the game, especially in the 80’s and 90’s , the muscler is typically the embodiment of brute strength, cutting off counter attacks with sheer physical presence and intimidation. However, with today’s game emphasizing on the importance of technique, the muscler has evolved into a physical presence comfortable with the ball at his feet. As of now, this type of DM is arguably the most prized variation in the world, providing a tactical flexibility that acts as a safety net when teams want to commit more men forward in search of a goal.
David Luiz’s price tag of close to £50 million is thanks to his adeptness as a ball playing centreback as well as an aerially dominant DM who also possesses flair. William Carvalho of Sporting Lisbon sees his stock rising steadily as he offers both a towering physical presence with polished passing capabilities. Nemanja Matic of Chelsea combines this role with that of a metronome, showing great composure and tactical astuteness. As a physical presence, Matic is exceptional in the air and also a brilliant man marker, while offering the positioning discipline of a metronome. He is the embodiment of the Mourinho tactical mentality, solid and reliable when defending.
The final variety of DM discussed in this article is the marauder. A throwback to the 90’s and the 2000’s, the marauder is the one man army whose very name on the team sheet causes opposition players to think twice before getting physical and opposition managers frantically rearranging their defence. Combining the elements of a muscler and box to box midfielder with refined technique, the marauder is an all action player, getting forward with the team to score goals as well as offering superior defensive stability. Easily notable examples of this role are Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane who led their respective sides to many an honour with their winning mentality and larger than life on field presence.
Modern football has moved towards tactically geared teams that employ double marking and intricate passing which makes the work of a marauder much more intensive and this role is recognised as a dying breed, leaving too much responsibility on the shoulders of one man. Players believed to be capable of this role are Abou Diaby of Arsenal, Paul Pogba of Juventus, with Yaya Toure being probably the last of this kind actively dominating games every week. The powerful Ivorian has therefore become an immensely valuable asset for Manchester City and would indeed make a fine addition to just about any team in the world.
The most pressing need for a DM currently seems to be at Arsenal Football Club seeing as their metronome Mikel Arteta was often overrun by physical opposition last year and is now out with an injury. Manager Arsene Wenger passed up on signing former protege Cesc Fabregas partly because thanks to the tinkering that Barcelona have done, the Spanish midfielder no longer plays as a regista but a box to box midfielder or number 10 both roles for which Arsenal have Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Özil respectively.
Popular opinion dictates that the Gunners need a marauder in the mould of Vieira or someone who can offer Arteta’s metronomic passing and positional discipline with added physicality. Alex Song is a possible target but fails to convince after lacklustre seasons at Barca as well as possessing a tendency to overplay his passes. William Carvalho is another possible name but he is yet to prove himself on the big stage and the transaction is complicated by third party ownership issues.
Ideally Arsenal would have loved to sign Javi Martinez of Bayern Munich who offers essentially a world class mixture of awareness, passing and decent physical robustness. The Spaniard is however injured. The Bender twins of Germany offer another unique solution, both being versatile DMs who can be moulded into any role the manager deems fit. However, it remains to be seen whether Wenger chooses to sign a midfielder or make good on his aim to turn the excellent young Calum Chambers into a DM where he started his career.