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Association Football and Central Midfielder Analysis Essay - 434 Words

Association Football and Central Midfielder Analysis
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League: Barclays Premier League

Position: Central Midfielder

From this pie chart it is clear that most Central-Midfielders have brown eyes (72%) with blue and green eyes are marked at 14% each. However due to the lack of players analysed there is a high probability that the results vary. Although this data was recorded, eye colour does not have an effect on any other statistic.

In this graph there is what seems to be a moderate, positive relationship between the age of the player and the goals scored. From this we can also see that there is what looks like an outlier. This piece of data is from Patrick Viera, a retired 38 year ex arsenal player. I am unsure of why he didn’t score many goals however this could have been due to different central midfielder roles back in the time when he played to now. According to this graph, the older the player is the more goals he will have scored. Information about the statistics-

Median is: 45 goals

Range is: 126 (147-21)

For the age of central midfielders the…

Mean is: 69 goals per player (484/7)

Median is: 45 goals

Range is: 126 (147-21)

Number of Clubs played at-

From this box plot we can see that the average soccer player has played for 4 clubs however this graph is not incorporating the age of the players, the older the player the more clubs he might have played at. Information about the statistics-

Mean is: 3.9 clubs

Range is: 5 clubs

Information about the statistics-

Form this graph it appear that there is no relation between shots and goals. This is bizar as one would imagine that the more shots taken would equal more goals however this is not the case. Factors that could have interrupted the presumed results could be strength of the keepers, distance of shot, positioning of player and strength of the opposition.

For total shots taken by a central midfielder so far this season the… Mean is: 7.28

For total goals so far in the season for a central midfielder the… Mean is: 2.14

Other articles

What does a central midfielder do in 2010, Zonal Marking

What does a central midfielder do in 2010?

It’s this year’s must-have for any side looking to finish near the top of the Premier League: a player who prompts the question, ‘What does he do?’

This man is a central midfielder. He’s not a tackler, nor is he a creator. He doesn’t score many goals – in fact, he rarely looks to get into the box. So what does he do? It’s a question asked by Arsenal fans about Denilson. It’s a question asked by Manchester United fans, about Michael Carrick, who may be in with a chance of playing at Euro 2012.

And it’s not just the fans who ask. Britain’s most famous football pundit, Alan Hansen, has the same question about Jon Obi Mikel, who started the majority of games at the heart of Chelsea’s midfield as they won the Premier League lastseason. “What does John Obi Mikel do?”, asks Hansen.

So there we have it. The best three teams in one of the world’s best leagues all field a player in the centre of their team who apparently has no specific purpose.

Claude Makelele is the key man in all this. Whilst at Real Madrid he was declared ‘the most important player at the club’ by various teammates who depended on his steady, reliable presence in the centre of the pitch. Unfortunately, one man who didn’t value his contribution was club President Florentino Perez. Makelele was paid far less than the ‘Galacticos’, Perez refused to give him a more lucrative contract, and Makelele opted to leave for Chelsea.

Perez was scathing after the Frenchman’s departure, saying, We will not miss Makelele. His technique is average, he lacks the speed and skill to take the ball past opponents, and ninety percent of his distribution either goes backwards or sideways. He wasn’t a header of the ball and he rarely passed the ball more than three metres .” Which, of course, entirely missed the point, and he was widely criticized for his ignorance.

After making an immediate impact at Chelsea, pundits were queueing up to express their admiration for Makelele. By the very nature of being classed as ‘underrated’ by everyone, Makelele ceased to become underrated. There was no-one left who didn’t rate him.

In fact, it probably went the other way – his position was given the name ‘The Makelele role’, as if he had either invented the role, or brought a particularly new slant to it. Articles like this one - “To this day, I still believe that Real Madrid won the 2002 Champions League because of one man, and one man only…Frenchman Claude Makelele” – eventually managed to actually over rate Makelele, for that ‘one-man team’ statement is not true of any side in history, not even Maradona’s Argentina in 1986. It’s no less ludicrous than Perez’s view.

The strange thing is, no-one ever clarified what ‘the Makelele role’ actually meant. It certainly referred to a defensive midfielder, but did he have to be alone in that position? Was Makelele playing ‘the Makelele role’ when fielded alongside Patrick Vieira for France?

Regardless, his impact sparked a sudden obsession with deep-lying central midfielders. Furthermore, after his debut season at Chelsea, the astonishing victories of first Porto and then Greece at European level promoted the virtues of defensive-minded football. Premier League teams looking to play 4-5-1 formations simply took out a striker and used another central midfielder instead.

Even Real Madrid realised their error in trying to play without a defensive midfielder, and bizarrely signed Thomas Gravesen from Everton. This rather ignored the fact that he wasn’t a holding player (he merely had the appearance and disciplinary record of one). As Oliver Kay said at the time , “While Gravesen might have produced more tackles than any of his Everton team-mates this season, a holding player he is not. At Everton, in fact, he requires a ball-winner, Lee Carsley, to do his legwork and to cover him on his charges upfield…his aggression is not of the type that will break down opposition attacks like that of Claude Makelele, whom Real sold to Chelsea without a second thought in 2003.

And yet, four years later, we’re back to the pre-Makelele situation. In England, no-one has any respect for modern central midfielders.

The deep-lying central midfield role has changed, even in the short seven years since Makelele’s move to Chelsea. The first factor to consider here is the decline in the use of classic number 10s. We’re seeing less of players in the Zinedine Zidane and Manuel Rui Costa mould, and more like Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi – who are capable of playing centrally, but generally start from wide roles. Without a designated central playmaker to stop, managers are less insistent on fielding a ‘tackler’ deep in midfield to stop him, and we have fewer simple ‘creator v destroyer’ battles.

Makelele himself was a tackler, a man described in a piece by Sam Wallace as a “ferocious midfield terrier”. Makelele clearly thought tackling was his main job, saying “You just enjoy it, you enjoy playing football, tackling, giving the ball. When you are small you have to tackle at the right moment. He might be tall, he might be strong but if you tackle at the right moment you’ll win it.”

This is now more difficult, because hard tackling continues to be stamped out through stringent refereeing; we increasingly see free-kicks given for ‘reckless’ challenges that would have been deemed fair just a decade ago. There’s a reason Javier Mascherano, an old-style tackling defensive midfielder, had the worst disciplinary record in the Premier League last season.

This is the first part of the story. The second part involves attacking tactics – now more than ever before based around short, quick passing in the final third. Therefore, intercepting is the new tackling. It’s not as spectacular, not as obvious, it won’t get the supporters on their feet (nowhere traditionally cheers a crunching tackle as much as English football terraces), but it’s just as useful. More so, in fact: by intercepting a pass to the player you’re marking, rather than tackling him when he gets the ball, you’re not risking a free-kick or a booking. You’re immediately in possession, whereas after a tackle, the ball can run away to an opponent. And there’s more chance of launching a quick counter-attack, and transforming defence into attack swiftly.

Taking the games between the Premiership’s so-called ‘Big Four’ last season, there were more successful interceptions than successful (non-aerial) tackles per game:

Stats taken from the Guardian’s Chalkboards facility, which uses OPTA data

46.1 compared to 38.9 is not a huge difference, but large enough to consider intercepting a more important way of gaining possession than tackling.

We can also find that the number of successful tackles in these games has declined in recent years, from 46.3 in 2006/07 to 38.9 in 2009/10:

Stats taken from the Guardian’s Chalkboards facility, which uses OPTA data

Again, given the relatively small sample size, the importance of this finding could be disputed, but it’s still quite a large drop within just four seasons.

Of course, the most obvious comparison to make would be between the number of interceptions in these games in 2006/07 and 2009/10. Unfortunately, OPTA have made a slight but crucial change in the definition of an ‘interception’ in that time, and therefore the comparison is invalid (for the record, the number of interceptions increased by around 200%).

Nevertheless, the discoveries that (a) there are more interceptions than tackles, and (b) the number of successful tackles per game is falling, gives weight to the idea that the art of intercepting is increasing in importance, and the concept of tackling is declining.

The key in all this? Positioning – footballing intelligence, knowing where to be, and when to be there. That is the area of the game that hasn’t changed much since Makelele’s arrival in England, and that was his biggest strength – he was never caught out high up the pitch, he was always on hand to break up attacks through the centre.

This is where the central midfielder gets the most attention, and also the most criticism. The popularity of ‘the passer’ amongst managers owes much to the decline of two-striker formations, with 4-5-1s (more specifically, 4-2-3-1s and 4-3-3-s) favoured. In basic terms, this simply means an extra midfield spot available, and hence the destroyer-creator model was amended to give a destroyer-passer-creator system in the centre of midfield.

There is a more complex angle, for it also requires a different way of playing, This is summed up well by Sir Alex Ferguson. “The idea behind the 4-5-1 is that you can control the midfield and keep possession of the ball – that’s always your aim when you use that formation. I believe the team that has possession of the ball has more opportunities to win the match. As for the 4-4-2, there is more emphasis in that formation placed on playing the ball forward…playing 4-5-1 requires a lot of patience.”

So from that short passage, we know that a manager wants ball retention and patience from central midfielders. Sideways passes are fine – there is less need these days to play the ball forward quickly. This nicely responds to the constant criticism of these players – that their passing is short and unambitious, a view which is rather similar to Perez’s thoughts about Makelele.

Here’s Michael Carrick’s passing Chalkboard from Manchester United’s 2-1 win over Liverpool, his final complete game of last season:

Granted, there are a few stray passes. But Carrick is still essentially doing what his manager asks him to – keeping possession of the ball. The misplaced passes are always more notable than the completed ones, but that’s because we’ve become so accustomed to central midfielders being excellent ball players.

Carrick is the man who has suffered most from the lack of appreciation for ball-playing midfielders in England. In Spain, the masters of possession football, he is much more popular. Take the views of Spain’s best two passers – firstly Xabi Alonso:

“If they are on top of their game and if Carrick plays, because for me he is a top player, then England will have a chance. If Carrick plays for the national team the way that he does for Manchester United, then it would be very good news for England. I think that he could easily fit in the Spanish system because I really like the way he plays. He reads the game so well, he is always ahead of what is going to happen and he is always in the right position. When he gets the ball, he plays it easy and he is available to his team-mates all the time. For me, he has the profile to play for Barcelona or any of the Spanish teams. He would also be very complimentary to Stevie.”

“Carrick gives United balance and can play defensively too. He passes well, has a good shot and is a complete player.”

Part of the problem, of course, is that the role consists of numerous small tasks. It’s often difficult to notice the impact of these players unless concentrating intently on the game. But when an entire night’s work is compiled into one video, a basic job can become beautiful. Here’s Carrick in the World Cup second round in 2006:

The longer you watch, the more simple distribution becomes impressive. The key is not always in the actual pass, but (as Alan Hansen points out in the Carrick video), the initial control. That’s an area of these players’ game often overlooked – Busquets, for example, is a tremendously skilful player – see some of his moves in Barcelona’s win over Villarreal in January in the first minute of this video:

But Busquets’ main job is far simpler, of course. “Receive, pass, offer, receive, pass, offer” is the Barcelona mantra for midfielders.

Football is largely moving towards that system of playing football, and for as long as ball retention is seen as important, the steady, unspectacular central midfielder will continue to prosper.

Related articles on Zonal Marking:
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  • How the 2000s changed tactics #1: The fall and rise of the passing midfielder Apr 2012
  • Is the sweeper set for a return to prominence? Apr 2010
  • Spain 3-0 Nigeria: Alba & Pedro crucial in a more direct match than Spain are accustomed to Jun 2013
  • Montenegro 1-1 England: Montenegro start timidly but introduce attackers effectively Mar 2013
153 Responses to “ What does a central midfielder do in 2010? ”

always tought Makelele was something more than just a center midfielder, i don’t know if he ever played alongside with Seedorf but i think that would be something

I think this article is extremely well timed considering Sami Khadira’s transfer to Real Madrid. I always thought, although they are not as good, that Tiago for Chelsea and Igor Biscan did very similar for Chelsea and Liverpool. Interesting to note that Mourinho was already into ball playing midfielders having inherited Makelele.

I love Tiago, I think he’s a superb player. Mourinho was really sad to have to let him leave Chelsea, but wanted Makelele-Essien-Lampard and couldn’t guarantee Tiago the first-team football he wanted.

Thiago is exactly the kind of player who Alan Hansen just doesn’t get.

ZM, could you please hire a balloon/blimp/massive motorway billboarding to advertise that the classical centre-half is the foundation stone of a team, and to let it stride across the land.

I think the future of central midfielder will be box-to-box version and “Busquets” version. The box-to-box version was prominent throughout the world cup where midfielders like Van Bommel, Khedira, Schweinsteiger, KP Boateng had success. Germany used 2 of them but only one at a time where the other played a holding role. The more defensive version was what Busquets play but it is vital too. His role was to break down the opposition attacks by intercepting, marking the opponent(he almost cancelled out Snejder and Ozil), helping to arrange the defensive structure. The last one was very intersting because due to the offensive mindedness of Ramos Spanish backline became a 3 man defense. Then when Pique moved forward Busquets moved back to rectify the denfensive structure. I think that role will be more important that Makele role that only helped in breaking opposition attacks.

I think Guardiola mistakenly classified Marquez as a defender. I thought he would be better as a DM because his long balls, decent tackling and movement was better to Barca system. It’s not to underrate Busquets, but he got critizism because he was too much defensive minded. Mind you these critizisms came from English media where you rightfully said that tactical systems of the clubs are mostly boring rather than the big 4.

In my view the future systems should have these 2 roles. Not Makelele and Xavi role. I hope purely because it is much more pleasing. But the lack of stamina will be a case such as in Barca rather than in Germany’s clubs where it is more physical.

I agree. The popularity at the World Cup was to have a double-pivot, but with one breaking forward.

I think the double pivot that Spain played and the double pivot that, say, Germany played presented completely different examples of strategy.

Spain had a double pivot behind Xavi, an outstanding creator. It seemed del Bosque sought to encourage Xabi Alonso and Busquets merely to back Xavi up and win the ball for him, giving him enough space to win the ball. However, Spain couldn’t get enough men into attack and many of Xavi’s balls fell to players overwhelmed by numbers in the offensive third of the field. Xabi Alonso did seek to get forward at times, but still in a more creative vein than an attacking one.

Germany on the other hand had a double pivot but with one breaking forward, as ZM and SHW mentioned above. With a more attacking player in Ozil in front of Khedira and Schweinsteiger whichever one broke forward could find space as Ozil tended to drift around a lot, while surging runs from the midfield could compromise a defense’s shape and allow for gaps that could be exploited by any of their attacking four. Meanwhile, much as Ozil was a reference for all attacking players in terms of shape and exploitation of movement the remaining CM (either Khedira or Schweinsteiger) was used as a defensive reference to both control the midfield and keep the ‘two banks of four’ defensive arrangement intact.

I thought that with Xavi dropping back further into Xabi Alonso’s position and with Cesc further upfield Spain looked far more dangerous.

I agree. Xavi is not supposed to play so high up the pitch, he needs to sit deeper- around the centre of midfield, behind another midfielder that makes runs, like Fàbregas and Iniesta- so that he can see the whole pitch.

Yeah, it was said all the time in previous posts on this blog.

Indeed, that (Jogi Loew’s) is another way of playing the double pivot.

Valencia did this for many years in Spanish football: Albelda destroyed whilst Baraja (a good box-to-box player) moved forward in support.

Needless to say, it suits certain sides and styles of play better than others.

The point is to have proper players for the system. Or use the system fitting the players you have. Needless to say

“I think the future of central midfielder will be box-to-box version and “Busquets” version”

That’s assuming, of course, that every manager sends out his team with two central midfielders!

But in the case of a diamond system, or with a 4-3-3, it need not be that way.

I think you misunderstood. I don’t say that both will play. If it is a one man CM it will be a Busquets version(more like a Makelele role and sweeper combined). If it is 2 it will be a Busquets like CM and a box-to-box midfielder rather than purely defensive mid and a passer as we saw in Liverpool with Mascherano and Xabi Alonso were playing together.

You’re right, sorry.

Thanks for clarifying.

If it is the two man version, I think the choice of the second (non-Busquets) player will come down to aesthetic considerations: a passer or a box-to-box player

The reason why many don’t understand it is maybe because when you play for fun you don’t have a player who does that.

Not strictly true. I’m 6ft 5, and deceptively slow. I’m rubbish in the air. I play that role because I don’t have to run too far to get get myself to the right position!

We only got a touch of the ball against Barca when Denilson came on –

David Pizarro, oh yeah.

In Brazil there’s Hernanes in São Paulo FC ( who is quite a complete CMF (arguably the best we’ve had for that position since, well, Falcão or Cerezo) in spite of many people expecting him to be an AMF.

Pedro, a fellow Hernanes-phile like myself…

He really would be better as a deep playmaker alongside the destroyer.

Falcão & Cerezo is perhaps a comparable example to Schwiensteiger & Khedira (although I would argue Cerezo was more like X.Alonso) in that Falcão, much like Schweinsteiger, started his career as a more advanced midfielder, if not exactly a trequartista, in Internacional’s 4-3-3 system of the mid-70s. In that sense, his re-positioning to the heart of Brazil’s central midfield in the early 80s was a piece of improvisation.

ZM, I’m glad you have always shown appreciation for Carrick’s game. As a Man U fan, I’ve always felt that Carrick is very underrated by lots of people (even from Man U fans).

People might point to last season where he was under-par most of the times, but I felt he was fantastic for us from 2006-2009. And Fergie certainly thought the same way too, selecting him for every important game during that period. His best match is certainly the 7-0 trashing of Roma, where he absolutely controlled the midfield and scored two sublime goals. Let’s hope he recovers his form in the coming season!

Let’s go easy, it was 7-1!

But yes he’s a tremendous player. The annoying thing is that when these players have a slight dip in form, people act like they’re finished, completely useless players. Carrick had a poor season by his standards, but nothing like as bad as people made out. Paul Scholes has had a few below-par half-seasons throughout his career, but no-one questioned him as much as they’re questioning Carrick now. I expect him to bounce back.

Carrick’s drop in form was more than slight. He was consistently poor with the ball for large stretches of the season. The numbers might not reflect this well, but his worst passes created more danger than in previous years and he seemed to create less opportunities for the wingers than in the past.

His defensive positioning is always good. Even the goal Olic scored which contributed heavily to United being knocked out of the Champions League demonstrates this. A less positionally aware player would not have been in position to be out muscled in the first place.

Offensively, Chicharito’s arrival should help him, since he’s a player who looks to run past the last defender through the middle, a pass for which Carrick has a good eye.

I’d except him to rebound this year. He was pretty damn good for the great majority of his United career (and excellent the last year at Spurs) until Barcelona’s midfield dissection in the 2009 final seemed to subdue him. In his defense, he started that game with Anderson and Giggs in central midfield and is generally considered to have been the least abject of the 3 in that game. The missing ingredient there was Darren Fletcher, a superb runner in the middle. Fletcher’s creativity and ball skills are improving, and in theory he is the right kind of partner for Carrick.

This should not detract from the fact that his type of player is underrated in England. Carrick should have started the knockout games this summer, even with the poor form he was in. The only question is which runner Capello should have opted for to play with him; Cattermole, Rodwell or Parker.

I realize this continues to indicate that I am missing the forest (Deep CM play) for the trees (Carrick) but later comments in the thread like this demand a comment:

“for example, i think most people appreciate the way Carrick always makes himself available for his team-mates.”

When Carrick is in form, he’s eager to get on the ball. When he’s playing poorly he has a tendency to shrink and not come back deep to pick up the ball. When he plays with Scholes, this is less of a problem, since Scholes generally (apart from his occasional halves at AM in a 4-5-1) comes very deep to distribute. When an off-form Carrick is paired with other players though, his shyness tends to hurt United’s buildup play and stretch it out too much.

This is actually a very good point. Although I’m a fan of Carrick’s style, I have to agree with this observation.

I think Daniel that any player will hide when going through a really bad spell. But my point was that even when carrick’s in good, confident form he will never be admired in the same way as other unspectacular central midfielers like makelele because of the natural weaknesses in his game, such as lack of concentration and lack of physical strength.

it doesn’t matter if you’re in the side as a passer, if you’re playing in a deep lying central midfield position, such weaknesses will be exposed – unless you’re busquets and you play in teams that almost always have the ball.

Really, really disagree that Carrick’s defensively sound, I think it’s the reason he’s been dropped this season. Xabi and Gareth Barry are both quite similar, in that they’re slow players whose passing is their asset, but those two have a defensive awareness and snap that Carrick doesn’t have. Xabi especially closes down really early. Carrick closes down late and slow and was a big part of Barca having SUCH an easy time in the 2009 final. In one-on-ones he’s feeble (especially given his 6ft+ frame) and I think he’s so poor that Ferguson will no longer play him as one of 2 centre midfielders against good teams.

IMO he was bought for his long, accurate, early passing to get Rooney/Ronaldo the ball in space, but since they’ve shifted shape and play less stretched and fluid up front that skill’s not as vital to the side any more.

“Xabi and Gareth Barry are both quite similar, in that they’re slow players whose passing is their asset, but those two have a defensive awareness and snap that Carrick doesn’t have”

Maybe because in Alonso’s case, Spain has always encouraged such a role, and nourished it from underage level.

Oops my bad, apologies to any Roma fans here

ZM, I’m also frustrated by ppl who don’t appreciate Busquet. Thank god for the videos you posted! He actually has excellent passing range, has the ability to make intricate passes just like his Barca colleagues, and he also has plenty of skills to get away from opponents in tight situations. The only reason he doesn’t display those qualities all the time is simply because that’s not his main job description!

I think you mentioned this before, put him in any other team (whereby he wont be unfairly compared to the maestros Xavi & Iniesta), and he will certainly be highlighted for being such as skillful defensive midfielder.

apology accepted

This was the role that Paul McKenna played for Preston for years, and the credit he received tended to fluctuate- partially because we played a 4-4-2, so it left us lacking a little for either an attacking or a defensive option.

He’s doing the same job for Notts Forest now though.

Very enjoyable article.

But just because players like Carrick and Denilson are good at what they do, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to criticise them for what they apparently can’t.

Maybe Arsenal/Man U fans have been spoilt in the past by complete midfielders like Keane and Petit but Carrick and Denilson have shown obvious deficiencies on the biggest stage.

Two take the two most famous examples.

1. Carrick’s failure to play Rooney in for an equaliser in the second half of the 2009 Champions Lesgue Final when he fluffed the most simple through-ball imaginable.

2. Coincidentally again involving Rooney, Denilson’s casual jog back while the Man U forwardn U sprinted past him to finish a counter-attack and end the 2009 semi-final as a contest.

Both isolated incidents granted, but they’re merely just the most flagrant examples of the perception that Denilson and Carrick often fail to master even the basics of midfield play, namely a lack of incisiveness on the ball in the final third and a questionable work rate at times.

I don’t think it’s entirely unreasonable for fans of big clubs to expect more all-round players although overall, I think Denilson was largely excellent last season.

Carrrick on the other hand, well he has been badly out of form for a long time. His confidence has been shot and it’s clear that often times his negative passing is down to complete and utter fear of fucking up rather than simply following his manager’s instructions.

But apart from the specifics related to those players, I agree with the overall premise of the article and enjoyed reading it immensely.

P.S: I know the shitness of English punditry was done to death during the World Cup but was Pizarro’s absence for Chile ever once even mentioned?

I was working at a national paper in Ireland during the tournament and when I suggested him as one of the best players to miss the tournament I just got blank stares.

Pizarro retired from international football after the 2006 World Cup … Would have been an intriguing part of Bielsa’s midfield – pity it did not happen

In fairness, I don’t think Pizarro is the kind of holding midfielder that Bielsa would indulge – he demands a more overtly defensive player in order to cover the gaps left by an incredibly offense-inclined team, whereas Pizarro is a playmaker who thrives alongside another holder

In defence of Denilson in that game just a few games prior he had collapsed in the middle of the pitch (after a potentially rib breaking, unpunished, dangerous challenge by P.Neville), then he suddenly loses all pace and is seen to jog for the next few games he plays and is unable to catch speed demons such as Ricardo Fuller(!).

I think it’s pretty clear the guy was injured during that period and was being forced to play due to Arsenal being rather short in the middle at that stage of the season, he’s also had a recurring stress fracture in his neck if I’m not mistaken.

That’s not to say he hasn’t missed runners in the past but it’s incredibly harsh to isolate that instance, I bet nobody in his body at that stage could have mustered much more.

The carrick fans will hate you saying you know shit about football cause he is constantly the most invisible player.

thanks for the article my friend. top post.

I’ve been praying that Inter will sign such a midfielder to play alongside Cambiasso. Schweinsteiger, Carrick, Xabi Alonso – these guys would be perfect. Mourinho’s biggest problem last season was that the 2nd holding midfielder (except Zanetti) was always wasteful.

Instead it seems that Mascherano is going to arrive and we’ll have 2 holding midfielders that destroy attacks but who give the ball away constantly.

Maybe Motta will pan out

Perhaps, but he’s 27 and unlikely to improve drastically. Motta was great against lesser teams that gave him time on the ball, but against tougher opponents like Chelsea he didn’t show the composure to hold the ball and pick out a smart pass. He tends to get flustered and punt the ball to the opposition keeper.

To be fair to him, Milito’s goal against Barca started on a phenomenal tackle he made on Xavi and a neat ball he slid towards Eto’o.

To be fair to Mascherano he does not give the ball away frequently. However, he does need more cfeative players beside him.

Fantastic article – video clips are perfect examples of what you are saying; each player demonstrates the ability to find a short, quick or early pass, and the ability to afford themselves the time and space to make one with superior control of the ball.

If Maradona had bothered to take Esteban Cambiasso to the World Cup, he could have paired him with Mascherano, with Tevez and Messi either side off of Higuain, and one other playmaker centrally (Veron, if he insisted)

the carrick haters will slaughter you. all he does in the game is remain invisble.

The perception that all he does is remain invisible only comes from people who don’t really understand football, who only appreciates the youtube-friendly exploits of C Ronaldo, Messi, etc, and who also slaughter Busquet for his perceived lack of usefulness.

thanks ZM, interesting article as usual. i suspect, however, that the lack of widespread admiration for players such as you mention is not due of a lack of appreciation of what they do well (positioning, anticipation, close control, ball retention). it’s more a result of immense frustration at the vital duties they, as central midfileders, regularly fail to fulfil.

for example, i think most people appreciate the way carrick always makes himself available for his team-mates. however, this is overshadowed by his tendency to be shrugged off the ball all too easily, such as when he allowed olic to brush him aside at old trafford to score a crucial goal.

similarly with denilson, the accuracy and consistency of his passing is excellent, but he won’t warm people to him by constantly ambling back lethargically, doing nothing to prevent counter-attacks against his side, such as when rooney was allowed to waltz through at the emirates straight from an arsenal corner. denilson anticipates what is going on in front of him superbly, but is a liability when forced to turn and face his own goal.

my point is this – the steady, unspectacular midfielder may well continue to prosper, as you suggest. hopefully, despite mourinho’s ’success’, teams will continue to prioritise ball possession and retention, and this type of midfielder is indispensable to that end. but most examples of this type of midfielder will never be fully admired because of the less subtle deficiencies in their game, mostly when their team doesn’t have the ball – deficiencies which can prove extremely costly.

makelele didn’t have these weaknesses, that’s why he was so well thought of (perez aside, laughably). the simple fact is that there just haven’t been any ball playing central midfielders as good as him in the premiership since he left. so when hansen questions, “what does mikel do” i think he’s really doubting whether this particular player provides enough in light of his weaknesses – he’s not doubting the value of the unspectacular ball playing midfielder in general.

I think Hansen is questioning what is the point in any kind of central midfield player not vacating his position in the midfield, hence his ridiculous observation that Gareth Barry was superior to Xabi Alonso because he got forward with greater frequency.

Why do such British pundits treat the central midfield area like it were a chip-pan on fire (“get out, “Rush forward”, be like Roy Keane/Roy of the Rovers….verticality all the way)

The same could be said of Lucas at liverpool. Also with most of the milan midfield of the past (seedorf, pirlo, ambrosini).

Maybe football is merging towards a Barcelona/spanish way of playing.

Nah, Milan midfield is awesome and everybody will say that, come on, they won 2 CL thanks to them. Lucas on the other side is just a mediocre player.

Lucas is maturing into an excellent player. He is exactly the type of player that ZM is highlighting in this article. Underrated link man.

if Lucas is rubbish, what have you understood from this article?

Not everyone who plays as a “central midfielder” is a good player. You can try playing the makelele role without it working.

Lucas is a box-to-box player (7 out of 10 in everything , 9/10 in nothing, but which still amounts to make him an overall good player) who can double as an auxiliary holding player (alongside a dogged Mascherano/Parker/Albelda -type) but as to whether such a set-up is desirable for all teams and their playing styles is a moot point.

In otherwords, you forego the possiblity of assigning one of your holding positons to an Alonso/Carrick style classical centre-half, (let alone a Pirlo/Pizarro style regista), since the other slot will now go to a more defensive player (as Albelda is to Lucas’ Ruben Baraja).

Unless, Lucas can be coached into becoming a sole-holding midfielder.. but it’s probably not the best use of his dynamic qualities.

Wasn’t there a game where Lucas did have to play in the holding midfielder role, for a game or two, as Mascherano was suspended? From what I remember he played excellent in that game as well.

Great piece. I can’t stand it when tiki-taka brings tears to people’s eyes, but then they criticize players like Denilson, Mikel, and Carrick for doing their jobs.

Tiki Taka definitely brings tears to my eyes… I can’t stand watching it! It’s anti- football in disguise. The difference between the new ‘Spanish’ style and the old ‘Netherlands’ Total Football way of playing is the lack of attacking urgency. Netherland used to play short passing and player movement as a way to get at the goal. Spain now uses it to play keep away. It’s basketball’s 4-Corners equivalent for football (One of the main reasons a shot-clock needed to be introduced into the game).

I love defensive football (Hell, I’m a huge Serie A fan). I have no problem with possession to draw the other team forward to open up the attack, but this borders on passing to waste time and then thinking about going at goal only once the other team’s players (and many non-partisan fans) are bored/frustrated enough to break form and just press forward. I can appreciate the amazing skill level it takes to effectively play this style, but the way the talent is being used is debatable.

//I love this site!

//I’m American if you can’t tell from the basketball reference.

I do agree that tiki-taka takes away that attacking intensity from football, but I feel like that posession-first attack-second football is just so beautiful in the fact that they look for the right chances at the right moments, and they are almost always successful when they find the chance.

have you watched Barca play?

Spain might have been light on goals at the WC but in La Liga/Europe Barca score for fun. The systems may be different but the style is very similar.

Imagine if Messi had opted for Spain…

I’m glad you bring up the Barca example. I’ve watched them play several times, and at the risk of being stoned by the plethora of Barca extremists, let me explain my reasoning…

Barca plays a controlled game at first and it’s fun to watch, it’s enjoyable because they eventually need a goal to win the game. Once they score, they play keep away and never threaten to attack until the other team breaks form and presses. This is an ultra defensive strategy masked by the fact that they are in possession of the ball (Since in theory, if the opponent just sat back, they would never make another attempt to attack). However, the opponent knows that they need to score 1 goal at some point to avoid the loss. Eventually they break form and try to prevent the game of keep away. This is when Barca plays to attack again, and often score. This situation gets worse with each goal. This combined with their immense talent (especially compared to all other La Liga teams sans Real), is how they ring up goal tallies.

This makes it even more laughable when a team plays ‘traditional’ defense and gets lambasted by commenters.

For an example, Inter score 3 goals against them and take a 2 goal lead into the 2nd match. Barca fans actually get upset that Inter defends instead of playing a straight up game which would give Barca a better chance to advance. Meanwhile, if Barca has a lead they never try to attack and just play keep away, until the other team throws all caution to the wind. I’m not an Inter fan (though admittedly I do admire Mourinho). The fact that they won’t attack until this happens is an ultra defensive strategy, regardless of them scoring goals once it does happen.

If Messi had opted for Spain…wait, they still would have won the World Cup

Frank, that’s called slippery slope. The team that takes the lead is only going to deepen their advantage. Slippery slope is generally killing a game, since a game is interesting up until the point a balance is lost in favour of one of the teams. But we have to remember, Barca actually scores first. The ultra-defensive character of tiki-taka has already been mentioned on this blog in previous posts – regarding Spain’s games. Although I think the defensive character comes from a concept of ball retention itself, and is naturally inherited by tiki-taka – because a function of tiki-taka is to keep possesion.

The point you’re making about Barcelona’s style of play after they score is true in regard of Spain, rather than Barcelona. FCB’s tiki-taka is more dynamic and generate one goal scoring occassion after another. This is because of a larger skill gap between Barça and their opponents. Also, Barcelona has mastered it better than Spain, as the former is a club. I also think that Spanish teams just don’t sit deep when playing against Barcelona, but play their general game even at cost of getting beaten up.

Ideally the tiki-taka style encourages massive goal scoring but that becomes much more difficult against 10 men defenses. Of course, Spain or Barca could just abandon that style but it’s a winner and it fits perfectly with the players skill sets.

I agree with Frank, to the eye (for me at least) the tiki taka system is fluid and therefore easy to watch, however, it does get fustrating when all that happens is just passing between the backs and midfields without any direct balls. But since it works I dont blame anyone who implements this system. But you also have to watch when Barca and Spain lose the ball, they immediately control space, and the block the passing lanes and pressure trying to get the ball back as soon as possible which is to me incredible on how Spain and Barca executed this defensive system.

I also am a fan of stacking 8-9 men behind the ball with a quick counter-attacking style outlets, I don’t know why, but I love to watch great teams defend with precision and discipline.

Fantastic article. Spot on about how changes in the game change the demands on players. But I have some thoughts about how football is evolving. I don’t like how hard tackling is being stamped out by referees as you refer to in the article. hard tackling is part of football – you kind of agree that is is more “spectacular” in your article. and what is football if not a spectacle? i for one was supporting holland in the wc final – i wanted to see a performance of disciplined hard-tackling win over the fifa backed football of spain – who despite being the best and most skilful team in the world are rather clean and antiseptic to watch (not like de jong – whose karate kick was one of the best bits of the match!). football tactics should evolve naturally rather than being forced by fifa towards a non-contact type of sport. maybe then we wouldn’t end up with midfielders that fans can’t appreciate.

“whose karate kick was one of the best bits of the match!”

You can’t be serious.

1. It was a kung-fu kick, not a karate kick.

2. If such a spectacle is so spectacular, you should come to Cadman Plaza in downtown Brooklyn early one saturday morning, where you’ll find a pickup game on a turf field. Normally we play a relaxed game, but I’ll tell everyone how you love the “spectacle” of people getting kicked in the chest with cleats and we’ll enable you to experience such joy firsthand – or should I say, firstchest.

First of all sorry for my poor english, I’m from brazil, and from the first time I read this site, I instantaneously fall in love, during the world cup I just can’t stop read your articles, you are really incredible!

Let me ask you something, this(Receive, pass, offer, receive, pass, offer) wasn’t what make my idol Fernando Redondo one of the best midfielders of all time, despite his incredible ability, control and technique of course, his game was primarily based on the simple things you described, as he show in the memorable game against Borussia Dortmund.

Very good read for me personally because it’s the position i’m probably going to be playing for my Sunday team this season. We’ve been moved automatically to div 2 from 3 because of lack of teams in the higher division.

Our idea is to play with a holding midfielder, me being the 1 in the 4-1-2-3 so we then have a chance in this division. I’m playing that position because i’m thought of someone who plays it simple. While the rest of the team press their 4 man midfield i’m the extra man picking up possession. (the majority of teams play 4-4-2)

We’ve played this system in two friendlies so far. In the first i played in the 2 but didn’t play well because the 1 was in the space where i like to pick up the ball. In the second we won 5-3 against a decent team. In this game because one of their strikers kept dropping off into my space i was virtually man marking him while the other CB was marking the other forward. This then made the other centre back the spare man allowing him to play sweeper and picking up long balls over our defence. So basically we turned into a 3 man defence a bit like Brazil with Gilberto Silva.

I was just wandering, can you think of any high profile games where this happened or would it not happen as much because a professional pitch is much bigger so play is often less condensed (unless a team is defending deep i suppose). I ask because Brazil is the only team i’ve read about where this happened (from your article).

I think Carrick is a player that England lacked in the World Cup. However a more pressing loss was that of Hargreaves. For me, Gareth Barry is not a destroying midfielder as shown by his deployment next to De Jong in the Man City midfield. Arguably Barry could do the role of Carrick but whether to the same extent it is yet to be seen.

In terms of the Makelele type tackling holding midfielder, I think Wilson Palacios has played that role exceptionally well since he moved to Tottenham.

A Makalele alongside a Dictator is a lovely defensive midfield combo. Some recent examples of this are Fletcher/Carrick, Mascherano/Alonso and Song/Fabregas. It works even better if the Dictator has an expansive range of passing where he is able to spray 50 metre balls in all directions. This is what Alonso has done, what Hoddle (albeit from a more advanced position) did and what I suspect Beckham wanted Fergie to let him do.

Or you can have two DM’s who can both dictate and choke the midfield; alternating with each other to take on the role. One of the finest examples of such a combination was Petit/Vieira. To some extent Chelsea have repeated the trick with JOM/Essien.

If you have these types of players lying deep then it allows a midfield to create multiple triangles with out-balls available to wingers or overlapping fullbacks.

Nice job again, Mr ZonalMarking.

don’t forget De rossi/Pizarro for roma

Very nice article.

I guess there is no precise definiton for a kind of player that plays in this position: all of them have slightly different characteristics if you think for a while. Busquets (which i do not love) is more offer-receive-pass than Makelele, at the same time less physical in the game. Cambiasso is not like them too: he has more quality (started as an attacking midfielder just behind the striker) to put in the passing and intercepting. Gattuso is all about pressing and getting the ball and far less about passing. And so on.

My idea is the two central midfielders have to be very “swappable”. Think at what European Champions Inter are trying to do: they currently have Cambiasso, Thiago Motta, Stankovic, Muntari, Mariga as central midfielders. Even captain Zanetti casn easily play there. And they are trying to sign Mascherano or Schweinsteiger.

With this Squad, you can have such a variety in the midfield you even can’t imagine that. I guess the key for future successes in european football will be the ability to swap and combine central midfielders depending on the opponent, the game, the moment of the season.

An interesting piece looking at a role which has become first praised and later denigrated as the game has developed.

I think such players are only really under-appreciated in the UK where there seems to be a desire for a central midfielder to be a jack of all trades and master of none (Bryan Robson, Gerrard Lampard – especially at international level). It’s interesting to note that the most effective English players in this role – Carrick and Hargreaves -have both been bought by Alex Ferguson and both went through stages of being hugely unpopular with fans and critics.

“An interesting piece looking at a role which has become first praised and later denigrated as the game has developed”

is this really the case though? or isn’t it more that the specific players playing this kind of role, in the premier league at least, aren’t as good now as they were before? the role david pizzaro plays, for instance, is pretty widely appreciated, not denigrated, and i’m sure he’d be well praised if he were playing in the prem because he’s simply better than carrick, lucas, mikel, denilson, palacios etc.

As much as I dislike him, I’ve got to stand up for Frank Lampard here: he is a master of his trade. He’s not a box-to-box player at all, that’s the problem. He’s a goal-scoring AM who’s got more 20-goal seasons than a lot of top-level strikers: that’s mastery.

The problem is that the England team always play 4-4-2, when Chelsea haven’t played that way for years. Under Mourinho he had two more defensive players (Makelele + Essien) and under Ancelotti Chelsea play narrow with a ton of CMs, so he’ll never be leaving the centre of the park short-staffed.

If you’re playing a goal-scoring, “late runs into the box” midfielder like Lampard, alongside two out -and-out wingers and a box-to-box midfielder who’s always been indulged with a DM companion(as happened under Sven and Mclaren), you can’t possibly expect him to play his role properly – unless you have absolutely no interest in defending. And Gerrard’s completely unsuited for a 4-4-2 CM role also – Houllier shunted him to the right wing, Benitez plays him behind the striker, and doesn’t move him back even when there are injuries – because he pretty much goes wherever he feels like going, and tracks back to whatever positions he feels like tracking back to (hence Capello’s compromise of “go wherever you want in attack, just defend the left flank” failed miserably). Lampard’s very effective in the right role (and very unappreciated by English fans, incidentally).

And Busquets, Carrick etc. aren’t masters of any trade – they’re impressive midfielders who don’t quite have the passing of a Xavi, don’t quite have the tackling of Makelele, don’t quite have the shooting, or the pace, or the strength.

The point’s that being second tier at everything can make you a damn good midfielder, whereas having, for instance, first-rate dynamism and stamina but no positional sense will allow you to make some big highlight-reel contributions, but also cost your team in lots of little situations. See, for instance, Darren Gibson who caught some impressive hype and scholes comparisons in the press because he has a solid long-range shot; he also has poor positioning, poor decision-making, sloppy passing and first-touch, but some people will never notice this so long as he scores quite often.

Also, Carrick and Hargreaves play nothing alike – you’ve really just cobbled that equivalence together.

no offence bro, but this is one of the best/worst comments i’ve read in a while. i agree with some of what you say completely, but sometimes i think, ah, what is he saying now? haha. the term AM has been abused in England so much, its a disgrace to football. this Lampard is a shit player, he cannot play in midfield, he cannot pass, has no vision, and for an “AM” why are his assists so low? same with that other joke, Gerrard. i can’t believe Capello was so stupid to play both together. It’s a recipe for failure, always has been! they’re both tactically naive, and if it wasn’t for their goals, who would look at them? seriously, those 2 playing anywhere but England, would be crucified!

but when you say the likes of busquets & carrick aren’t masters of any trade, i’m thinking…maybe he means fletcher, barry? the passing of xavi is like the ball control of zidane, or the football brain of messi. its theirs’ and its unfair to compare mere humans to their abilities. shooting, pace strength…why? their understanding of the game is enough in my opinion. managers who want to play football love these players, so its no surprise they play at united and barca, no? the modern game has been plagued with players who don’t know what they’re doing. from a young age, kids are either pigeon-holed into a single role, leaving them uneducated about other aspects of the game (lampard, again) or they’re moved everywhere until they become confused become like this new hyped kid, milner. he’s 7/10 in everything, but has no real special ability that sets him apart in my opinion.

and like you say about gibson, i never rated him the moment i saw his first touch. uff, it was horrendous! but somehow he’s the new lampard, scholes, or whoever. should we feel sorry for the public that is fooled by mono-visioned media? or feel happy for the kid who’s come so far…somehow.

i wish i could take half of these players to argentina or something, not even brazil, that’ll just send them into a chronological shock. why is football no longer about skill, technique, vision and understanding the game? i’m tired of those athletes with no brains or skills, just running for 90 mins…bring back redondo!

You’re just plain wrong. I’ll try to address all your points.

1. Lampard had the most assists of any Prem player. He is DEFINITELY an AM.

Lampard: 22 league goals, 17 league assists

Ronaldinho: 12 league goals, 14 league assists

Kaka: 8 league goals, 6 league assists

Sneijder: 4 league goals, 6 league assists (interestingly,btw, his Champ League campaign was almost equal: 3 goals 6 assists)

You claim Lampard can’t pass/has no vision?

Busquets couldn’t play that pass.

and phrases like “if not for their goals” are nonsensical when he bangs in 20 a season, every season. 20 goals a season matters.

2. I don’t like this mindless “English players suck!” backlash that seems to arise from slightly smug people on football websites after the England team has done badly, or any time the inferior technique of English players arises as an issue. England do have good players, they just don’t perform for England. People say that England is 2nd rate, on the level of Sweden, but you could’ve said that about Spain 4 years ago: they hadn’t won anything for decades either.

If you banned England from internationals and told the players that they could pick new nationalities, there would be a lot of national managers on the phone to Rooney, Lampard, A.Cole, and the like.

3. As for not being able to play other positions, I think Xavi, for instance, would be pretty crap in a 4-4-2. The difference between the Spain team and the England team is that the Spanish had the cunning idea of not asking him to play in a 4-4-2. In fact, when Spain tried to play Xavi further up the pitch, he continued to play the position he does for Barca instead, and was thus partly repsonsible for Spain’s pathetically low goal-scoring in the WC. When Fabregas, who naturally plays further forward, was on the pitch, Spain looked more likely to break down deep-lying defences.

and Iniesta can disappear from the game if not placed right in the centre of things.

So it’s not just English players who like to play one position and one only. Lampard’s actually moved, with only a few glitches, between the various formations of Mourinho through to Ancelotti has brought in, and it hasn’t stopped his scoring or his assists.

Gerrard is an arse for playing himself wherever he wants to be and ignoring positional instructions, as is Rooney sometimes for England (where he considers himself the star) though not for Utd so much (since he arrived as the youngster beneath legends of the game)but that’s not a uniquely English phenomenon.

4.James Milner plays well in what ever position he’s placed, but it’s because he’s a 7/10 player that he’s moved around, not vice versa: he doesn’t have the pace for a winger, nor the passing and touch for a playmaking role, so he’s mainly useful for his versatility and workrate.

5. I never said that Carrick, Busquets etc. needed strength or shooting, I just pointed out that if they had these things, they’d be better players, and get the recognition that they’ve already earned, because press opinion tends to favour people who shine in something obvious, even if they have large deficiencies elsewhere, rather than players like Busquets and Carrick who don’t have any major weaknesses, but also don’t have obvious strengths.

Anyway, complaining about players having their position changed, AND about players not having their position changed in the same sentence, makes me think you haven’t really considered your argument fully.

For that reason, and the fact that my unmitigated praise for Lampard has made me feel slightly ill, I’m out.

Lampard 20 goals “minus” penalty kicks

If Ballack was allowed to take the spot kicks, then Chelsea’s goal count will be much hire. Honestly to me, Lampard sucks in spot kicks. It will be interesting to see how much goals Lampard has scored through set-pieces and spot kicks which inflate his goal count.

I don’t know why you say that Busquets job is much simpler. He plays a Center-Half when starting possition, pression breaker when faceing the 3 line of the 4-2-3-1, support, cover at the center back when the flanks are exposed and the CBs are moving to the sides, escape pass option when all the opp team is in his area and the possesion is getting difficult.

I don’t know but I think is more difficult to play this role when you don’t have almost any player to cover your arse…

I agree with you, but the fact that Barcelona are so good in possession that Busquets’ job is to pass off to a more creative player makes his job go less appraised.

But you’re absolutely right. Busquets has a complex task because Barcelona play something close to Total Football, and he’s the one who fills most of the gaps.

no team plays total football, the concept of total football was about positional interchange. that doesnt happen anymore because the level of fitness is so high that its just not possible.

barcelona are good but they have problems as well, so much of their work is based on the wings that the players stretch the centre alot, making the passes of xavi, busquets and iniesta easier to pull off because of the massive space. against opposition just as dirty as barcelona and in 3-4 banks of strong defending they fall flat on their arse because the wing strikers get isolated.

if anything i would say the teams of AC milan were the fore runners of this system. using 3 midfielders with a passer, destroyer and jack of all trades behind essentially 3 strikers was something sacchi and ancelotti did very well.

We’ve often see Pique moving farther up the pitch as Busquets covers his hole. It’s completely true that no one plays Total Football any more, but Barcelona are one of the closest in the fact that they have been sticking with a 4-3-3 for a long time now.

you could say the same of alot of teams, for instance pepe used to go up for real madrid with m.diarra covering, carvalho for chelsea with maka or mikel covering.

alot of the better teams now have CB’s that take it out of their half because most teams play with 1 striker so having 1 defender marking 1 player and having a DM or fullback in reserve means the CB can bring it out. This is why ball playing CBs are getting more and more important. yes you could say barcelona have had this system for a while but maldini did this very well because he was originally a LB. Marquez of barcelona is probably the best version of a ball playing CB though

I’ve not read through all the comments, so apologies if this has already been mentioned before. But I just wanted to point out my own observation of your graph comparing tackling in 2006-2007 to 2009/2010.

Obviously you acknowledge that it’s a fairly small sample, and so not entirely scientifically reliable. But have you noticed how the games which have seen the largest decrease in the number of tackles between 06/07 and 09/10 ALL involve Liverpool. This obviously affects the average greatly.

Ars-Liv: 2006/2007: 58 tackles, 2009/2010: 37 tackles.

Liv-Ars: 2006/2007: 54 tackles, 2009/2010: 36 tackles.

Liv-Chel:2006/2007: 52 tackles, 2009/2010: 31 tackles.

Man-Liv: 2006/2007: 52 tackles, 2009/2010: 38 tackles.

I just thought that was interesting – perhaps something significant has changed in Liverpool’s playing style during the last 4 years. Intuitively, this surprises me, since I would have thought with the presence of Masch, the tackle count would have gone up. Or perhaps, Masch is making more interceptions, hence the # of tackles has gone down (which would be more in line with your article).

Incidentally, if you re-calculate the averages to exclude games featuring liverpool, you get the following:

2006-2007: 40.1 tackles 2009:2010: 38.7 tackles, which is a lot less conclusive.

It could be Liverpool’s offensive style as well, that is passing while running, giving the opposition more opportunities for interceptions. It’s a funny stat since it just gives a combined and not who’s tackling more.

May be. But then, excluding the widest-spraying data purposefully to underline a thesis makes for some rather bad scientific reliability …

ZM – can you compare/contrast the respective roles of JOM & Essien and how you expect them to line up this coming season both in regard to each other & their interaction with Lampard, Malouda, etc? Thx.

ahh a chelsea fan. chelsea play a wierd amalgamation of a christmas tree and a classic 433. malouda and anelka are seen as both creators and scorers and are expected to stretch play when needed. They play between a CB and a FB and try to use those lanes to score, the fullbacks stretch the opposition FB’s, drogba is there to take up both defenders and this opens up massive space for malouda and anelka. If a player tries to close down either malouda or anelka then drogba becomes open and the late runs of lampard give them an extra man in the opposition’s box.

Interestingly teams that play with lets say 2 markers in the midfield can stop this pretty well but unless they have very narrow bands of defense the fullbacks and lampard cause massive problems to them.

Now in terms of essien and mikel. Mikel is being groomed as a destroyer/passer hybrid. He has the physical and technical ability to really dominate a midfield but has issues with tempo control, he doesnt always change up the tempo at the right time and because he is usually the furthest player back he cant make mistakes or bad passes, this puts alot of pressure on his role. essien is essentially a box to box with slightly more defensive duties. His main role is close down players high up the pitch, help mikel out on defense(he is the tackler to mikels interceptor) and cover the attacking fullback. In attack he is a bulldozer who draws players to him and his speed and strength can play havoc to lesser midfields. they are both gonna be played i think behind lampard whose job will be again to create goals and be a general purpose attacking CM. Essien has an easier job because he can make more mistakes on the pitch and his speed and strength means he is physically more capable then alot of players on the pitch(ive seen him chase down lennon from behind and win the ball, how many CMs could do that).

in general im expecting them both to play and i expect probably ramires or another covering player to come in for them because currently chelsea doesnt have the midfield players to account for injuries or rotation, unless you count mancienne and cork.

many thanks ish for your thoughts. Do not quite agree, I think Matic may well play a lot more this season as he does what Mikel does and has a greater range of passes. A little like what I think Carlo was hoping Deco would provide last season.

Ramires would fit perfectly.

I wonder what role Kakuta will be given – any ideas ish or ZM?

can’t imagine Carlo playing him in either a single or double central-mid role.

At Cruzeiro he mostly played in a wide-ish diamond role, as he does for Brazil.

He would simply be wasted in a central position since his game is about running all-day long, covering for the full-back, bursting into space, kinda like a hybrid of a box-to-box and wing-back; his nickname at Cruzeiro was “the Blue Kenyan” (after the team colours).

ramires would play essien’s role of a box to box. he can cover bosingwa’s runs and provide a constant stiffling presence. matic(who i forgot about) would probably rotate with mikel for the CM role. mikel however has much better passing range, dribbling and strength then matic so matic will probably not get too many game. essien will also cover mikel as well.

essentially it will be a first team with some system changes. wouldnt be surprised if malouda gets used in lampards position some games and lampard is moved to the right to give some players a rest during the season.

kakuta:i honestly couldnt say, he is so good but i cant see him breaking out this season because he is still physically not ready and needs some time playing lower level stuff(carling and fa). he would probably be in malouda’s position in the 433 system but could also play anelka’s or even the tip of the diamond. he is quite a versatile player.

many thanks Roberticus and ish.

Now you point it out I see the similarities with Ramires and Essien (the Blue Kenyon and the Bison). A bit of respite for Lampard’s ageing legs me thinks as well as cover for Bosingwa’s surges. His absence hurt Portugal imo.

By Matic’s passing range I meant he seems to look occasionally for the longer pass than Mikel who (to me) too frequently utilises the covering player as an outlet (e.g., Lampard or Ballack). Matic also looks more comfortable on the ball. That said I know who I would play against ManU and the Arse.

I am excited by the potential of Kakuta. As Carlo has said “the future of Chelsea.”

This is a brilliant article. Using stats and charts and video clips to back up all your points. Just brilliant. Reading it got me all excited.

Carrick’s problem is that he grew up playing in 442 systems so is not always content to sit in front of the defense and do the simple things you describe. He often gets too ambitious and forgets his role(keeping possession and preventing the counter-attack).

I wrote an article in my blog trying to explain why England don’t produce holding midfielders(Gareth Barry included) and why other countries are so good at it. The 442(and the defensive British 451) don’t create the incentives to produce holding players, which is why Hansen and so many Arsenal fans are baffled by these players.

Again, I LOVE THIS ARTICLE. More please.

“The 442(and the defensive British 451) don’t create the incentives to produce holding players, which is why Hansen and so many Arsenal fans are baffled by these players.”

can you explain what you mean by this please, specifically the bit about arsenal fans? arsenal have played with what you might call a holding midfield player for years now, with gilberto then song, and the petit/vieira axis before that. so why should arsenal fans be baffled by such players, as opposed to fans of other clubs who play a more quintessentially british 4-4-2? what is your point exactly, or were you just being silly?

i am pleased to hear someone point out that barry is not, and never has been, a holding midfield player (i think that’s what you’re suggesting)

actually you could say that arsenal are a team that played majority 442 under wenger when he had the players(henry and bergkamp and then adebayor and van persie) with 2 wingers was very common. this worked because one of the strikers and usually one of the wingers were comfortable not only scoring goals but coming deep or centrally to help out midfield.

wenger changed up his shape due to lack of players and having fabregas as his star player. they now player a system similar to barcelona and mourinho chelsea hybrid.

also arsenal are a team that was built on having 1 creative player and 1 box to box destructive player, very rarely did they have a passer/interceptor type player. this was usually because they had a player that could do both (viera and flamini come to mind).

I think some arsenal fans cant appreciate denilson because they expect more from their midfielders, when you have players like viera in your history and are used to heavy tackles then denilson’s more calm and composed style really doesnt feel like a common arsenal player.

in the end england’s biggest flaw is they play 442 in a world of 433(christmas tree, 4231 etc are all variations based on players but still essentially a 433 system). in the world cup germany destroyed the teams that played the 442 system(australia, england and argentina) but struggled against teams comprised of similar formation and had a bad record against them. English teams play against these levels of teams all the time, they usually win.

what i find interesting is the genuine lack of a ball winning box to box in english football. english teams dont seem to produce them it seems. none of the big 4 have a single english ball winning box to box near the first team, cattermole and mancienne would be the closest thing but both are very low level.

it’s been variations of 4-5-1, 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 for some time now.

and if you’re talking specifically about unspectacular passing midfield players then arsenal had edu many years ago, who was extremely well thought of. denilson isn’t anything particularly new to arsenal fans, he’s just not quite good enough all round yet for a title chasing team in the premier league.

ball winning box to box midfielder is surely exactly what barry ought to be, if allowed to play his natural game. the idea that he is some deep-lying cultured answer to all england’s problems is absurd.

Nice description of Barry’s style

Right, but let’s not write off Denilson just yet at the rip old age of 22.

Wenger never really played a classically British 4-4-2. First he played a lopsided 4-3-3 (with Parlour tucking in on the right and Overmars stationed high-left) and then later it was more of a halfway house towards the Brazilian 4-2-2-2, since the wide-midfielders (Pires, Ljunberg and later Hleb and Rosicky) were in fact No10-like playmakers who invariably drifted in to central areas ahead of the midfield duo.

Graham Taylor sung the praises of Wenger for coming to the Premiership and demonstrating an alternative way of playing 4-4-2.

Carrick shouldn’t sit in front of the defence because Scholes likes to drop back to get the ball. If Carrick stays back at such times, he’ll just be in the way, not an outlet for Scholes.

Makelele’s sale was the correct move by Florentino Perez, as the Frenchmen’s contractual demands were indeed ridiculous and his moaning to the press was unacceptable. Mr. Perez’s mistake was not finding a suitable replacement for Makelele, and instead forcing Quieroz to use Beckham in the center midfield.

Great article an arsenal fan denilson is one of our most criticized players.Against barca at the Emirates we were getting battered till he got on because he anticipated barca’s passes really 08-09 vs roma at home he played probably the best game of his career as he bossed proceedings.But in the premier league his lack of physicality and athleticism has cost us several times with him being outpaced by the ref when rooney scored on the counter.i feel for such types of players since denilson would look great in laliga sort of like Banega of valencia.xavi and iniesta would never have made careers in England in the early 2000’s in a country obsessed with grit and strength.Mikel was never a dm but look at him now…i do hope though that denilson/carrick get their due credit despite them having obvious flaws.i also think AW is trying to mould diaby into the player you are describing.great work.cheers!

Another fine article. I used this site to get a feel for WC2010 teams I didn’t know about, and fell in love with the insightful analysis.

1) Carrick’s absolute under-use at the World Cup shocked me more than any other England squad issue. While the media focused on Rooney’s strike partner / the left-midfield “problem” / the goal-keeper issue (my personal belief is that no one England keeper is good enough to make winning the World Cup a likely possibility); they completely overlooked the deployment of a questionably-fit Barry over the superb Carrick. I felt that his use in a 4-1-3-2 or 4-1-2-2-1 (with two wingers) would have been better than the basic 4-4-2 that failed England so.

2) On the “bizarre” transfer of Gravesen to Real Madrid: I commented to my erstwhile flatmate that perhaps the Real Madrid scouts had been mistaken in their assessment of Gravesen, on account of his similar build and “hairstyle” to the ball-winning (as identified above) Lee Carsley: “That stocky slaphead is doing the work of two-people in midfield!”

To this day, Gravesen’s subsequent period at Real (and Celtic) has lead me to believe that my statement, made in jest, may actually have been closer to the truth than I believed.

I am french –> I apologize for the basic level of answer.

I agree with quite everythings about Makelele’s importance.

According to many people in France, the first player to have this role is Didier Deschamps.

You could say exactly the same : what does he do ? Don’t know exactly, but give him the key and the team wins (marseille, juventus, France …).

It is maybe something with intelligence

I think that’s exactly it, mate. Intelligent DM’s. Intelligent players make intelligent decisions, and intelligent decisions lead to consistency in passing and movement.

Good read and a good use of statistics even though positionally the examples are slightly confusing. All share the same qualities in what you’ve described – but the question of what do they do applies better to Denilson than Mikel or Carrick who are quite clearly effective defensive midfielders, they follow the mould described but have superior tackling abilities.

i am constantly baffled by how many people feel so strongly about football yet know so little about it. i suppose that is just human nature. but then again, even professionals have a poor grasp of the laws of the game.

reading your site makes me happy because it reminds me there is hope yet, hope for those of us who prefer a level-headed analysis of the game to the constant drivel the media puts out.

What a horribly boring system of football. The object is to lull the other team to sleep. It’s like playing “4 corners” in basketball (which has been outlawed b/c it was too boring–that’s why we have a shot clock). Viva la counter-attack!

You obviously only watch the offence in football. There’s more to the game than scoring, mate.

I enjoy those aspects too, but the truth is that scoring is all there really is to it. The whole game is about scoring more than the other team.

Your statement (and of most other users on here) suggests that counter-attacking football is a lesser form of football. I disagree. It’s just a different form of playing which requires as much hard work as does possession play. I think the attitude taken up by people that “since you do not like to see possession football, you are someone who doesn’t understand and appreciate the nuances of the game” is completely unjustified. It smacks of smug arrogance that your viewpoint is more educated than the others. It isn’t.

Please, finish already with your relativism. Chess is always more educated than running.

I enjoy good defense as well. That’s why I say viva la counter-attack (which is not possible without solid defense). But the possession game too often devolves into sideways and backwards passing–possession for its own sake, rather than trying to score goals. It apparently requires a great deal of subtlety to appreciate Busquets and his ilk. That kind of subtlety is fine for the japanese tea ceremony, but not for sports (unless you like cricket or baseball, which are equally boring).

Brilliant article, ZM.

I think you are spot on with Michael Carrick. He is too under-rated. I agree he was disappointing last season but i remember the role he played in the league game at the Emirates.

He was outstanding in the DM role. His passes were short, long and medium. He kept the midfield ticking and i believe that was his last outstanding game last season. The arrival of Hernandez should reignite Carrick’s form as he is brilliant in lobbing the ball over the opponent’s defence line.

Denilson is also brilliant in this role but he’s often uncomfortable in possession. I believe years of experience will fine-tune him and John Obi Mikel. Busquets @ 21 seems to be ahead at this moment as he had a MINT performance for Barcelona and Spain.

Great article as usual.

However I still believe that when playing against teams who look to suppress you rather than play their own game it is difficult to control the game in the attacking third with two players who are more defensive minded than attacking. This seemed to occur in almost all of Spain’s games in the World Cup because del Bosque wanted to play both Xabi Alonso and Busquets. I think it is better to have the pivot that Germany have where both players, though knowing their defensive duties, are able to play further upfield in order to provide more opitions when attacking.

I agree about the pivot players. Xabi Alonso, as great of a player he is, was not the right choice because Xabi Alonso, Busquets, and Xavi all like to play with players in front of them. I don’t think they necessarily needed two more pivot players because Xavi can, in reality, become that player. However, It would have been much better if they had a true AM in the midfield, someone like Gerrard, Oezil, or Fabregas.

Or like Iniesta .

Nice Article. Having spent a lot of the world cup telling my friends that England should play Carrick and then getting shot down, it is good to have an article perfectly explaining the benefits of this type of player.

ZM, what are your views on Lucas? He seems to be a similar type of player, and also gets a lot of criticism (although effectively replacing Xabi Alonso in Liverpool’s starting XI last year didn’t help).

I wouldn’t say Lucas is like Carrick (the United man is exactly the kind of holding midfield player that Brazilian football has failed to produce in recent years).

Lucas is more box-to-box, but I take your point in that Liverpool fans often ask in bewilderment what exactly it is that Lucas does.

All I can suggest, is that he needs a context (tactical configuration, blend of characteristics of his teammates etc)in which his natural game can bring a telling contribution to the team.

It was ridiculous to imagine that Lucas was ever going to replace Alonso based on their differing playing styles, nor for Mascherano for that matter (considering that Masch has the tenacity and positional intelligence to hold a midfield all by himself).

Great piece, ZM, and overdue in my book. On the heels of the World Cup it’s almost odd to see possession football placed so highly following the more ‘exciting’ forms of football on display in South Africa. With pressing in such high demand amongst such a highly fit group of players, one sure solution for the steep physical price is holding onto the ball as often as possible. Kill two or three birds with one stone, as it were.

It seems that you’re identifying the central midfielder as the ‘possession-conductor’ of the the side. If that’s the case, then I think the importance of the central midfielder and the breadth of his role is indirectly proportional to the extent said player’s side adheres to possession football. The greater a squad is at maintaining possession, the lesser the weight placed on the central midfielder’s shoulders. For example, Carrick’s role is split two or three ways within FC Barcelona (Busquets/Xavi/Iniesta).

The double pivot of the 4-2-3-1 could be seen as the extension or distribution of a role within a formational framework that has itself extended into 4 lines from the more traditional 3. It’s all shades of shades now, to an extent. A lot of different ways to build a squad, based on commitment to style and objectives.

Underlining it is the concept of ball possession as means to an end. If that’s the case, I have to admit at being surprised by it all. Weren’t Spain the odd man out in this last World Cup as far as their style of play?

Maybe this is food for another topic, worthy of another ZM article apart…

but have we really moved away from original three bands and into four bands? Or did four bands already exist during other period of football’s tactical evolution?

What I would argue is the follwing: ignore the tactical system and numerical description per se, especially in the ‘average position’ stage (i.e., if you send your team out, on balance, in 4-4-2,3-5-2 or 4-2-3-1 etc) and try to see that what we are dealing with is a new phenomena in the defensive stage of zonal marking systems: we’ve gone from Sacchi’s two banks of four in the 1980s, and towards a defensive set-up whereby four (or more) bands collapse into three banks varyingly configured as either 4-2-3 (-1), 4-1-4(-1) or 4-3-2-(1)… and therein lies the litmus test as to where a player should be stationed during this phase, according to his characteristics, his initial positioning etc.

Arguably we end up with a situation wherein a three-band defence is more accomodating for the wide spectrum of player-types than is a more collectivist two-bank system.

Valid point, Roberticus. The newer interpretation of the offsides rule would also account for three bank defense.

ZM, any chance of you applying for the england manager’s job when it next becomes vacant? i’d love to see you reprise the west ham midfield from the beginning of the decade with carrick, lampard and cole forming the core of a 4-5-1.

perhaps jonathan wilson could be your assistant and we would finally catch up with the rest of the world in tactical terms!

What’s also key to these players is their ability to pass the ball forward, keeping pace or flow in the attack. Too many times we see matches with defense as priority number one, resulting in side passes or back passes and boring matches.

I love your stuff, keep it up!

Another excellent article. If I could offer a slightly different point of view: I’ve always thought that the modern midfielder could be categorised into three different types but these types can be overlapping. They are the “destroyer”, the “pickpocket” and the “artist”; the names alone should explain the type of midfielder they are and I think any central midfielder in the world can be sectioned into one of the groups (bearing in mind that you can overlap). For example Xabi Alonso is an artist/pickpocket, Darren Fletcher is a destroyer/pickpocket and Steven Gerrard is an artist/destroyer. Funnily enough I’ll think you’ll find most Spanish players are artists/pickpockets………..Any ideas?

Well, Johann Cruyff created a whole vocabulary by cross-geminating the Spanish and Dutch numbering system for footballers positions;

hence, the playmaking holder (Guardiola, Fabregas, Xavi in their youth) was the ‘No.4′,

a more intermediary player (like Iniesta or Xavi and Cesc in their modern roles) was the No.8 (but this could also refer to a box-to-box player), and the No.10 was, naturally, stationed higher between midfield and attack.

Cruyff generally had little time for defensive holding midfielders (No.5 or No.6).

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Wonderful piece, ZM – some of your best work yet, particularly the anaylsis of interceptions. Very perceptive.

As a Spurs fan, I can’t begin to tell you just how underrated Carrick was at my club. I had so many arguments at games, on forums, and in pubs about just how crucial he was. I can be quite patronising on the subject, I admit – but for me, people who don’t “get” Carrick simply don’t “get” football.

One thing that I think you do omit about Carrick is his two-footedness. It’s not just his wonderful anticipation and positioning that make him such an important player, but the fact that he uses the ball so quickly, primarily because he can play off either foot just as comfortably.

I think the dedicated holder is here to stay – eve in the lower half of the table, Grant and Martinez will certainly use at least one. It wll be interesting to see whether Hodgson and/or Redknapp use one too.

Love the fact you mention his two footedness.Its give them(two footed players) that extra split second.Even almighty Xavi doesn’t pass with his left and rarely plays with the outside of his boot(Scholes does)

Another fascinating article – it’s just a shame that ‘grownup’ football discussion like this is so rare on the internet!

If you say Makelele is both under appreciated and over hyped, I think Carrick is much the same. Given space and time on the ball, he is terrific. But his huge achilles heal is that when he is pressed, he gets flustered and loses the ball a lot.

They are surely the two most nonsensical, logically-redundant words in football today “overrated” and “underrated”.

As if we could hire a team of scientists to monitor the true rating of players according popular opinion, from Macclesfield to Mumbai….

let’s see, if I write a letter or post a comment in praise of any given player, I am necessarily accused of overrating him and the inverse is true as well!

I wonder if the passing Carrick/Busquets type of player will be as important if there indeed is a renaissance of the sweeper, coming out of the back four into (half) a defensive midfield position, distributing the ball and showing (in absence of a direct opponent) great positional sense.

Piqué is already showing characteristics of the sweeper (as I read here, among others) and still is playing alongside Busquets, so I guess they are not redundant. I assume a centre-back and a defensive midfielder probably occupy too different a position and what’s wrong with having two players who mainly seek to give and receive the ball?

By the way, a Brasilian player, Josué, plays (roughly) that kind of position, too, and was a crucial part in the Wolfsburg team that won the Bundesliga last year. Interestingly, it seems to me that quite a number of these players are not particularly goal-threatening; maybe that’s just natural because an ‘impulsive’ player can’t really have that patience and positional sense needed to play this way; maybe I’m just talking nonsense here…

France actually had the dream midfield combi (considering 4-2-3-1) for the first half of the last decade:

Makelele, the tough tackling holding midfielder with exceptional positioning intelligence and economic passing

Vieira, the fiery box to box midfielder with tramendous athletism and technique

Zidane, the free roaming playmaker with ultimate control and vision

Pires, the inverted winger with superb delivery and flair

Giuly, the out and out wing-forward with absolute speed and off the ball running

Plus they had a solid backline (Barthez/Coupet – Gallas – Thuram), more than decent fullbacks that can expand the width (Lizarazu/Silvestre/Abidal, Sagnol), and 2 world class strikers of varying style (Henry/Trezeguet).

Nothing came from it though.

Absolutely true, but France used a 2-striker system until the 2006 WC under Domenech, the tactical innovator/genius (ha ha ha). ZM knows better than I do, but I don’t believe a 1-striker system was common until the latter half of the decade. Incidentally, in my view France’s group-round exit in 2002 (when it was arguably the favorite) and loss to Greece in euro 2004 were more shocking than its debacle in 2010 (although this time around was more hilarious–and I say this as a supporter of Les Bleus).

It would be interesting an article that explain us, how will play Real Madrid with Mourinho, and Barça with Villa!! Thanks

thts explain why liverpool played so bad last season after xabi alonso left…

i dont agree with delison is one of that kind of makelelele role player..

he is far away from that standard.

That is the same as Anchor man…

sorry… del. this please… this was a mistake…

Lampard’s defintely a world class player who could be so in any league. Every player has a set position or role that they do best in. Xavi is best as a deep lying playmaker. Spain’s lack of goals was probably due to ten men defenses and their own patience and reluctance to force anything rather than his positioning. I’m not sure Cesc’s presence in the first 11 would have changed anything. It’s one thing to come on in the 80th minute and another to start from the beginning.

In regards to Busquets and Carrick: their work rates, discipline and understanding are top class but indeed those things are measurable.

On England: They get constant heaping piles of dung because they make loads of money, are usually one of the “favorites”, supposedly play in the world’s best league, are seen acorss the world every weekend at their clubs and are constantly being championed by some of the most powerful media organizations on Planet Earth. They also had the photo shoot in matching suits so yeah.

Terrific work! This is the type of information that should be shared around the web. Shame on the search engines for not positioning this post higher!

I think this goes hand in hand with a larger trend that modern football has been gearing towards, the fact that individual roles are becoming more distributed amongst teams and players. Traditional playmakers have all but ceased to exist in modern systems and the traditional defensive midfielder (Makelele types) are looking to go the same way.

It very much fits with what Ferguson said about the 4-5-1, that it is essentially meant to create control in midfield and maintain possession. For that you need players more comfortable on the ball and more versatile in their game rather than a player with a specific function (like a DM would typically do). Holding players or CM’s in double pivots or “double six” as it is known in Germany, are neither exclusively defensive or offensive players. Busquets, Mikel are deemed DM’s by many but similar to Schweinsteiger or Khedira for example, they are quite capable of joining the play and very much initiating it.

I like to call these players ‘Pivots’ but often their defined tasks differ incredibly. There are a lot of these types of players around who I admire, Thiago Motta at Inter, Denilson at Arsenal, Busquets at Barcelona, Pizarro at Roma to name a few. We even saw the role demonstrated several times at the World Cup, with Germany, Spain and Ghana the most successful of the sides to line up with a very untraditional midfield set-up.

Jose Mourinho has proved particularly good at getting the best out of this type of player, at Porto he got the best out of Maniche and Pedro Mendes who were difficult to categorise. Likewise at Inter with Thiago Motta. I’m not sure he ever truly got it right at Chelsea, from the rather unremarkable return from players such as Maniche, Tiago, Smertin, Jarosik and Parker, it is clear he was looking to recreate the ‘busybee’ setup of his Porto midfield but with the added danger from wide areas that his Chelsea side offered. It never really came together.

Maybe his signing of Khedira signals an intention to adopt this familiar style at Madrid, although Mourinho often judges a player on their attributes rather than their form, in which case the presence of Fernando Gago at Madrid would render the signing on Khedira futile as they share a very similar skill-set.

Despite their obvious success, especially in the case of Busquets, opinion still seems divided. In the hands of a top manager at a top club, the pivot can become a dangerous weapon, disrupting the opposing teams shape as his influence and control of the game rises (Carrick/Pizarro).

However for less refined teams who often rely on winning the physical battle the pivot becomes a pointless comfort blanket for indecisive team-mates and thus becomes counter-productive if the team-mates around him cannot capitalise on his positional wit and comfort on the ball (O’Hara/S. Petrov).

Actually I’m quite excited to see what Morinho has in mind for the majority of games for the next season.

I don’t think Mourinho will be a big fan of Higuain. I like Van Der Vaart but he is very static compared to say Deco or Sneijder and only seems to thrive in high tempo, free-flowing teams, I wouldn’t be surprised if he is shunned in favour of someone more interchangeable with the other two midfielders.

Presumably Alonso will be one Khedira/Diarra/Diarra/Gago/Granero/Leon/Van Der Vaart will fight for the other two spots. Almost all of these players have fairly diverse skill-sets so the midfield rotation could work in a similar to how it does at Manchester United.

Knowing Jose I’ll be wrong and he’ll have something completely new up his sleeve for Madrid.

I think that the hardest thing to do in all of football is probably the ability to slow down the game and dictate the tempo. It requires very refined football technique to get right: a good first touch, deftness on the short pass, composure, off the ball positioning, on the ball positioning.

I was watching a local league game the other day, and I don’t live in a country that is well known for its football. But what really struck me was how one-paced it was. They clearly had the fitness, and one or two had the ability to dribble a bit… but it was very scrappy and kick-and-rush. You can have pretty decent defenders and forwards at that level, but it’s truly hard to find a great central midfielder.

When I think about how a player like Xavi or Xabi Alonso seem to have so much time on the ball, even in the most competitive of environments (the Champions League, World Cup, Premiership), it only serves to magnify their achievements. That is pretty rare in the Premiership, never mind the lower leagues.

The importance of the ‘passer’ is only highlighted by how some clubs like United and Chelsea have essentially pulled talented young players like Anderson, Mikel, and Kwadwo Asamoah who traditionally play as a number 10, into a deeper, almost holding role.

I find that in perceiving the ‘haters’ as believing him to be invisible or ineffectual, quite a few football experts have started overrating Carrick. In my experience that perception is just as false as the one they’re attacking, and generally the criticisms are coming from those who are well aware of what a great deep-lying midfielder can bring to a team, but don’t feel as though Carrick falls under that category. Personally I’d love to have Alonso in my team, but I’m not a big Carrick fan. I find him pretty solid positionally, but on the ball is another matter. His first touch (crucial for the role) has always been unreliable and just about everyone I know who regularly watches Utd agrees with this – furthermore his passing technique doesn’t seem to match his vision and so a large percentage of his through ball attempts are fluffed out. Both of these issues have been the case for years, not just last season, although his form has certainly dipped and he’s become more mistake-prone (I wonder if this isn’t in part down to changes in personnel ahead of him, and a drop of form behind him?).

Wow, I’m still thoroughly unimpressed by Busquets. So he can do all of the small things well enough. Great. I’m sorry, but I really do not see why everyone thinks he’s so good. I realize that he’s not meant to be flashy, but come on… I don’t think that a player’s worth having if you can’t point out what he contributes to a team. Khedira is definitely going to be very interesting to watch in Madrid. And Alonso is hardly always quick to close, as someone said, in fact my main problem with his game is his general lack of pace and that is reflected in the occasional desperately late tackle.

The modern game requires the need for specialized players who play in positions in between the lines of the defensive, midfield and attacking units. Their roles and responsibilities include the need to deny space or create and exploit space in possession. Such as the “Makelele role”.

I’ve seen many great coaches work on the team in possession and others specialize on the teams defensive organisation, Mourinho at Chelsea brought an emphasis on working in the Transition phase those instant 3 seconds from the moment of ball loss from attack to defence or the moment of regain from defence to attack. These between the lines players are crucial to this Transition phase the holding midfielder offers a Security whilst the team attacks and the positioning of players in counter attacking positions whilst the team defends will exploit an unbalance in the opposition in those first 3-5 seconds.

Thanks for all the good work on the site.

Follow me @coachdanks on Twitter.

Once again a great article just wanted to say how much i appreciate your site. i discovered it during the world cup and i keep coming back for more. Thanks for all the explanations and the quality of your analysis. It is so much better than most of the tv commentaries i have seen, especially leaving in the US. Thanks again and keep up the good work

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