What does a central midfielder do in 2010?

July 30, 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.

History

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 overrate 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.

Claude Makelele

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

Change in emphasis

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.

Distribution

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:


by Guardian Chalkboards

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.”

And then Xavi:

“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:

Here’s David Pizarro’s performance in Roma’s 0-1 win over Fiorentina:

Here are all of Sergio Busquets’ touches in Barcelona’s 2-2 draw with Arsenal:

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.

What does a central midfielder do in 2010?

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