Florentino Perez said this before he decided to sell Makelele:
“We will not miss Makélelé. 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.”
Real Madrid lost their invincibility after his departure, underlying the fact that the position of a Central Defensive Midfielder is a necessity that cannot be overlooked.
A football pitch has a lot of space to accommodate 22 players, giving them enough room to run around. As football has evolved overtime, these spaces have been converted to zones to put these spaces for better use. So a football pitch can be viewed as different zones occupied by certain number of players competing for space and ball, trying to move forward towards the goal. These zones are not static and are constantly shifting up and down and even sideways to some extent as the play moves around the pitch. The two more clear zones are the attacking and defending ones, as these are the edges and can be clearly seen on the pitch. But the midfield is a position where so much action takes places, moreover, a match is literally won or lost in this zone.
The Engine room, as it is called, has so many components working together to drive the team. One such vital component is the `Central Defensive Midfield` position.
This is an effort to understand this position better and the men who make this position so vital in the modern game. The objective is to only look at their dirty work of providing the cover to their attack and defence. There are defensive midfielders who can also score some dazzling goals, but it is their dirty work that is more important to their team.
The Central Defensive Midfield position has become a tactical necessarily. There is no team which doesn’t have one dedicated player for this position. The sweeper position as it was called in the older days has undergone a lot of changes. The defensive midfielder position is the zone behind the creative midfielder and just in-front of the defenders. This is a dangerous zone because this is where the most creative opposition players operate. No one wants to give any space to a creative player who can definitely achieve his aim of creating or scoring a goal, if given the space and time.
Football, being an entertaining game tends to favor the dazzling players who play more in the attacking zone. People worship the likes of Messi, Drogba, Torres but rarely laud the men who provide them the insurance to be flamboyant and flashy. So who are these men who rarely get noticed for their efforts but gets all the blame for the slightest of mistake they commit?
In more general terms these are the men who do the dirty work for the team’s cause. They provide insurance for both the defence and the attack; the men with the most the most critical responsibility on the field; the men who can run and run and run all day. They are hated by the opposition as much as loved by their own fans. They are positioned and trained to disrupt the opponents flowing attack, any way possible. They are almost like a villain for their opponents on the field playing a destroyer’s role. They draw the most foul and literally drive the team. They generally cover the most distance in a match.
Having said all these, still they are the most invisible men on the playing field.
How does a defensive midfielder operate?
Usually this position is for the hard men in football. A defensive midfielder should be an excellent tackler. They must be able to read the game well and position themselves accordingly to counter the threat of the opponent’s attack. They usually defend the zones inbetween the defence and attack or stick close to the opponent’s creator and man-mark him out of the game.
The word defensive midfielders may be misleading because these men are not only for defending. They can also be termed as `Holding Midfielders` or `Deep lying playmakers`. These two terms can be used as a hint to differentiate the types of midfielders. A team’s tactics and the skills sets will determine the type of midfielders employed in a game.
The defensive – defensive midfielders
This type of defensive midfielders almost plays close to their defenders in terms of positioning, rarely moving forward in to attacking positions. They are very defensive minded and rarely possesses the skills needed to create a chance. Players like Gattuso, Makelele, Mascherano, Diarra are the hard men who shield their defence by not allowing space and time to the opponent. They can be seen almost anywhere on the pitch, such is their work rate. While defending, their primary job is to destroy the play and give the possession back to their creative players immediately with short passes. But during attack, they cover up the space vacated by either full backs or a central defender who is wandering in attacking zone. Teams which emphasize more or defensive tactics employ such type of defensive midfielders.
The playmaking – defensive midfielders
These types of playmakers are extremely skillful and are great visionaries. They have the incredible talent of distributing the ball from deep positions to initiate attack. Players like Pirlo, Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Scholes are those rare breed of players who can function in a deep position and can dictate play. They are not actually defensive players, but operate in the defensive midfiled zone. Usually they are partnered with a more destructive player to provide them with the defensive insurance because they are not that good in tackling aspect of the game.
Gattuso providing the defensive assurance for Pirlo to spread the ball forward from deep positions. This is one very effective combination and had been one of the most successful formula that many teams have tried to adapt.
There are few defensive midfielders’ functioning from box-to-box. They actively participate in both the defence and attack. Players like Cambiasso, Essien and Song efficiently do this job for their team. But their primary job is in defence. They are also good man-markers.
All these kinds of players adapt as per the tactics of the team. A team which has been set-up as a strong defensive unit will always opt for a player like Makelele and built their tactics around his position. Teams such as Barcelona and Arsenal who approach the game with possession as their primary focus employs a defensive midfielder who is more comfortable with the ball, is a good game reader and has excellent distribution, rather than a pure no-nonsense hard tackler.
In England, we usually see more hard and tough tackling defensive midfielders who are not much comfortable on the ball. They break up the play and immediately launch a counter. The pace is relentless and so they spend very less time on the ball. An immediate direct attack route is chosen. The defensive midfielder is selected to suit such a game style. There are always exceptions, but in general most teams employ this physical style. Most players are heavily built to suit such physical game style.
The Spanish style is a little slower, involves more technical skill and the play is more constructive and patient. The defensive midfielders are smaller and good on the ball, thus suited to such play wherein the tempo is not always relentless.
Teams which rely on possession such as Barcelona defend high up the pitch and doesn’t necessarily require a player of Makelele’s breed. Although tacking is an important asset, for such a style, more than tackling, it is the positioning and skill on the ball that is more important. The defensive midfielders in such a system are expected to deal with the threat of a counter attack often. Since the team relies on possession, the player is expected to retain possession and work with his creative players, who provide him with a safe outlets if he is under pressure.
Finally, why are they so important yet almost invisible for most part of the game?
Many of us, just like Florentino Perez, refuse to acknowledge the importance of a defensive midfielder. Most of us still downplay the three yard sideways pass made by the defensive midfielder as an unnecessary one. Most football fans always want the ball to go towards the goal and any sideways or backward pass is deemed a waste of time.
If we take away the moments when the defensive midfielders dash forward and take a shot from outside the box, no one actually remembers the most important work they do. They are generally invisible, but are brought into the limelight if their team concedes a goal. In fact, a small mistake by a defensive midfielder could easily result in a goal for the opposition.
Chelsea fans would never rate John Obi Mikel or Essien over the likes of Drogba or Lampard. Similarly Busquets or Song will hardly be rated above Messi or Fabregas. This is not to say that they deserve more credit than the creative players, but to understand that the value of a three yard pass after a hard tackle is as important as a goal scored after a beautiful passage of play.