The increased conditioning and speed of the game means the technical level of players will be forced to improve thereby exposing the specialists.
Juventus’ problems started with their over-reliance on Diego and Felipe Melo. That, some would argue, is justified given that they were big money summer signings but the Old Lady’s woes should not be entirely blamed on the Brazilian pair. Diego, in particular, is not a traditional ‘trequartista’ as he likes to drop deep but Juventus were expecting him to play as one. Felipe Melo on the other hand has won many fans – including Arsene Wenger – since his stellar début against Italy at the Emirates Stadium but even then he was playing Robin to Gilberto Silva. Now he was expected to anchor the midfield with Momo Sissokho – a pairing instantly striking because of both players’ unwillingness to pass the ball short confidently and which will invariably lead to incompatibility with Diego.
Two defensive midfielders are not just regressive in a creative sense; it can be a double-edged sword defensively too. Because of the Italian game’s predilection with finding solutions through the middle, two ‘volantes’ seems a reasonable tactic to stop the playmaker from influencing. However, it can also put undue pressure on the back as it would mean play not circulating as fluently and the ball coming back more. Liverpool in particular, following the absence of Xabi Alonso have found this out the painful way.
Former AC Milan defender Franco Baresi feels Melo could have offered a solution to Real Madrid’s neo-Galacticos before his transfer to Juventus – in that he could play in a different line to their current central midfielders – going by the thinking that modern football is one of between-the-lines players. “One thing does not fit,” says Baresi. “Why have they [Real Madrid] hired Xabi Alonso? Xabi Alonso is a good player but he serves the same profile as Gago, Granero and Mahmadou Diarra. They had to sign Felipe Melo. He is technically and physically superior (EDITOR: that’s highly arguable!) and is able to give a new dimension to the midfield. Lass, Xabi and Granero play on the same plane. It is a mistake to put them together. The only one who breaks the line is Guti.”
That Sissokho and Melo were playing in the same line as each other (similar players) meant there was no unpredictability about Juventus and it slowed down their fluidity of play. Even in Brazilian football, with their penchant for playing two ‘volantes’, one would still have a slightly different function; here there seemed little distinction. “I don’t like to play the 4-4-2 in two lines,” says Jose Mourinho. “I like the match in between lines and players with dynamic creativity to do that. What are you a midfield player or an attacker? Nobody knows.” So in theoretical terms, a standard 4-4-2 stands to lose against a 4-4-2 which transforms into a 4-2-3-1 as Mourinho effectively implies, as a triangle will always beat a line (you can further split the central midfield to two accounting for the innate specialities of the midfielder). Volker Finke (now coach of Urawa Red Diamonds) also feels a flat central midfield template is inefficient in the modern game as positions are nowadays separated into bands/lines in order to allow the team to control space better.
Some would argue the interpretation on the offside law made the splitting of players’ roles necessary as suddenly the larger pitch meant there was more space to play in. The game became faster and more physical, and that gave the rise to the popularity of the defensive midfielder because their superior physical ability allowed them to dominate the centre and allow the side to play with more creative individuals. Pep Guardiola, just before he retired, commented on the situation saying: “…football now is different. It’s played at a higher pace and it’s a lot more physical. The tactics are different, too. To play just in front of the back four now, you have to be a ball-winner, a tackler, like Patrick Vieira or Edgar Davids. If you can pass too, well, that’s a bonus. But the emphasis, as far as central midfield players are concerned, is all on defensive work.”
If improved fitness killed off the ball-playing defensive midfielder between the mid-nineties and the mid-to-late noughties, it seems improved fitness has now given them the kiss-of-life. Advancements in fitness is universal now with players running on average a lofty matter of 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) a match. That puts a greater emphasis on speed as the ball is travelling much more and at a higher pace. Der Spiegel journalist, Christoph Biermann, following the findings of sport analysts at the German Sport University Cologne writes; “At Manchester United, the winner of the Champions League, the players whose job it is to stop the opposing team’s attacks are in possession of the ball for an average of less than one second per contact. The faster the ball circulates, the better, goes the thinking.”
The sequence between getting the ball and passing the ball has become shorter and that exposes any technical shortcomings of a player. The Premiership has seen the effect of this as many clubs have bow abandoned the idea of playing destroyers in the middle for ball-playing midfielders. Even Tottenham, who had early success in converting Wilson Palacios from a box-to-box midfielder at Wigan to a defensive midfielder, have chosen to pair the technically more superior Tom Huddlestone and Luka Modric in the centre lately. The physicality and defensive steel possibly conceded by this method is sought to be compensated by managers making sure their sides are organised and compact in the defensive phase. Roy Hodgson’s Fulham side, en route to the Europa League Final have perfected this art.
The increased fitness also means there is more pressing higher up the pitch, further exposing the destroyer and the need to pass quickly. Jaroslav Hrebik, the Czech Republic under-19 coach sums up the trend perfectly. “Defensive midfielders and centre-backs will have to be more creative,” he says. “Defences will try to adapt so there will be a lot of pressing to slow down the counter. Defensive positions will be tight, flexible blocks – tightest around their own area. This means the flanks and wigers will beomce more important.”
The compact nature and defending in front of the area, as Hrebik describes, has effectively ushered the natural playmaker into a stealth position. Playmakers now come in a number of forms and have essentially become players of “between-the-lines.” “The word Enganche (playmaker) is dangerous,” says former Argentina midfielder Diego Simeone. “But, I like enganche, although with some variations. More like the playing style of Zidane, call it a prototype of enganche? That evolved into the enganche roles today of Kaká, Totti, Pirlo, Ronaldinho and Robinho. I believe enganche today must come from another sector, there must be wider variety of options.” Kaka was thought by AC Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi as an attacking midfielder and so wanted new signing Ronaldinho to play as a forward – Carlo Ancelotti, however, was adamant that Kaka was already a striker. The example of Luka Modric is perhaps the most pertinent as in his homeland of Croatia, he is known as a natural number 10 but was converted to central midfield by Slaven Bilic and has also often played in a roaming role on the left, using his movement off the flank to create havoc. Increased conditioning of players today is also another factor as it means that there’s precious little time to shape a game.
The above trends seem to therefore highlight a shift to one of universality and football in a holistic nature. Technicality should become more important than ever, giving for the moment, less distinction to players of a high physical ability. That is not to say it should be skimped on; Arsene Wenger feels players such as Alex Song and Robin van Persie, who mix a degree of physique and technique are sought to be the future and as the game gets faster, has put more emphasis on passing the ball quickly in his current Arsenal side. “Players will become bigger, faster and stronger, but the ones with talent will succeed,” says Barcelona’s Andres Iniesta “Someone like Ronaldo is physically superior to most. In the future there might be less difference between this type of player and the rest, but with someone like Xavi, the physical side of the game is less important. Barcelona have shown that.”