Paul McStay, Bryan Robson, Roy Keane and Gary Speed: all retired British midfielders who could defend with as much strength as they could attack with verve. Even Europeans like Patrick Vieira, Edgar Davids and Michael Ballack could all go both ways. You only had to watch Liverpool‘s defeat to Manchester United last week in the Premier League to see how things have changed in the UK – a development in a position which was once so versatile doesn’t just extend to Britain, but Europe and beyond too.
By Jonny Boyle – @beanroll
Why can’t central midfielders defend and attack?
Blaming Claude Makelele would be too easy, but it was around the time the French midfielder was in his pomp at Real Madrid and Chelsea, between 2000 and 2008, when things began to change for central midfielders at the top-level. 4-3-3, or 4-5-1 even, had taken over from the traditional 4-4-2 and there was now no need for a midfielder who could do it all.
Players like the ones mentioned above were about to retire, if they hadn’t already, and in came more specialised midfielders to replace them. Teams were desperate to find that extra edge and new formations played a big part in that. Jose Mourinho, Sir Alex Ferguson, Pep Guardiola – all top-level managers who sacrificed positions in other areas of the park to strengthen their midfield.
The development of the position is best exemplified at Old Trafford under Ferguson. A manager, who was renowned for his love of the creative front two, abandoned it in the mid noughties for an arguably more sturdy approach. Out went Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke and in came the lone frontman Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo or Robin van Persie. Keane retired, Paul Scholes entered the twilight years and any three from a number of midfielders to have worn the United shirt over the past decade filled the midfield spots.
Darren Fletcher, for example, has been a mainstay of Ferguson’s squad since breaking through in 2003. He’s an average passer at best, but does his best work, the stuff Ferguson plays him to do, without the ball. Breaking up play, distributing it simply and doing it over and over again. He hasn’t scored more than five goals for a club which has never finished outside the top three in the Premier League. The creation was left up to Scholes or Carrick, the goals were left to the wide men and Ferguson had his three-man midfield.
Look at other clubs. Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets at Barcelona, Frank Lampard, John Obi Mikel and Ramires at Chelsea, Mikel Arteta, Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere at Arsenal, Xabi Alonso, Sami Khedira and Mesut Ozil at Real Madrid. All play in the centre of midfield, but perform just a few aspects of what a central midfielder used to do. Andrea Pirlo, considered by many to be the best passer in the world, is effectively a sitting midfielder. He rarely directly assists, apart from corners and free-kicks, and has never hit double figures for goals in a season. His effect comes in the build-up. He is the direct link between defence and attack and Pirlo is only now receiving the credit which Xavi had been spoiled with for so long.
One point remains – what happened to the box-to-box midfielders of old? The ones who could just as effectively nail you to the wall on the edge of their box before running 70 yards to get on the end of a cross with a stunning volley? Steven Gerrard is probably the closest you’ll get to this, but Gerrard himself would concede his best days are behind him. Jordan Henderson take over the mantle.
Has football gone soft? Have players not got the fitness to do it all? Or do managers simply not want them to. It’s no criticism, as the specialised attacking and defensive midfielders of the modern game contribute to football so breath-taking that it’s no wonder they have to focus their skills almost entirely on one area of the park.
And the change doesn’t stop with midfielders. Modern-day full-backs such as Patrice Evra, Marcelo, Dani Alves and Kieran Gibbs, all considered top-class, struggle to defend as well as they attack. It seems like forwards too must be categorised in to target men, goalscorers, trequartistas, channel-runners (we coined this term, but call them what you want) or link men.
Football is now a game of categories. Soon we’ll have defensive defensive midfielders and advanced attacking midfielders plying their trade around the world.
Perhaps it’s the opinion of a purist, but football could do with some players capable of doing it all.
Who would you consider a box-to-box midfielder? Have they lost their place in the game? Tweet us @talkingbaws or comment below.