The success of Spanish football has made midfielders take on a crucial role that was practically non-existent, not so long ago.
“Tell me what your midfielder is like and I’ll tell you what your team is like.” Juanma Lillo’s words explain the importance that midfielders have in contemporary football. More so, even, in recent years when midfielders have begun to take their fair share of leadership and influence on the pitch. A phenomenon that undoubtedly has to do with the future and advance of a tactical model, more focused on ball possession.
“Without a doubt, midfielders are relevant and momentous in a way that they just weren’t in the past,” says Mattia Fontana, a former Eurosport tactical analyst who now works on DAZN, an online television channel dedicated to sports. According to the Italian journalist, this trend is based on tactical models such as Del Bosque’s Real Madrid, Ancelotti’s Milan and, above all, Guardiola’s Barcelona. What did these teams accomplish? “These managers thought to use their midfielders less defensively and put more quality players in the starting 11.”
Positional football has FINISHED WITH THE TRADITIONAL DICHOTOMY OF ‘CREATIVE MIDFIELDERS’ AND ‘DESTRUCTIVE MIDFIELDERS’
However, there have always been creative players in the midfield. “Even in a play style as defensive as the Italian ‘catenaccio’, the most outstanding player of a team was always their number 10, which was nothing but a quality midfielder. What has changed is that before this ‘regista’ was surrounded by colleagues who were engaged in containment tasks, while now the tendency is to play with a growing number of creative midfielders.” Sometimes, all of them.
In other words: if the attention and high regard we have today for midfielders are not the same as it was years ago, it’s down to the fact that the interpretation of this crucial positions has evolved. The midfield is no longer a simple place of transition between attack and defence, but a genuine command room for a team’s strategic approach to a game, the place where the game is created and the matches are won (or lost). For that reason, the athletes responsible for said position should have an excellent vision of the game, know full well how to take advantage of spaces with intelligence, perfectly mastering passing technique and oriented control. Skills that embody players like Modric, Pogba and De Bruyne, only they are skills that weren’t sought out so urgently years ago.
In the past, it was assumed that midfielders were to be mainly destructive as if they were advanced center-backs. It is no coincidence that many players have exchanged these two positions throughout their careers. Not anymore. “More and more teams rid themselves of the classic midfielder […] to play someone more capable of making intelligent decisions with the ball at their feet,” explains José Martínez, Mexican journalist at SportBall. “But this doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re lacking defensively, most of these midfielders have phenomenal positioning and a great affinity for anticipating their rival.” Take Verratti, Busquets or N’Zonzi for example.
However, often the media and industry professionals put simplistic labels on midfielders. There are creative players and there are destructive players. But the reality is more complex and there are thousands of nuances between these two extremes. In fact, the current trend is to have a wide range of players, keeping the team as varied as possible.
“This phenomenon is more noticeable in the centre of the field, but it occurs in all positions,” explains Fontana. “Wide midfielders, for example, are being asked more than ever to know how to defend like centre-backs and to attack like wingers, we are headed towards a football in which the players do not have to limit themselves to a specific task, but know how to do everything required in the area of the field that they occupy, it’s the triumph of positional football.” An opportunity to show off like never before for all midfielders out there looking to make a name for themselves.