Ian Holloway, current Blackpool manager once said, "It's all very well having a great pianist playing but it's no good if you haven't got anyone to get the piano on the stage in the first place, otherwise the pianist would be standing there with no bloody piano to play.", in response to the criticism he received for using defensive players in midfield. But alas, very few people realise it.
Patrick Vieira and Claude Makelele: 2 of the World's best holding midfielders
Since the turn of the millennium, the winners of most major tournament has had a holding midfielder playing a vital role. In the 2002 World Cup, Brazil had an excellent Gilberto Silva, 'The invisible wall', to do all the dirty and unseen work to give the likes of Ronaldinho and more freedom to go forward.
In 2006 World Cup, the ever-so-influential Gennaro Gattuso's, who won the Champions League in 2002–03 and 2006–07 with Milan, lung-bursting contributions and 'take no prisoner' type style helped Italy lift the World Cup.
In the latest 2010 World Cup, it was Sergio Busquets' immense anticipating abilities which played a big role in Spain triumph, especially against Germany in the semi-final when he stopped almost all German counter-attacks single-handed. Also, the 3 league games in which Busquets didn't start this season, Barca have dropped points. Just shows how immense his contribution is to the team.
There are many, many more examples; history is the witness. From Claude Makelele's contribution to Real Madrid's last Champions League triumph - and Fernando Redondo's to the one before that - to Patrick Vieira's stamp on the Arsenal's 'invincibles' team(which also had Gilberto Silva); it is all clear for us to see that this role is very important and when executed with perfection, can stop the best of attacks to penetrate.
What makes holding midfielders so important?
If asked some young kids that who is the best of his/her favorite team, most would reply an attacker's name. Some may even name a defender, but very few would say their holding midfielder's name. To worsen things up, most kids would claim that the particular CDM player is the worst, or average, of his/her favorite team.
Now, this doesn't mean that CDM players are always the best players and the other position players are inferior(every position has its own importance)- it needs a really good CDM for that - but it just conveys the ignorance, mostly by young kids, towards the player of that position. Most of the dirty work of tackling hard to win back possession before the attack builds up is mostly done by holding midfielders. Yet they go unseen; mainly because most watch the final third action with more interest.
The main reason why a good holding midfielder is important to the team is very simple: win back possession as soon as one can. But executing this is not as simple as it might look. When the opposition midfielder has the ball, the holding midfielder must ensure he/she wins back possession higher up the pitch before the opposition midfielder starts an attack. By this, not only does the opposition attack breaks down before it starts, but it also gives an opportunity to the holding midfielder to launch a quick attack. This also needs tremendous work-rate because the holding midfielder should press higher up the pitch while also making sure he/she guards the 4 defenders behind him.
The only thing which differentiates an excellent holding midfielder to a good holding midfielder is the ability to read the game. This is one of the most important aspect of a holding midfielder, especially in a counter-attack situation. Some holding midfielders have exceptional defensive qualities. But those qualities become limited if his/her anticipation abilities are not as good.
Counter-attacks are one the most difficult things in football to deal with, especially if it's a counter-attack which results from a set-piece - where even defenders go forward to use their aerial abilities in attack. In most cases, it's only the full backs and the holding midfielder staying back at these situations. And it is mostly the holding midfielder winning back possession - holding midfielders anticipation and defensive qualities are better than full backs' in most cases.
What is anticipation? Anticipation is the ability to read what the opposition player(s) might do next. In counter-attack situations, a holding midfielder should figure out what the opposition player with the ball might do next; ie, figure out who he/she may pass to or whether he/she would run with it. This is the ability which puts the holding midfielder in the best place to stop a counter-attack, by either intercepting a pass or by stealing the ball away from the player possessed to ensure the counter-attack doesn't turn into a goal. This ability is just like a mind-reading ability, which very few possess.
The next time you watch a match, concentrate on the midfield battle. And if you have observed right, you will understand the importance of a holding midfielder in the game.