The role of the defensive midfielder is one that is open to many interpretations. On the one hand you have the ‘water carriers’ typified by the industrious Didier Deschamps after whom the phrase was coined, and on the other the conductors of the orchestra, the deep-lying playmakers.
Both roles represent hugely contrasting styles; however which occupation is of the biggest benefit to the team?
The role of the water carrier is simple. Hassle and harass the opposition, disrupting their flow and consistently attempting to unsettle them until either they are forced into a mistake or the tackle is made. Then once the ball is recovered, offloading it simply to a more gifted teammate.
A contemporary example of this position is Nigel De Jong. De Jong has I believe, acquired a somewhat unfair reputation as a dirty player. Yes De Jong is a tough cookie and his hard but fair ethos has caused injury, however he operates perfectly within the rules the majority of the time, with the exception of his near execution of Xabi Alonso in the World Cup Final.
De Jong has been used somewhat sparingly this term but Mancini still identifies the time and the place to unleash his Rottweiler. Leading United 1-0 in the recent Premier League clash, Mancini brought on De Jong to tighten up the midfield and although United didn’t create much in the way of chances throughout the game, De Jong’s grip on the midfield meant that City were able to comfortably see out the remainder of the match.
Perhaps two of the most successful ‘water carriers’ were Frenchmen Didier Deschamps and Claude Makelele. Both these players played alongside Zinedine Zidane and Zizou was the first to acknowledge the worth of both players.
Of course Deschamps and Makelele are not the most technically gifted of players, but their hard running and ability to break up the play warranted their places in some of the world’s great teams, allowing those around them to operate to their full potential.
The ‘water carriers’ can also to be referred to as destructive midfielders and in no place is this more common than the Premier League.
The fast and frenetic pace of the Premier League often calls for somebody who can quickly break up an attack and immediately launch a counter, a vital strategy in the fast paced end-to-end nature of the Premier League.
Admittedly this role isn’t exclusive to England, and teams across the globe have benefited from players who can simply win the ball and offload it to more gifted teammates.
At the other end of the defensive midfield spectrum is the deep-lying playmaker.
In Argentina this role is referred to as the ‘number 5’. Here is a player responsible for orchestrating the play in front of them, knowing the best time to maintain possession with a sideways pass and when to launch a probing 30-yard ball into the path of an onrushing attacker.
For me players who have excelled in this position in recent years include Fernando Redondo, Andrea Pirlo and Xabi Alonso.
I was only lucky enough to see Redondo play a few times as when my interest in football really sparked; he was in the later days of a career prematurely cut short by injury. I remember Redondo dictating a Champions League quarter final at Old Trafford, as United fell to Real. Everything that night went through Redondo, and he even laid on a goal for a teammate after embarrassing Henning Berg on one of his rare forays forward.
A more contemporary example of the deep-lying playmaker is Andrea Pirlo.
Pirlo, like many others in this role, was not immediately recognised for his effectiveness. Pirlo was largely unused at Inter and was sent out in a series of loan moves and it wasn’t until moving to cross town rivals AC Milan that he flourished.
I think that Pirlo is underrated defensively, but undoubtedly his main qualities are his range of passing, dead ball and organisational skills.
By sitting so deep Pirlo offers defenders a way out without having to hopelessly hoof the ball upfield and risking possession, while he also offers shape and protection sitting in front of a back four.
When he receives the ball he immediately plots the best means of attack, whether it be a short and simple pass, or a direct longer ball.
The best players in this position also organise those around them and Xabi Alonso can often by seen pointing and gesturing, almost as if to say “I know best, the ball goes this way”.
Alonso occupies a similar role to Pirlo, pulling strings and more often than not being the starting point of the majority of attacks.
To perfect the deep-lying playmaker role, a candidate needs to have accurate passing ability and a sound football brain. Knowing the best way of planning an attack and having the ability to deliver the right pass is a must.
It is not a coincidence that many of these players are often responsible for dead ball duties in their respective teams, such is their highly advanced passing accuracy.
The water carrier and the deep-lying playmaker are hugely contrasting ways to operate in defensive midfield. The simple disruption and donkey work up against beautiful methodological grace.
However, I do also feel that they both have more in common that one would initially think. They both provide a team with shape and a certain level of insurance for those operating further up the field. Teammates know that when play breaks down, they are unlikely to be left desperately short as the opponent advances.
Once the ball is recovered this is when the differences become apparent. The ‘water-carrier’ quickly gives the ball to those more gifted around him, however the deep-lying playmaker is responsible for initiating attacks himself.
To choose which discipline of the defensive midfielder is more effective is impossible, however I am sure that many teams in the future will benefit from the tactical discipline and organisational qualities that both roles undoubtedly bring.