It is no surprise that teams have being successful because they possess an excellent defensive midfielder
In a conversation this week regarding Michael Carrick and Sergio Busquets, it alerted me to the ignorance and naivety of some football fans regarding the role and importance of the defensive midfielder, this article will therefore seek to highlight the fundamental importance that this player has become for sides to achieve success.
The key to French success
If you had asked many fans after Chelsea had won their first Premier League title in 2005 who their player of the season was you would probably hear names like Lampard or Drogba. Instead, their manager, Jose Mourinho declared Claude Makelele Chelsea’s “player of the year”. The importance that Makelele had on Chelsea’s success would not be seen or understood by many fans or even many pundits.
While at Real Madrid Claude Makelele won the Champions League in 2002 and La Liga in 2001 and 2003. After he left Madrid did not win anything till 2007, and after that nothing since 2012. Yet, the club believed that he was surplus to requirements and accepted a bid of £16m from the newly owned Chelsea in 2003. It was to be a grave mistake on the part of Madrid, who although possessed players attacking supremos in Zidane, Ronaldo, Figo and Raul, it was naive and ignorant to think that they Galactico’s would only be successful with a strong defensive base.
When they sold Makelele and replaced him with David Beckham, their intentions were clear, Madrid sought only to profit from shirt sales forgetting that the key to success comes from the balance between attack and defence, with the defensive midfielder being key in proving this balance. In a side which contains such attacking talent, a team must have a midfielder who is willing to be disciplined and allow the players in front of him to attack, while he stays positioned in the middle of the pitch. For many fans they see this type of player as safe, boring and ultimately a waste, this is simply ignorance of the importance that the “water carrier” has.
Eric Cantana once said about Makelele’s predecessor for the France national side, Didier Deschamps that he was the “the water carrier”, meaning his job was to supply the ball to the better players. What Cantana failed to recognize was that there was nothing wrong with a player having this role, in fact it was essential, because how else would these “talented players” get the ball and who would do the work on the defensive side? It shows a complete disrespect and disregard for the importance that Deschamps had in the France squad which won the 1998 World Cup and 2000 Euro’s. Possessing a world class “water carrier” is not a waste, in fact it is a remedy for success, just ask Spain and Barcelona.
A young man from La Masia
In 2008 when Pep Guardiola arrived at Camp Nou, he inherited a talented side which had lost focus and discipline. He sought to improve this with the removal of certain players and the arrival of others. He possessed players like Eto’o, Henry and the young star Messi, along with the talents of Puyol and Xavi. It was a side with the potential to be great. Yet the key role, which Guardiola knew only so well, was the anchor of the side, the defensive midfielder. As a player for Barcelona this is where Pep played under Cryuff, who spoke of Guardiola as his pivot, a key player in the side, keeping possession and setting the tempo.
In that first treble winning season, Guardiola had the option to use Yaya Toure, the strong Ivorian bought from Monaco the season before. However, he instead favoured a young academy player who he had worked with for Barca “B”. His name was Sergio Busquets, many were unsure about Guardiola’s decision making; this young, tall, somewhat gangly player, was surely not good enough to play for Barcelona.
Yet, Busquets had already shown his worth to the players, Xavi says "I've never seen a player with so many tactical options during the game, who's got so much quality as well as physical presence – it's incredible,", adding, “Busi sees you quickly, he always takes the simple option. He reads the game well and moves the ball with precision, in as few touches a possible.” Xavi regards Busquets as the best one touch passer of the ball in the world, a huge compliment, and an indication of his necessity to the side.
There is no escaping the fact that Busquets is a world-class player and is argubaly the best in the world in his position. You can see just how vital he is to the Barcelona way, in the middle of the field it is Busquets more than any other player who dictates the tempo and it is Busquets’ influence that pushes those possession figures above the 70% marker. Guardiola saw in Busquets himself, he simply replicated his role when he played at Barca, no wonder he values and rates Busquets so highly, he sees himself in his position and thus has been able to teach and further Busquets development. He is the modern Guardiola without a doubt.
What makes the defensive midfielder so important?
Busquets has a great ability of knowing where his team mates are before his receives the ball, his vision and awareness allow him to keep possession and play passes quickly, alleviating any pressure from defenders. His role as the “pivot” or “anchor” enables Barcelona to play the expansive football they wish because he offers such solidity and confidence on the ball. He is the modern midfielder; strong, agile, disciplined and excellent in possession.
His mentor Guardiola completes the picture: "The legacy that Xavi, Puyol and other veterans of this team will leave, Sergio will carry on. He will be responsible for integrating new players and will not even need to talk. Just watching his behaviour, everyone will see how things are done in this club."
Tactically the defensive midfielder is imperative for the sole reason that he offers solidity to his side, allowing full backs to move up the pitch, who know that their “anchor” will cover for them. Dani Alves is able to attack so much because Busquets provides him cover. The balance of Barcelona is kept through Busquets, a key yet often neglected role, and with Messi in the side, it is hard not to see past him and Barcelona’s attacking qualities, yet the coach knows how fundamental Busquets is to the tactic being effective.
In possession Busquets has evolved his position too, before he was the “pivot” and played in that deeper midfield role, yet last season he became part of the 3-4-3 formation and dropped back into the defensive line, his versatility and ability to do this shows his qualities. However, I would argue that he and Barcelona are better when playing a 4-3-3 with wing backs, the balance of the side is better and the attacks are more potent, the Copa Del Rey final against Bilbao indicated as much.
Vital for success?
Guardiola saw in Busquets the future of the defensive midfielder; the ability to start attacks and dictate play. The players that came before in Deschamps, Makelele and Dunga for Brasil, were regarded as destroyers, yet they were more than that. The defensive midfielder was required to do two jobs, break up attacks and start them. The key attributes of discipline, both positional and tactical, understanding and anticipation to read the game and selflessness, to allow others to get the headlines and glory, knowing that your job is helping the team all important for this position to be perfected. As Busquets says, “The coach knows that I am an obedient player who likes to help out and if I have to run to the wing to cover someone’s position, great. I genuinely enjoy watching the full-back run up the pitch and going across to fill in.”
Mascherano, who would have seen Busquets as his competition when he intitally moved to Camp Nou regards Busquets very highly; “Xavi and Iniesta are the most creative midfielders in the world, but, above all, there is Busquets. He has the talent to play for any team anywhere in the world, but he’s made to play for this team. Literally, he’s the perfect guy. He robs the ball, he has superb technical skills and brings tactical order. I watch him and try to learn from him.”
Cultural issues affecting England
At Man Utd they possess a player similar to Busquets in Michael Carrick, a player very much underrated by many fans in England and whose international career should have far exceeded 22 caps. Busquets at 24 already has 45. Carrick is a mix between Busquets and Xavi Alonso, able to play the short pass and retain possession, yet also willing and able to provide the longer killer pass from deep. Carrick’s critics come from those same people who don’t see the value in the Busquets, who view these players as simple passers, playing safe all the time, believing that they are wasted players on the pitch, this is delusional and completely ignorant.
Carrick would have been perfect for England these past 10 years, playing the deeper role he does so well for United, yet he has been overlooked because of the ignorance of the media and fans. The media has clamoured for the “stars” of Gerrard and Lampard to play in the rigid 4-4-2 this past decade which has meant there has been no place for Carrick in the side. Imagine if England’s midfield had been Scholes and Carrick, like it has been for United for the past several years, could England have done better?
This English mentality comes from the the culture of English football and is a reason why England have not been successful in international tournaments. For a decade the national side had worried over the issue of playing Lampard and Gerrard, never considering the need to perhaps adapt the formation to suit the modern game. A midfield of Lampard and Gerrard offered no stability defensively and provided many sides with the ability to counter attack England.
The 4-4-2 is flawed and most countries apart from England knew that, the successful ones certainly did. Brasil have played with two defensive midfielders for decades, France knew the value in Deschamps when they dominated the world for several years. At this summer’s Euro’s, the winners Spain had two defensive midfielders in Alonso and Busquets and Spain have shown that by not conceding goals in knockout games, makes success much easier.
Del Bosque saw the value in Busquets even at a young age and has been successful because of it, “He is an example of generosity, always thinking of the needs of the team rather than himself.” Busquets offers more than just “breaking up” play, he is simply the key player for a side wishing to keep possession, switch play and feed the ball into tight areas. Without him, Barcelona or Spain would not have won what they have, because although it is imperative to have flair in the attack, you only need to look at Holland to see what happens when your defence and midfield is inadequate.
Key to success? Without a doubt
The disregard of this type of player has meant that internationally English football has suffered, yet English sides who have deployed a defensive midfielder; Chelsea with Makelele, Essien and Mikel, United with Keane, Fletcher and Carrick and Man City with Yaya Toure and Barry, have all been successful because they possess these key players. Mourinho is not the best coach in world football for no reason, he knows the value in players like Costinha, Makelele, Cambiasso and Khedira who have all brought him success in his managerial career. Although the fans might not see the value and necessity of this player, the best managers do and it is those who end up successful.
Man City's success this past season came from the balance of attack and defence, notably they possessed the best midfielder in the league. In Yaya Toure Man City had the league's most dominant defensive midfielder, similar to the influence that previous champions such as Makelele and Essien have been in the league. His strength, positioning and discipline have made Man City a solid defensive force, enabling success to come to the Etihad.
Why have Arsenal not won anything of note in recent years? It is because they have not had a good enough defensive midfielder and they have thus conceded too many goals, they lack a player who offers solidity and discipline to the side. With the emergence of Gokhan Inler, Javi Martinez, Yann M'Vila and Kevin Strootman coming through, top sides would be smart to look at bringing in this type of player if they wish to achieve success.
In conclusion possessing a world class "water carrier" is arguably the most important part of being a successful side. Many sides possess goal scorers, yet the best sides are those who concede less goals, with the role of the defensive midfielder screening and supporting and covering for players in the attack, a team has more stability and solidity.
It is no surprise that teams have being successful because they possess an excellent defensive midfielder, what amazes me is that people and the media are so ignorant about it.