This piece is written from a South African perspective.
A few weeks back, I wrote that Chiefs will rue the day they let Tinashe Nengomashe go. I said this is because they have no other defensive midfielder with good passing ability, and that secondly, letting him leave now meant that Reneilwe “Yeye” Letsholonyane now had to be put in a deep-lying position instead of using his excellent passing ability in an advanced position. Many feel that I was off the mark with that view, and many more claim that the role of a classic defensive midfielder is DEAD. I am however standing my ground on this one.
The use and importance of a defensive midfielder largely depends on a team’s system of play. Teams that use counterattacking system in particular benefit greatly from the use of one, and sometimes even two defensive midfielders.
English club, Tottenham Hotspur for example still use Scott Parker and/or the young Brazilian, Sandro, as the shield to their defence. These two players pretty much fit the description of your standard defensive midfield (DM). Putting in the tackles, making crucial interceptions and passing the ball on to the more creative players in the team (Gareth Bale, Aarron Lennon, and Luka Modric) to work their magic further up in the field. English club, Chelsea - who just happen to be the current champions of Europe - have John Obi Mikel sitting in the hole between defence and the more attacking members of the team. Mikel dishes out his sideways passes (these passes contribute to him having one of the highest pass-success ratios in the League) while the other midfielders provide the magic and creativity to unlock defences. Another example of a team that utilizes defensive midfielders, Real Madrid, sometimes play with both Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira (granted Alonso is an excellent passer of the ball) as the shield for their defence. Jose Mourinho has even occasionally made use of Portugues defender, Pepe, as a midfield destroyer in El Clasico battles. Most of the Madrid goals and assists come from the attacking quartet of Cristiano Ronaldo, Mezut Ozil, Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain and fringe players who fill in their roles.
Other English examples of teams that employ defensive midfielders include Manchester City, the English Premier League champs. They have Gareth Barry in the DM position with Nigel De Jong (at the time of writing) and now Jack Rodwell as backup defensive midfielders. Merseyside giants, Liverpool, make use of Lucas Leiva as a specialist defensive midfielder. Lucas is so important to the team that despite suffering an injury in the pre-game warmup, he was still sent out to play against Manchester City in recent 2-all draw. Many fans, and analysts alike, blamed the long-term injury in the 2011/12 season to Lucas as a large contributing factor to ‘Pool enduring a below-par league season.
However pleasing Joe Allen’s performance was, and with the increasing perception that central midfielders like him who can “keep possession” should now replace midfield destroyers, an interesting fact to point out (Rafa benitez-style) is that at the end of the match Joe Allen had the exact same successful pass rate (93%) as Nigel de Jong.
There are many other examples of teams using the defensive midfielder although, unlike in years gone by, the DM role is now more about anticipation and reading the game rather than being limited to mostly tough, bone-crunching tackles.
I hear some pointing to Barcelona. Well, Barcelona operate on different level than most teams - this is a team who have the ability and chutzpah to play an important UEFA Champions League League semifinal with a 3-3-4 formation. The Barcelona coach at times even prefers to field a team without a specialist striker for goodness sake! Their excellent use of the pressing strategy also diminishes the need for a specialist defensive midfielder. Manchester United do not have a classic defensive midfielder in their preferred starting line-up, and this strategy clearly works for them (domestically) as they narrowly missed out on winning the English Premier League (EPL) last season due to THAT Aguero goal. However, one must take not of the fact that Sir Alex Ferguson usually prefers a 3-man central midfield combination when English legend, Paul Scholes is not in the field of play. Scholes’ ability to control the tempo of the game and masterful play in the deep-lying playmaker position allows Manchester United to control the game thus limiting the need for defensive steel in the midfield.
Italy, Euro 2012 finalists and a country associated with one of the best “destroyers” of our generation, Gennaro Gattuso, also managed to do well with a hard tackling individual in their midfield.
But this is what makes football such a great game. Is a stage where different systems (or variations of the sam system) play one beautiful game: bad versus evil, sexy football versus parking the bus (just ask Arsene Wenger about Stoke City), Brazil vs Italy (1970), Holland (the 2010 version which used not one but 2 midfield destroyers) versus world champions, Spain.
In time the classic DM may become redundant but at the moment, just like the classic target man, if a particular team’s system and players are suited to it, the use of a midfield destroyer an work to great effect.
Football has drifted from a 4-4-2 formation towards 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 systems, both of which broadly feature three central midfielders. With this system there is an extra midfield place available, and the “destroyer-creator” 4-4-2 system now includes a “passer” in between. I mentioned that Chiefs should have kept Nengomasha as this would give them a central midfield three containing Nengomasha (destroyer), Yeye (passer) and Nkosi (who was once touted as the next Doctor Khumalo, as “creator”), thereby allowing Simphiwe Tshabalala to play in what I feel is his best position, left wing.
Players like Yeye and Andile Jali who can manage put in the tackles and make important interceptions in midfield while still managing to display great attacking qualities are a rare breed in the PSL. These are players that a coach can build their team around. At the time of writing (based on the two competitive matches that Chiefs have played), Kaizer Chiefs coach, Stuart Baxter seems to have decided to adopt a similar approach to Pirates in as far has having a specialist defensive midfielder goes. Unlike Orlando Pirates, however, Chiefs does not have a similarly talented player to fill in for Yeye should he get an injury during the course of the season while Pirates has Manti Moholo, Clifford Ngobeni (remember him?) and 22-year old Thandani Ntshumayelo as some of the first names that spring to mind.
It may not be essential to have a defensive midfielder but I believe that the defensive midfielder role still has a place in modern football. Stuart Baxter has decided against having a specialist defensive midfielder. Will his preferred system of play bring success and trophies to Naturena? Time will tell…