The Rise of the Defensive Midfielder

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Tuesday and Wednesday night yielded stunning results in the Champions League for German blood. What stood out was their organisation, work-rate and energy levels which finely complimented bursts of attacking brilliance and classy finishing. With a picturebook of memorable goals for Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, one wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of articles written emphasised the decisive role of the forward leading the line like a brave general with his army behind him, the flying winger injecting that dizzyingly enjoyable concoction of pace into the spectacle or the attacking midfielder habituating the hole between midfield and attack, pulling the strings with an array of eye-catching passes.

However, retrospectively considering the two matches, the mind is drawn to the fantastic performances from defensive midfielders of the two teams. Javi Martinez epitomises the hard-working, tough-tackling defensive brain operating just in front of the defence and providing them with a great sense of reassurance due to these abilities. Tasked with quelling the expected onslaught of perhaps the finest technical midfield outlet in modern footballing history including Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, Javi Martinez provided the viewers with a clinic in breaking up play, reading the passes of the opposition and positional  discipline. Not once was he caught out of position allowing Barcelona to thread a pass through to Alexix Sanchez or Lionel Messi. Indeed, Messi was to cut a frustrated figure throughout the duration of the match. Lacking fitness, sharpness and displaying an attitude bordering dangerously on disinterest, Messi was effectively suppressed by Bastian Schweinsteiger. The German international did what defensive opponents of four-time Ballon D’or recipient have scratched their heads about hopelessly for the best part of a decade- he crushed the Messi influence and eliminated the Messi factor from the tie. It’s clear what Messi is to Barcelona. He is the footballing equivalent of the brain. Whereas the lion-like Carles Puyol will always be the heartbeat of the Catalan giants, Messi is the vital component for attack. Managers such as Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho have, in the past, stood in their respective technical areas and watched as the Argentine maestro made  a mockery of their teams.

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Man-marking Messi didn’t seem to work. However, in the age of the combative defensive midfielder, Schwiensteiger was able to demythologise this tactic in a breathtaking display. He was simply too hungry, too organised and too decisive for Messi to effectively formulate a Plan B and get round the barrier he upheld in front of the back four. A performance of hugely impressive margins, the unwavering organisational prowess of Schweinsteiger and dogged determinism of Javi Martinez rendered “the greatest team in the world” disillusioned and bereft of ideas. Bayern crushed Barcelona 4-0 and the tie is all but decided.

24 hours later and Dortmund were at it themselves, only Madrid have the slightest hope to cling onto thanks to a precious away-goal from Cristiano Ronaldo. Nonetheless, underpinning Dortmund’s triumph was their combative energy in midfield, led in example by Ilkay Gundogan. The 22 year-old German international dictated the play of this huge tie in businessman fashion. Controlling the tempo like a distinguished orchestral conductor, Gundogan linked up with star-of-the-show Robert Lewandowski, Marco Reus, Mario Gotze and Jakub Blaszczykowski with efficiency and skill, often occupying a much advanced position and providing a crucial focal point of the attack when Lewandowksi dropped deeper to lose his markers. Gundogan has it all; strength, energy, tactical astuteness, unnerving focus and a deceptive blend of balance and pace. He typifies the complete midfielder, a rare but lucrative commodity in modern day football teams. A gut-busting box-to-box midfielder has to maintain the capability and presence of mind to dictate the match at times in a defensive and offensive manner.

Roy Keane and Steven Gerrard are perhaps the most outstanding examples of this category, but there exists today a multitude of midfielding talent that suggest the defensive midfielder is experiencing something of a golden age. To start with, Michael Carrick is the quintessential unsung hero in the middle of the pitch. Calm and composed on the ball and always vigilant off it, Carrick has established himself as the first man on Ferguson’s team-sheet in recent seasons as a model of consistency and one of the world’s top defensive midfielders. Reliable in possession, Carrick has a wide-range of accurate passing which has catapulted him into the realm of recognition, picking up a nomination for PFA Player of the Year. Running against a who’s who of Premier League supremo’s in Suarez, Bale and Van Persie, Carrick is unlikely to receive the award but his nomination is confirmation that the defensive midfielder’s role is highly thought of in player and manager circles. Interestingly, Arsene Wenger declared that Carrick would have been his player of the year if the decision was solely down to him. “I would choose Carrick,” Wenger said. “He is a quality passer. He could play for Barcelona, he would be perfectly suited to their game. He has a good vision and is an intelligent player, and it is for what he has achieved in his whole career as well. It is this year or never for him, just because he is 31 and after, they go down. “You have a few other choices. Robin stayed for a while without scoring and the PFA vote happened during that period so that could go against him. You had [Luis] Suárez but he has bitten into his reward. You have Gareth Bale. I think Carrick is an underrated player in England and sometimes not only should the goalscorer be rewarded but the real players at the heart of the game.”

What about outside of the English game? You don’t have to look particularly far to catch sight of another wonderful defensive midfield talent. Arturo Vidal has won the hearts of the Juventus fans with his aggressive, whole-hearted approach to the game. A devastating penalty taker and fine passer, Vidal’s defensive abilities however, outweigh the attacking ones. It is his graft and tireless endeavour which facilitates Pirlo to dictate the attacking side of the game further up the pitch. Vidal’s contribution to imminent back-to-back Serie A titles has been well documented. GivemeFootball stated:

“Forming a devastating midfield partnership with Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio, Vidal’s energy, pace and determination in midfield makes him an indefatigable figure in the heart of the Old Lady.

His tackling is first class and his tactical awareness and positioning are excellent to make him a feared warrior in midfield, but what is less heralded is his distribution and finishing. Having netted ten times this season including crucial strikers at home and away against Chelsea in the champions league, Vidal has added another string to his bow to make one of the most complete midfielders in the world.”

Discussion of brilliant defensive midfielders woudln’t be complete without mentioning Yaya Toure. The Ivorian 29 year-old stood out in Manchester City’s title-winning campaign last season. Possessing one of the most terrifyingly effective engines in world football, the 6ft 2in frame of Toure blasts through players, riding tackles effortlessly whilst bearing down on goal, picking a key pass into the feet of Sergio Aguero or Carlos Tevez or finding the back of the net himself. His unstoppable running is one thing, but he remains a tremendously focused and disciplined midfield product. Himself and Gareth Barry formed a highly reliable defensive midfield partnership last season, forming a shield to guard Vincent Kompany and the back line. His immense physical presence and series of important contributions for City have launched him into the pantheon of great world footballers and have significantly increased his market value.

There lies arguably the key element to the rise of the defensive midfielder- the market value. Recognised as enormously valuable assets, holding midfielders find themselves firmly entrenched in the upper echelons of the financial market. Javi Martinez’ performances for Athletic Bilbao, notably against Manchester United in the Europa League en route to the final, meant a sky-rocket in demanding price for the big teams courting him. Bayern Munich won the race for his signature and cashed in a mammoth 40 million euros, making him the most expensive Bundesliga player of all time. A quick look at the market will see big asking prices for other rising defensive midfielders. The price for Vidal would be roughly £30 million and Gundogan clocks in a little lower but still expensive at £20 million. Surpassing them two is Schweinsteiger, whose Mess-crushing capabilities enable him to demand a transfer fee of £35 million. The prices of these players clearly dictate a rise in value of the defensive midfielder.

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Occupying an essential role in the team, the defensive midfielder has firmly established itself as an indispensable component of several big teams around Europe. The post-match analyses of Champions League semi-finals can regularly be seen as a post-mortem of holding midfielders keeping quiet the players who expect to be analysed. Potentially an all-German Champions League final on May 25 at Wembley, it would be interesting to see how the defensive midfielders conducted their business against arch rivals on the grandest stage of them all. Or is it that the defensive midfielder is already on the grandest stage of all and they merely seek to advance the rise of the position into punditry and award superstardom?

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About Matt Gault

Matt is a long-term These Football Times writer and co-author of A Tale of One City, Football's Fleeting Fraternity, The Academy Way and Masterminds. He supports Manchester United but also follows the fortunes of FK Qarabag in Azerbaijan. Based in Belfast, he is interested in the relationship between politics and football and rebellious footballers. Has been featured on The Guardian, FourFourTwo, WorldSoccer.com, BBC, Daily Mail and Huffington Post. He is also the Editor of SquareEyed.tv (http://www.squareeyed.tv/), covering the world of movies, TV and culture. Follow SquareEyed on Twitter @SquareEyed_tv and like us on Facebook! Follow Matt on Twitter @MattGault11
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