The Defensive Midfielder – A History To Remember

The first part of a five part series of the defensive midfielder.

The role of the defensive midfielder or holding midfielder has come into existence over the past 30 to 40 years but for the most part the role was never defined as one of the holding midfielders. The defensive midfielder who plays at the base of midfield, being the 3rd or 4th defender depending on the formation played.

The early days of football focused on goals. The first international game between England and Scotland in 1872 proves. England played a 1-2-7; Scotland played 2-2-6. The two midfielders in both systems were not defensive minded, per se – The English used their superior dribbling ability and strength whereas the Scots went for a passing approach. This could be classified as the first set of “box to box” from the English and “deep-lying playmakers” from the Scots, if we attach modern terms to old positions.

Teams eventually moved into a 2-3-5 formation but the extra midfielder was known as a ‘centre-half’. The modern game recognises that position as the central midfielder who floats across midfield, but Jonathan Wilson writes in Investing The Pyramid, “the centre-half was a multi-skilled all-rounder, defender and attacker, leader and instigator, goal-scorer and destroyer”. At this point, the centre-half was not yet a centre-back, but was in fact a midfield player. This was the precursor to the defensive midfielder as we know it. The other two members of the midfield were known as ‘half-backs’ or ‘wing-halves’ who were placed either side of the centre-half were more defensive and were required to pick up the opposition wingers and the inside-forward but also to contribute going forward thus the early inception of the full back.

After this period, the defensive midfielder developed and changed across continents and countries; eventually every team had their own concept of a holding midfielder by the first edition of the World Cup in 1930.

Vittorio Pozzo, coach of the Italian National Team in the 1930s devised the Metodo system. His system was based off the 2-3-5 formation, where he realised that his half-backs needed more support to become more effective in midfield. Pozzo dropped two centre-forwards into midfield creating a 2-3-2-3 formation, creating a stronger system allowing effective counter attacks.

soccer_2-3-2-3 Metodo
Metodo Formation – Stories PreSchool

Up to this point, defensive midfielders were solely used in defensive systems to defend. For all the attacking focus on the 2-3-5 formation, a balance needed to be found between defence and attack. This was best demonstrated in South America in the 1920s & 1930s between Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina who saw an influx of Italians migrate to South America, all of whom heavily influenced the style of football and systems employed. The South American teams adopted the Metodo system by continuing with the 2-3-5 system but adapted by the use of a third centre-half and allowed him the freedom to advance with the ball in possession, yet this centre-half was extremely vulnerable defensively. Brazil were main users of this role but were left defensively open (as is the issue with the current Brazilian team in 2018!). While Argentinian football was more attacking and less defensive, the Uruguayans struck the perfect balance between attack and defence, enabling them to win the Gold Medal in football in 1924, 1928 and the World Cup in 1930.

In England, Herbert Chapman of Arsenal created the “WM” formation to counter the change in the offside law in 1925. The change essentially reduced the number of opposition players that attackers needed between themselves and the goal-line from three to two.  This brought around the introduction of the centre-back to try and stop the opposition centre forward and balance offensive and defensive play. This formation of employing 3 at the back was to mitigate the threat offered by the forwards of a 2-3-5 formation.

“WM” Formation – Newman, 2015 (101 Great Goals)

The formation was a big success that prompted most English clubs to adopt the “WM” formation. The gap in the centre of the formation between the two wing halves and the two inside forwards allowed Arsenal to counter-attack effectively. Chapman’s idea was to move the centre-half (the central creative midfielder as we know them now) into defence to counter the threat offered by the oppositions centre-forward. At the time, it was considered suicidal to place an extra player in a position which did not have much importance at the time. One can draw successive lines connecting all players in the defensive half and attacking half, which gives shapes of a W and an M. Alex James was one of the earliest playmaker’s in the history of the game, and the nucleus around which Chapman’s Arsenal revolved.

A Brazilian, Gentil Cardoso had claimed to have studied and watched Herbert Chapman and tried to introduce the “WM” formation in Brazil. However, he managed clubs far too small in stature to have any substantial effect. The first real impact was made by Dori Kurschner, managing Flamengo and playing advisor to the national team for the 1938 World Cup. Brought up in Hungary, Kurschner’s concept of “WM” would’ve been more attacking than Herbert’s iteration; with the centre-half stationed a little further forward of the two full backs, it was far more like Metodo system.

Kurschner was eventually fired as manager in the 1938 Carioca Championship coming off a 2nd place finish in 1937 to Fluminese despite scoring 83 goals. Fluminese had scored 63 goals in comparison but only conceded 22 goals whilst Flamengo conceded 34 goals. Dori Kurschner was replaced by his assistant, Flavio Costa. He modified the existing 2-3-5 and decided to pull one wing-halves deep depending on which side the attack was coming from. The centre-half at the time, named Volante – who the role was named after in Brazil – operated as a forward thinking midfielder in possession but dropped deep out of possession. The role of the Segundo Volante was born from this very situation; we’ll expand more into the role in second part of the series. Brazil eventually used this system in 1950 World Cup. Although defeated, it paved way to allow a fourth defender to be introduced thus ending the influence of the 2-3-5 formation and rise of the 4-2-4. The 1970 World Cup saw Brazil employ a modified version of the 4-2-4. They solved the issue of the systems over-burdened double pivot midfield. One of the problem’s brought by this system was pressure to distribute and create from the double pivot thus denying any space for a hard tackling midfielder.

Manager’s in the 1970s decided to innovate the 3 man centre-back formation by creating a new role known as the ‘Sweeper’ or ‘Libero’ which was designed to clean up and cover any loose balls that penetrated the two centre-backs. It was a defensive system: first engineered by Karl Rappan, who feared that Switzerland would be overwhelmed by the technical quality of the European teams they faced, looked to play an extra defensive player to counteract that threat. The most pertinent example of a Sweeper is probably one of the most elegant players to have ever kicked a ball, Franz Beckenbauer. As years went by managers understood that the sweeper/libero was a free player as he did not have to mark anybody and thus was nearly always in a free position, made players who were good on the ball were deployed in such a role to become playmakers. Beckenbauer had incredible positional sense, knowing when to attack and when to defend. His performances in the 1970 World Cup were outstanding and he is without a doubt the greatest player to have played the role.

Part II: Tune in for the modern take of the defensive midfielder:



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