The modern era has seen several changes in role of the defensive midfielder. Every 4-6 years we see a shift in the type of holding midfielder that teams want to employ. Looking back, the 90s was the true introduction of the hard hitting, tackling midfielder. The 1998 World Cup saw France use two holding midfielders in Didier Deschamps and Emmanuel Petit both defensive minded midfielders; known for screening and protecting defences with their tough tackling rather than their creative prowess allowing the likes of Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry to flourish. The 2002 World Cup saw Brazil use Gilberto Silva in a similar role.
The 2006 World Cup brought around a change in strategy pairing deep-lying creative midfielders with tough tackling defensive lynchpins. Arguably the most recognisable duo was Andrea Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso who allowed Pirlo the freedom to create from deep. Gattuso ran, tackled and intercepted tirelessly which ultimately allowed Pirlo to demonstrate his technical ability and creative brilliance which led the Italians to a World Cup win in 2006.
Spain’s 2010 squad boasted the likes of Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets. I’d argue that Spain popularised the role of the deep-lying playmaker post which influenced other nations to follow suite. Sergio Busquets has been underrated by the masses because of his mellow play style but within the footballing world he is lauded as one of the best defensive midfielders to grace the game. His one touch play sets up attacks with lightning pace and precision allowing Barcelona and Spain to move from the defensive to the attacking third in a matter of seconds. In 2011, the former Barcelona star, Xavi Hernandez, had already praised his junior at La Masia academy.
“Sergio will be the best midfielder in the world because of his clever play with one touch. He does not need much time to play the ball.”
Another example would be when Germany boasted the gifted Bastian Schweinsteiger to sit along with Toni Kroos who played higher up with creative freedom.
This strategy has been popular for many years but the last 8 years has seen another shift in thinking from managers which has seen the rise of box to box midfielders, Segundo Volantes, Carrileros and Registas over pure creative or defensive specialists and we’ll delve into each of these roles in depth in the next part of the series. In my opinion, this was borne from teams becoming more compact and playing counter attacking football which requires a compact midfield operating with efficiency. Teams have largely favoured pairing two defensive midfielders to screen defences and be link men between defence and attack, with the side based around combination play from more attack-minded players.
Different teams are suited to different tactical systems depending on makeup of their squad. Teams that have won Champions Leagues and domestic titles have commonly employed a mixture of world-class midfielders to anchor their midfield creating a base in which to operate and shift play forward seamlessly.
Part III: Tune in next week for the next part of the series covering the plethora of midfield roles in the modern game.