Following on from part I & II of the “Defensive Midfielder Series”, we move on to part III where we will look into the different roles played by the defensive midfielder and expand on what makes them unique and vital.
The deep-lying playmaker, anchorman, Segundo Volante, and regista are the four major roles used by defensive midfielders in a variety of formations. There are others that include ball-winners and half-backs which in my opinion can be integrated into the first 4 roles that have been identified. Each role possesses different attributes and requires a certain style of player to execute the role effectively. Effectively, you don’t want ill-disciplined attacking midfielder playing a defensive role.
In football, many things get praised. Saves, goal tallies, clean sheets, conversion rates and stylish tactical passing moves that are beautifully crafted by teams and players alike, are given most of the attention by the media and pundits. However, when it comes to ball retention, switch of play and tempo, the praise is rather muted. The regista is tactically one of the most important roles in a team’s style of play and is often underrated individually but their impact is heightened when out of the team or off form.
What is a regista? Well, it is a playmaker known to distribute the ball in a precise manner and is usually deployed as a screen in front of the back four. In essence, the regista means ‘director’ in Italian. Along with intelligence and awareness, they must know when to switch tempo, create space, switch play and possibly create clear-cut chances for their forwards and wingers. The regista usually possess the most touches in a single game making their tactical intelligence and awareness critical to a team’s success. Pep Guaridola once said “there’s no need to play defensive football if you keep possession of the ball, because there is only one ball.” Jorginho, Marco Veratti, Xabi Alonso and most notably; Andrea Pirlo have all played the regista role. Marco Verratti has made a name for himself controlling the midfield as one of the most promising registas playing for Paris Saint-Germain.
Hold on, isn’t the regista a less defensive deep-lying playmaker you ask? Great question – the deep-lying playmaker and regista are both creative defensive midfielders but contribute differently to the team. The ‘DLP’, as most often referred to as, offers a simple passing option for the centre-backs who in turn quickly turn it over to the offensive players. The DLP rarely pushes past their midfield partner(s) whose primary job is to make themselves an option for the team and recycle possession. Michael Carrick was arguably a key cog in Manchester United’s trophy laden run during the 2009 – 2013 seasons, where they won the Champions League and Premier League. You can argue that a deep-lying playmaker has a similar role to the regista but the key difference between both roles is their defensive duties and passing choices. The regista bears no defensive duty in comparison to a deep-lying playmaker that still requires pressing movement, interceptions and moving into space to receive the ball. The regista will attempt killer balls from a deep position to either the wingers or striker. From a tactical viewpoint, the success of a regista lies on building a team around him. Teammates will be instructed to provide him with the ball at every opportunity. The attacking moves will originate from the regista who will remain at the pivot of every attacking play. In essence, the regista becomes the focal point as well as the organisational mastermind of a team. This is why Xabi Alonso and Andrea Pirlo were considered pioneers in this role.
In 2005, Alonso had orchestrated one of the best comebacks in the history of European football when Liverpool came back from three goals down at half-time to draw level with AC Milan and go on to win the Champions League in a penalty shootout. Two years later, AC Milan avenged that defeat in Istanbul by beating Liverpool with the help of their own regista in Andrea Pirlo, who had transitioned from the role of a trequartista (attacking midfielder) by Carlo Ancelotti. Furthermore between 2007 and 2012, 5 out of the 6 Champions League winners used a regista. For Manchester United and Chelsea, champions in 2008 and 2012 respectively, Paul Scholes and Frank Lampard whilst not being traditional registas, nevertheless played a very similar playmaking role for their teams acting as the focal point for all their attacks from a deeper position.
Just as Claude Makélélé defined the defensive midfield position, Pirlo spent a decade excelling and mastering the position to make him one the best players to successfully play the role.
The anchorman is a position of another type of player who slots in front of defence and primarily anticipates movement, intercepts, wins and distributes the ball to the forward thinking players. They can also double up as half-backs, which allows the team to drive forward as the player slots in between or in place of one of the centre-backs. Where the deep-lying playmaker and regista concentrate on ball distribution and creating clear cut chances, the anchormans first thought is to stop the opposing forwards from penetrating the midfield through any means necessary.
The anchorman’s position has a slight change in definition and role in different systems. In a 4-3-3, their job is to sit deep, tackle and pass the ball to attacking players and rarely stray far from the defensive line. The modern game has seen this role diminish over time but there some who can more than adequately perform here. Given the need for more dynamic and fluid midfielders who are able to comply in a number of roles in a given midfield position this in turn had led to the anchorman becoming a niche role, one that required discipline and strong mental abilities. Some anchormen carry out the traditional role but may also be required to push forward and run with the ball. N’Golo Kanté of Chelsea FC and Casemiro of Real Madrid are two examples of players who both play the same position but have differing roles for their clubs. Kanté plays more like a box-to-box midfielder covering up two thirds of the pitch intercepting passes and breaking up play as well as pushing attacking moves forward. Casemiro on the other hand, tends to win possession and allows the more creative players to thrive whilst covering his centre-backs.
‘Segundo Volante’. You might be asking if this is a villain from a Tarantino film but no it’s actually one the most complete roles in world football today. A demanding role that expects a player to possess attributes of both a box-to-box midfielder by arriving late in the box and linking up play between the midfield and attack as well as a defensive midfielder by breaking opposition moves and winning the ball back, carrying it forward. Tiémoué Bakayoko of Chelsea FC and Tanguy Ndombele of Lyon are two notable examples of players who possess the attributes to carry out this role. Each player has the stamina, ball retention and running traits to be able to maintain a high standard.
The name ‘Volante’ for this defensive midfield position is a tribute to Argentine footballer Carlos Martin Volante, who played for Torino, Rennes and Flamengo amongst other clubs in a career spanning from 1928 – 1943. He represented his national side just twice but performed with distinction, and later assisted the Brazil international side as a masseuse in the 1938 World Cup.
There are a variety of roles carried out by a defensive midfielder and it goes to show how much value they can provide to a team. Many managers build their teams and systems off a defensive midfield player’s ability. Whether they turn into the engine or heart of the team, the DM certainly has a place in most coaches’ plans, albeit as a plan b. Some teams have had success without one; such as Inter Milan in 2010 who ended up putting an emphasis on their Dutch attacking midfielder Sneijder instead. Regardless, the defensive midfielder certainly plays a key role in many different systems and the roles are showcased more depending on the coaches’ style of play. More defensive managers will prefer an anchorman over a regista and more attack minded managers preferring registas over anchormen. Ultimately, it comes down to the opposition, situation and personnel available.
Stay tuned for the next part of the series, where I focus on two defensive midfielders and what makes them stand out players in their respective roles.