Doing the dirty work: The holding midfielder

by Daniel Rhodes

Raw excitement, plenty of goals and end to end football; many observers believe this to be the appeal of the Premier League. The 2011/12 season has provided, especially between teams at the top of the table, a heady mix of all three. Just think of the 8-2 at Old Trafford, or Spurs twice conceding five, Arsenal going to Stamford Bridge and scoring the same amount or City doing the unthinkable, and putting six past Manchester United. While the tactical approach of each manager has been crucial to these results, the lack of a dominant, defensively disciplined ‘enforcer’ sitting in front of the back four, marshalling the defence, breaking up play and starting the attacks has been obvious.

Claude Makelele:

Often considered the best holding midfielder ever to grace the Premiership, Makelele arrived from Real Madrid for £16m after three incredibly successful years when he won two La Liga titles, a Champions League and a Spanish Super Cup. Signed by Claudio Ranieri, the departing Real Madrid president claimed Perez: 

We will not miss Makélelé. His technique is average, he lacks the speed and skill to take the ball past opponents, and ninety percent of his distribution either goes backwards or sideways. He wasn’t a header of the ball and he rarely passed the ball more than three metres. Younger players will arrive who will cause Makélelé to be forgotten

Chelsea reached the Champions League Semi-Final for the first time in their history and finished second in the league. Ranieri was sacked, Jose Mourinho arrived, and Chelsea won two leagues titles in two years. They only conceded 15 goals in the first season and 22 the following year. This season, Chelsea had conceded 15 by the end of October. Makelele’s importance was highlighted by Mourinho after Chelsea’s incredible season; when Lampard and Terry were claiming all the individual honours, Jose stated he was ‘Chelsea’s Player of the Year’. A statement confirmed by Real Madrid’s legendary defender Fernando Hierro,

I think Claude has this kind of gift – he’s been the best player in the team for years but people just don’t notice him, don’t notice what he does. But you ask anyone at Real Madrid during the years we were talking about and they will tell you he was the best player at Real. We all knew, the players all knew he was the most important. The loss of Makélelé was the beginning of the end for Los Galacticos… You can see that it was also the beginning of a new dawn for Chelsea. He was the base, the key and I think he is the same to Chelsea now.

Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso: 

During the 2008/09 Liverpool enjoyed their most successful league campaign in the Premier League era, finishing second by four points (a record total for LFC), scoring the most goals and knocking Real Madrid out of the Champions League five-nil on aggregate. During that season, Rafa Benitez often played both players together in the same team, providing a solid platform for the attacking players to flourish.

  • Mascherano was the top tackler in the whole team with 94 successful tackles from 123 attempts.
  • Alonso was fourth behind Arbeloa and Carragher with 62 successful tackles from 89 attempts.
  • Alonso made by far the most passes with 2482 (85% passing accuracy), Mascherano was fourth behind Carragher and Gerrard with 1612 (84%).

Liverpool had one enforcer, screening the back four in Mascherano and one distributor in Alonso, finding the perfect pass, setting up a counter attack or just dictating the pace and tempo of the team. Lucas Leiva, since the departure of both players to Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively, has attempted to adopt both roles. With the disappointing performance of Christian Poulsen last year, Lucas made the most passes (1794) and the most successful tackles (111 – more than Carragher, Skrtel and Agger combined) and this effort was duly rewarded by being named player of the season.

Darren Fletcher, Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick: 

All three of these players have played a crucial role in Manchester United’s success over the past four years. Sir Alex Ferguson even attributed Fletcher’s absence as the primary reason for the 2009 Champions League Final defeat to Barcelona. While Carrick has made the role his own this season, Ferguson had tried the blend the best elements from all three (including at times Ryan Giggs) into the crucial role just in front of the defence. If Fletcher has the energy, drive, tackling ability and tactical discipline to make up for the lack of Paul Scholes’ defensive ability, then that frees up Carrick and Scholes to dictate play for United going forward. Since Fletcher was diagnosed with a long-term kidney illness, Carrick has been used in deep lying midfield role more often. The constant injury problems of Tom Cleverley (perceived by many to be Scholes’ successor) has led to Carrick’s increased responsibility.

  • Carrick this season has attempted the most tackles (65) and the most passes (1187) with an impressive 90% success rate.
  • Even Paul Scholes, who retired at the end of last season, has returned to the side. Improving his tackling accuracy from a disappointing (but expected) 58% in the 2008/09 season, to an impressive 9 from 11 this season. His passing accuracy is equal to that of Carrick (90%) and has played six Premier League games for United, winning five and drawing one, away at Chelsea.

One crucial game this season, when Man Utd didn’t include, through choice or injury, either Fletcher, Carrick or Scholes, was away at FC Basel in the game that knocked them out of the Champions League. That day, Phil Jones played in the deep lying role, and United were left exposed at times. Here is the average position map from the game. Notice Jones’ positional inconsistency in the opening 15 mins, when FC Basel scored their opening goal.

Average for the whole game:

Phil Jones might yet turn out to be an outstanding holding midfielder, he certainly has all the attributes, but at 19 at the time, maybe a bit too much was expected of him.

Scott Parker:

The relative success of Tottenham this season is down to a number of factors, but the signing of Scott Parker who won the Football Writers’ Player of the Year last season, has been one of the most important. Again, similar parallels with the Mascherano/Alonso or Fletcher/Carrick/Scholes partnerships start to emerge.

  • Parker has attempted (90) the most and completed the most (62) tackles for Spurs this season.
  • He has also completed the third highest amount of passes (1173) at an impressive, but identical rate of 90% to that of Scholes or Carrick.

Having that anchor has allowed Modric and Bale to flourish.

Arsenal: 

A lack of a disciplined, tactically aware holding midfielder, who can break up play, protect the back four and allow the more attacking-minded players to succeed has often been cited as a reason for Arsenal’s lack of silverware over the last five or six years. Flamini was snapped up after two successful seasons in that role at Arsenal in 2008, but Diaby and Song have both attempted it, with occasional glimpses of success, but on the whole would be regarded as failures, when compared with similar players at other top four clubs.

Manchester City: 

Perhaps the team with the most impressive set of central midfielder’s is Manchester City. Whereas last year Mancini  was being derided for setting his team up too defensively with Barry, De Jong and Yaya Toure all playing in the same game; this season he’s tended to play two of three and has included Nasri, Milner or Johnson alongside David Silva.

  • Again, a defensive midfielder (Barry) has attempted the most tackles (55) for Man City and although Kompany (41 at an incredible success rate of 85%) leads the most successful tackles, Barry isn’t far behind with 40.
  • Yaya Toure, even after his extended absence at the African Nations Cup, tops the passing statistics with 1498 successful passes at 92% (in the top five in Europe)
  • Nevertheless, the ability of City to recycle the ball, keep possession for long periods and dominate the midfield is illustrated when looking at some of the other successful passes statistics; Barry 1291, Silva 1342, Kompany 1069, Lescott 963.

It is no coincidence that Manchester City struggled most when Y Toure and Kompany were missing during January. The solid foundation of Lescott, Kompany, Barry and Y Toure has been fundamental to City’s league success this season. Keeping those four players fit for the final stretch of the campaign will decide whether The Citizens ship sinks or, after so many years, floats to victory.

All statistics supplied by EPL Index – subscribe here for access to all the essential statistics in the Premier League

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