Football Debate: Where Have All The Midfielders Gone?

by Willie Gannon

Last night Manchester United and Marseille met in the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League. Truly, it was one of the worst games the Champions League has ever produced. Neither side managed a clear cut chance on goal all night. Stifling tactics cannot be blamed; rather the enemy on the night was poor players and specifically poor midfielders.

Leaving one to ask; Where have all the midfielders gone? It might sound like a mad question but given the state of the modern game it is one of the most pertinent.

Manchester United started off with a midfield triumvirate comprising of Darron Gibson, Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher, while Nani and Wayne Rooney occupied the wide areas. Was it one of the worst midfields Sir Alex Ferguson has ever fielded in Europe? Looking at the performance of the threesome it would be hard to argue against the accusation.

Nani is not the kind of player who will ever know how to dictate the ebb and flow of a game. As a wide player he is reliant on the service of others and feeds on balls into space for him to move onto rather than taking on the responsibility of initiating a move, so to some extent the Portuguese is innocent of the charges being brought against United’s midfield.

Rooney and Berbatov are forwards and by definition will never dictate the intricacies of a football match.

However, Gibson, Fletcher, and Carrick are all guilty of refusing to demand the ball from their team mates and in doing so they dictated that United’s defence played a fair amount of long hopeful balls out from the back.

The single most important thing for any central midfielder – be he on Hackney Marshes or playing in the Camp Nou – is that they have to move towards the ball to receive it, whilst also moving into space.

One of the first things you learn playing football is to provide angles to receive the ball. In an ideal world the player on the ball will have three options at the least. Two will be wide while one will offer down the middle.

The four players will form a rough diamond shape and as the ball moves on this diamond will reform depending upon the situation. Think Barcelona and all those little triangles they always seem to find.

This is football at its most basic. It is learned on the street avoiding broken bottles, parked cars, bullies twice your age, and lampposts. This is where ingenuity and imagination take hold, where cleverness beats physicality every time. One would almost have to wonder if it is coached out of players these days.

There is an unwritten rule in the English Premier League that a midfielder will not take responsibility and receive the ball if an opponent is within three to four yards of him. The exceptions to the rule are almost every Arsenal midfielder, Luka Modric, and Paul Scholes.

On Wednesday night, Carrick, Gibson, and Fletcher ran away from the ball, hid behind opponents, or just didn’t move at all. The end result was that United did not create any move of note in the whole game. Marseille for their part were just as bad, if not worse.

It was a sad indication of the state of the game.

Here we are in the last 16 of what is widely regarded as the greatest football competition on the planet and not only is the game rubbish but neither side can string a couple of passes together either.

The most worrying aspect of all of this is that Marseille vs. Manchester United is a microcosm of what is affecting the game as a whole.

Over the last 20 years, skilful midfielders have been marginalised and replaced by physical athletes. The general move towards 4-2-3-1 as the formation of choice reflects this as this system is built around maximising players with partial skill-sets.

In the days of yore, the formation of choice was 4-4-2. It is an incredibly adaptable set-up and can be arranged to suit any occasion but it does have a major draw back in that the two most important players in the system are the central midfielders.

For the system to be successful these two players need to be “jacks of all trades”, schemers, dictators, enforcers, playmakers, warriors, and above all else they must be imbued with a deepest knowledge of how to keep the continuity of their team going.

This might sound like a lot for any one player to do, but they are the basics of midfield play and are learned on the street long before “coaching” ever takes its icy hold.

In this modern Jose Mourinho 4-2-3-1 era, the game cannot wait for these players to develop and players who have expertise in half-skill sets are utilised instead.

The attraction for managers is that this reduces on the coaching they have to employ. A player with a defensive midfield lean is allowed to specialise in that position while his attacking counterpart.

In short the manager does not have to waste time coaching the players to learn other skills and adapts them into the system that concentrates upon the skills they already have.

Think Javier Mascherano playing defensive midfield for Liverpool while Steven Gerrard played attacking midfield. Both of these players are brilliant in their respective positions but are extremely lacking when asked to play as conventional central midfielders as they do not have all the skill sets required to take on the task.

This might seem like a common sense approach by the manager, and it is, but it also diminishes the sport as the style of the game, health of the game, and skill of the players is attenuated upon.

That is not to say that special players like Gerrard should be corralled into positions that do not suit them. One also has to wonder at players like Glenn Hoddle and how they would be looked upon in a 4-2-3-1 over the 4-4-2 they played in back in the ’80s.

When you look back at the games great midfielders, players who could do everything from the middle of the park the list is almost endless.

Souness, MacKay, Whelan, Brady, Giles, Bremner, Wilkins, Robson, Rijkaard, Ancelotti, Socrates, Keane, Magath, Netzer, etc. Like I said the list is long.

If you look around Europe for midfielders capable of even coming near that exclusive list you have to think hard. Xavi and Iniesta jump straight out, then maybe Luka Modric, Cesc Fabregas and Bastian Schweinsteiger. After that you’re really looking hard. Of those mentioned Xavi really stands out in a class of his own and is without doubt the greatest midfielder of his generation.

Back in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and even part of the ’90s every team had a midfield general. Now you’d probably find it hard to come up with 11 generals across the game.

The sad news in all of this is that 4-2-3-1 is here to stay.

As a formation, it makes the most of players who have specialised in one midfield position while perhaps the biggest factor influencing the use of the system is the utilisation of only one forward.

Forwards are the most expensive players in the game and with 4-2-3-1 top class squad needs two to three strikers for the entire season. A manager using 4-4-2 needs at least four if not five strikers.

Economically 4-2-3-1 will spend less on strikers than other formations with that money being spent in midfield instead where key players usually work out cheaper.

What all that adds up to is that 4-2-3-1 is a cheaper system to run than others, that it is a system that finds its foundations in players with specialised positions and lower skill sets and that it is generally a system that favours physical athletes in central midfield over “players.”

It’s here to stay for the foreseeable.

I have seen the future and it’s Marseille vs. Manchester United…

41 Responses

  1. James Shaw says:

    Nice articles, I think Sir Alex obviously approached the game defensively – knowing two midfielders in a 4-4-2 (with Rooney employed as a striker) would not suffice.

    Also, the Gerrard/ Masch argument is confusing; I don’t recall liverpool playing a diamond formation – Masch usually had Lucas or Alonso in a 4-2-3-1. When liverpool did play 4-4-2 Gerrard usually moved left or right.

    As for Xavi or Iniesta are they really ‘complete’ midfielder’s that can play in a 4-4-2. They too operate in a three man midfield, and rely on the overall work of players around them to make the angles for passes. Thankfully, they make the passes and as such players around them are confident to move forward to receive it – so it works both ways.

    Arguably, it’s easier to play for the best team in the world.

    1. Cheers James,

      I know where you’re coming from but I don’t think Marseille warranted a defensive approach James, they just weren’t good enough.

      On Liverpool, I maybe should have explained it a little better but Mascherano played DM while Gerrard played AM in Rafa’s 4-2-3-1.

      I’d have to say that, for me anyway, that Xavi and Iniesta are about as close to complete midfielders from anyone playing today.

  2. Charlie says:

    Blimey Willie, who died?

    It was a poor game for sure, but I think you might be looking for what you saw a little too much.

    United played to no concede and did the job, which maybe what was asked of them. Clearly Scholes (as you have singled out) was frustrated by this approach, but it will be entirely different at Wigan at the weekend.

    I shall keep your opinions in the back of my mind and apply it to games I watch over the next few weeks, but I think (and hope) you’ve just found the match that most matches a paradigm that you’ve been nurturing for a while.

    Did that match trigger this article, or have you just been waiting for a suitable time to publish it?

    1. lol Charlie,

      Every team plays not to concede, but you have to try to score too. United just didn’t seem capable.

      Deep down I think Fergie must know this and I don’t think we’ll see too much of Gibson for the rest of the season. Not that Carrick or Fletcher are innocent but at least they have history.

      In truth, I’ve been meddling with this idea for a while now and the match just happened to be the right catalyst at the right time.

      Cheers for the comment.

  3. shane says:

    only thing wrong with this article is (Of those mentioned Xavi really stands out in a class of his own and is without doubt the greatest midfielder of his generation.)

    FALSE !!!!!!!!! its paul scholes!!!

    1. Each to his own I guess Shane, but for me Xavi is ahead of Scholes.

  4. Rory Hanna says:

    You make some good points, but the midfield situation is not as grim as you make out. Take Inter – they have Esteban Cambiasso, Dejan Stankovic and Thiago Motta. The latter two can tackle, pass, bulldoze through the opposition’s midfield and can shoot from long range effectively. Cambiasso is brilliant at tracking back and becoming a fifth defender before getting further upfield and winning tackles there. He is also excellent in the air.

    Having said that, I agree with you that Manchester United’s midfield simply wasn’t good enough. Michael Carrick stands out for me – he was slow to tackle, his passes were misplaced, he was weak in his challenges and he generally looked scared of the game. Fergie should be looking for a better central-midfielder in the summer.

    1. Ad says:

      I’m no football expert but I don’t see what Ferguson sees in Carrick. I’ll defend Fletcher because he has been known to put in some great performances. He’s a worker, he gives his all for United and although he is not technically gifted like others, he works himself into the ground for United.

      Carrick however, doesn’t do anything.

      He’s painfully slow, lazy and I don’t think I have ever seen him make a commited tackle. Any write up on Carrick mentions his superb passing range and ability….. really?!?! All I ever see Carrick do is mince around on the ball, play a 10 yard pass backwards or launch a long range pass out for a goal kick, with the exception of perhaps one or two sublime passes that are probably a fluke!

      As for Gibson, he is still learning the game and he hasn’t had a great deal of first team football so perhaps he can be forgiven. However, (call me controversial) he’s approaching 24 years of age and he still hasn’t made any real progress at United. That’s slightly worrying and kinda gives the impression that the chance to prove himself is quickly running out.

      I’d keep Fletcher for his work rate and the fact that on a good day, he is decent player who gives United a certain edge. However, Carrick and Gibson would be out the door in the summer if I were Fergie.

      1. Have to agree with everything you said Ad.

        Trappatoni has been calling for Gibson to leave United since last year.

        At first I thought he was a little out of order as Gibson was young and United is a great place to learn, but it’s obvious that the education that he needs is one where he plays. A summer sale could suit everyone involved there.

        Carrick… I don’t know where his future lies…but I can’t see him playing a major role at United.

    2. Thanks for the comment Rory.

      I’ll have to pay a little more attention to Inter after what you said. I never really considered any of those players as being “great” but I don’t really see Serie A all that often.

      On Carrick, rumour has it that United will offer Carrick plus £25m for Modric in the summer.

      1. Rory Hanna says:

        You are right Willie, none of the Inter midfielders, with the possible exception of Zanetti, are very big names, but, well, I’ve listed all their assets. I will just say one more thing on the matter: Cambiasso, Zanetti and Stankovic have all been at Inter since the time when the Nerazzurri weren’t very good. They are now a world-class team, and yet they still haven’t been replaced, unlike all of their attackers.

        As for Gibson, I’ve been impressed with him in certain games, but he lacks consistency. I didn’t realise that he was 24 either. If he hasn’t cracked into the team at this age, it doesn’t look like he’s going to.

  5. Willie, head up to Scotland and you will see a young Israeli midfielder, namely Beram Kayal, who is showing a significant degree of potential as a Central Midfielder – a definite ‘watch this space’ moment!

    By the way Sir Alex – we will accept no less than £10m for him :-)

    1. Must check him out, cheers for the tip.

  6. I agree that the midfield last night was appalling, but the worst ever in Europe?

    How about the 3-0 defeat to Fenerbache in 2004/05.

    Bellion, Miller, Djemba-Djemba and Richardson.

    …fairly shite.

    1. Bloody hell, that’s a feckin awful midfield. You caould even make an argument saying they only had one player out that night!

  7. elgingo says:

    Xavi would not play as well as in a 442. he is not a complete midfielder. In 4231s, the 3 central midfielders are made up 3 different kinds of players; destroyers, passers and creators.

    Liverpool under Benetiz were a classic example. Mascherano as the destroyer, Xabi Alonso as the passer and Gerrard as the Creator.

    Its also similar at Barcelona, however the roles are more blurred, because of the extreme passing nature of the side. But esentially, Busquets is the destroyers, Xavi is the passer and Iniesta is the creator.

    1. I’d beg to differ there El Gringo, for me Xavi is about as close to being the perfect player never mind a complete midfielder.

      1. samuelchanyf says:

        I would disagree. I agree with Elgingo’s analysis.

        For me, a player like Ballack was closer to a midfield general, being strong in the air, able to create, tackle and shoot from a distance.

        Before Gerrard was shunted to the right or to support Torres, he played in a similar position, even during the days when he still wore no. 17.

        While AC Milan seldom use the 4-4-2, for me Seedorf and Pirlo would’ve made a great midfield partnership. Gattuso was fantastic as well.

  8. Tom says:

    United have a real lack of quality in the centre of the park at them moment. In my honest opinion, Carrick, Gibson, Obertan and Bebe could all go. One world class ‘creative’ midfielder to be brought in and one other.

    1. There’s a huge hole there all right Tom. Rumour has it that Fergie is eyeing up Modric next summer.

  9. James says:

    A thoroughly miserable, gloomy and negative piece. Absolutely spot on.

    1. Glad to be of service James.

  10. James says:

    hmmm its an interesting point, the problem is – assuming the squad is of the same quality – 4-4-2 will always lose out to a team playing 4-2-3-1 as it will be 3v2 in the centre of the park, and the three man midfield will dominate the game…
    As for lack of talented midfielders, I completely disagree BUT Manchester united certainly are lacking a decent choice of midfield at the moment, looking at the squad the only player’s who can play in the centre of the park are: Carrick, Fletcher, Anderson, Scholes and Gibson… And questionably only one of those players has the ability to create scoring chances from nothing…

    1. I think its too easy to say that all things being equal 4321 will beat 442 every time.

      Don’t forget about full backs who can push on into midfield, and by its definition 4321 is a narrow formation while 442 can be spread quite wide.

      On United, there have been huge questions against United’s midfield for a few years now, which I think get covered over because they’re on top of the league.

      But at the highest level they just aren’t good enough.

  11. Liam says:

    I think it’s more down to the hugel frenetic pace that football is played at these days, coupled with defensive attitudes. There’s very few defenders in the Libero mould that are capable/comfortable on the ball, and those that are are chastised for the smallest mistakes.

    Attitudes, particularly in the EPL and Champions League mainly consist of defending resolutely, getting the ball out of danger areas as soon as possible and then into the attack. Central midfielders are often alienated with this approach and as such are accustomed to fluidity through the centre, more defensive positioning (Last night Carrick made four interceptions, Gibson one and Fletcher two) in order to win the ball back.

    There’s hope, however. Wilshere and McEachran certainly appear to be “ball players” rather than defensive operators…

    1. Couldn’t agree more about the defensive points you make Liam, and I see 4321 as an extension of that view.

  12. Formations are neutral they get their characteristics and philosophy from how they are applied. E.g. Roy Hodgson generally deploys his teams in a very rigid and conservative 442. whereas the 4231 the Wenger use at Arsenal is incredibly fluid and attacking.

    Also i fail to see how the midfield of say spain which can include any of Xavi, Iniesta, Alonso, Fabregas, Mata, Busquets etc is a result of the game going away from skilled players to more physical athletes.

    I’d say all those players are all less physical but far greater technicians than the likes of Keane, Davids, Robson and Souness.

    A retired player far more in the mold of those spanish players is pep guardiola who said this shortly before retiring
    “I haven’t changed…my skills haven’t declined. It’s just that football now is different. It’s played at a higher pace and it’s a lot more physical. The tactics are different now, you have to be a ball-winner, a tackler, like Patrick Vieira or Edgar Davids. If you can pass too, well, that’s a bonus. But the emphasis, as far as central midfielders are concerned, is all on defensive work…players like me have become extinct.”

    1. Cheers for the quote Kieran, I wish I had it before I wrote the article!

      I agree with you about formations getting their philosophy from the manager, but its there for all to see that the game in general is moving towards physicality in central midfield and away from players who can do everything.

      I named Xavi and Iniesta in the article as being the best two central midfielders in the world.

      I wouldn’t argue with you too much about Xavi and Iniesta being lesser physically that Keane and Souness or perhaps greater technically, but I would regard almost all the players mentioned as being what I would call great midfielders. For me they had everything.

  13. Ad says:

    I am so glad that others are starting to take notice of this issue. I completely agree, United’s midfield has been so average for a long time now.

    United need a couple of players in the middle of the park who not only have a footballing brain, but use it – regularly. It would be good if he wasn’t over the age of 36.

    United have relied on Scholes and Giggs for too long and for a club of United’s stature, it is unneccesary. United should have had ready made replacements in place a long time ago, but instead we’ve looked into trusting players that really are not nearly consistent enough or good enough to cut it at the highest level.

    Barca have Iniesta, Xavi and Busquets. United have Carrick, Fletcher and Gisbon. It’s a little embaressing!

    So often this season Ferguson has had to introduce Giggs and Scholes to rescue a match and that is not on.

    United are one of the biggest clubs in the World and should be competing – man for man – with the best.

    Against Marseille there was no creativity coming from Carrick, Gibson and Fletcher and there was little bite. United need creativity and bite if they are to win the Champions League and they just don’t have it right now.

    It hurts to say it, but back when Rooney was making suggestions that United ‘have lost it’, I’m starting to think the guy had a point.

    It’s not just a reacting to an uninspired performance, United’s midfield has been frail and out of ideas for a while.

    And I am so glad that I am not alone.

    1. You’re not alone Ad, “one of us, one of us” as they said in The Simpsons.

      1. PL says:

        I’m not a man united fan and I don’t know whether they are playing good or bad but they are at the top of the EPL table right now so they can’t be that bad.

        And they just won 4 against Wigan. I mean there are always better players that you want out there and the game is changing and you want to improve places that are not performing in the team but you don’t have to make Man U sound like they’re in dire straits right now.

        1. Ad says:

          They’re not in dire straights, but there comes a time in the season when you need creative players and players in the middle of the park that have a little bite that can provide a winning contribution in the big games.

          The Champions League is drawing to a close which means that the competition is getting fierce. Also, in the Premier League United have Chelsea coming up, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea again and in those games United have to be versatile and ruthless – something they just can’t be with their current midfield.

          What United don’t want is another footballing lesson which Barcelona provided in Rome in the 2009 Champions League Final.

          Carrick, Fletcher and Park were embarresingly exposed that night and although Barca’s midfield is widely regarded as one of the best the game has ever known, the class of United’s midfield shouldn’t be so far behind in terms of technical ability and in their ability to move the ball intelligently to the front men.

          I may be surprised. Perhaps the likes of Carrick and Fletcher will lead United to Champions League and Premiership glory, I just don’t see it. If United are to achieve anything it is to be their resilience at the back and firepower going forward, not the midfield.

  14. Sanjeev says:

    Very insightful article. I agree with you that midfielders are a dieing breed and I also agree that coaching is to blame.

    England has not produced a great midfild player in over 20 years. paul Scholes is the last and he can’t tackle which says a lot I think.

    1. Cheers Sanjeev,

      I would even go as far as to say that the last great midfielder the English game produced was Roy Keane. For me the Irishman is head and shoulders above Scholes, great as he is.

  15. Jim says:

    Good article. I think one of the most salient points is the lack of players who control the game bar the ones mentioned.

    They don’t need to be brilliant at everything (it helps) but they need to be able to take it off the defenders and help in attack as well.

    1. Glad you liked it Jim, its strange the way it has happened. One day every team had good midfielders, now they don’t.

      Its almost like the last 20 years happened in one day.

  16. Nick says:

    Good article but I think that you are being slightly pessimistic about the 4-2-3-1 formation. At it’s best, it can be incredibly fluid with many more passing options then 4-4-2 for a CM, as Barcelona can demonstrate perfectly. In the 4-2-3-1 formation, the most important player is the one in the middle of the 3. He is the centre-point for all the attacking threat. I think, that if used correctly, the 4-2-3-1 system could be far more interesting and attacking then 4-4-2. So many formations now only depend on how fluid the players are. Roy Hogdson’s Liverpool were completely rigid and that was the key reason why there were so bad.

    1. Cheers for the comment Nick,

      I think, that the formation and how the team plays depends upon the manager’s philosophy and how they see the game should be played.

      I mean, you can’t compare Wenger’s 4321 with Jose’s or Rafa’s, they all play differently.

      But the common ingredient is that players specialise in each team and really couldn’t play 442 at the highest level, bar the odd couple.

  17. Michael says:

    Great article.

    This season with Man United it seems like they haven’t been playing a certain formation consistently enough, switching far too often between 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 and in the case with the Marseille game Rooney was dropping so deep at times it looked like tey were playing a 4-5-1 formation. I assume when Valencia is fit they will play a 4-4-2 with him on the right and Nani on the left, add into that the possibility of Modric playing in the centre and maybe another centre midfielder, either Schweinstieger or De Rossi would be my recomendations and you’ve got a pretty solid midfield there.

    I think at some point every club will go through the stage of not having a great centre midfielder and unluckily for Man United it seems to be happening for them now.

    1. Ad says:

      Good call on the possible additions. I too would like to see Schweinstiger and De Rossi at Old Trafford.

      There is no telling whether either would work out, but I certainly feel they would impose themselves in the side alot more than Carrick does. At least I hope they would.

      I also like the look of Alexis Sanchez. I’m not sure either Bebe or Obertan are going to cut it and Sanchez is starting to look like a top player in Italy. With Nani, Sanchez and Valencia all fighting for a place on the flanks I think United will have enough pace and creativity to strike fear into Europe’s elite.

      This problem occured about 6 or 7 years ago. Keane had retired, Becks had left and United were failing to bring in ready made replacements. We had Liam Miller, Djemba-Djemba, Alan Smith, Kleberson, Veron and others who just failed to adjust and improve the team.

      I still have a feeling that Anderson has a bright future. I like him, but Ferguson only ever seems to introduce him late into games or hauls him off at the earliest opportunity, whilst leaving Carrick and Fletcher on.

      I’d guess that Fergie has more trust and belief in the latter two than he does for the Brazilian. Anderson is still young and given a full season in the middle of the park, I do think he can become the midfield maestro United have been craving.

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