In one of my previous articles I talked about the evolution of tactics and how it has changed to having a single forward with an overloaded midfield for possession. Nowadays, players play to exact specific positions. Attacking full back or holding defensive midfield player. Specific positions that carry specific instructions and a specific skill set. Managers now drill down to the finest detail of a player to ensure they maximise the player’s full potential in any certain area of the pitch.
For instance, you wouldn’t play a slow, tough tackling midfielder as an attacking full back. So I suppose the point I’m getting at is, players are now coached or designed to play specific roles in certain formations. I did point out how Liverpool had changed recently to an old-fashioned front pairing.
Now, this gives Liverpool some problems. Rodgers emphasis is getting the ball back but, with two players up front, it’s harder to press the opposition. When they played with three up front, they could press the centre backs and full backs. But Rodgers has sacrificed that area of play for the chance of more goals and so far so good. There has also been a lot of talk about Steven Gerrard’s position recently. Playing in the double pivot alongside Lucas, many suggest Gerrard doesn’t have the legs to be an out-and-out midfielder anymore. And that made me think, you never really hear of a box to box midfielder any more do you? Gerrard was one and so was Lampard. Roy Keane was a pure box to box midfielder as was Viera. But now midfielders are either holding players or attacking players.
Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla, Philippe Coutinho, Christian Eriksen, Juan Mata, Oscar and Samir Nasri all attacking midfielders who don’t really have any real defensive duties or defensive mind sets for that matter. Then you have the likes of Victor Wanyama, Ramires, Fernandinho, Lucas, Mathieu Flamini, Sandro and Cheick Tiote. These players are there to break up the oppositions play and passing rhythm. Intercept the ball and give it to their attacking colleagues for a quick transition. But it is quite rare to see a midfield that not only can do both of these disciplines but also enjoys it. The role of just a box to box midfielder comes natural to them. The two players who stick out in my mind are Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson and Southampton’s Adam Lallana.
Before I continue, I’d like to point out to Greg Dyke, Danny Mills and the gang that both these players are English, eligible to travel to Rio and are keeping top talented team-mates on the bench. Lallana is keeping Uruguayan Gaston Ramirez on the bench and Henderson is fending off competition from Victor Moses and Joe Allen amongst others. The reason why these two players are playing week in week out and keeping team-mates on the bench, well they are all round box to box midfielders.
Fiercely ridiculed since his arrival at Anfield, Henderson this season is beginning to show a level of consistency that must put him in contention for a seat on the plane to Rio. Henderson has gone from over-priced, headless youngster to a strong energetic and consistent box to box midfielder. Like Gerrard, Henderson was on the receiving end of bizarre rant by some old geezer who released a book recently. Anyway, Henderson has had many critics since his arrival at Liverpool, none more so than me. In his first year at the club he looked like a lost little boy. Always so nervous and every pass was horizontal and never progressive. He would never shoot on goal and often looked to the sideline when a substitute was being made. The biggest sign for a player lacking in confidence is when a substitute is being made and he looks up presuming it will be him. Henderson did this every single game. In the last two years I have seen a big improvement in his game, especially this season. He said this recently about current manager, Brendan Rodgers:
The manager has put a lot of faith in me. It gives me confidence. He’s improved my game since he came to Liverpool which I am very thankful for. There were a few areas that the manager and I spoke about to improve on. I went away and did what he said and I’ll carry on doing so.
The young midfielder has started every game so far this season and is showing what a good player he has become. Recently against West Brom, Henderson successfully completed 40 of 48 passes attempted. The majority of these passes coming in the oppositions half. He covers more areas of the field than any other player on his team. What I noticed about Henderson before were the poor angles he took up when looking to receive a pass. I also noticed his body shape when receiving passes. It was always very flat, and never allowed the move to flow. He would take too long on the ball and his body shape wouldn’t allow him to advance or play an advance pass with the ball, hence just passing left and right.
This year however, he is demanding the ball in all types of situations. He is linking up with Suarez and Sturridge with one touch football and now, when receiving the ball, he is able to let the ball roll across his body, adjust his position and feet, and keep the move going forward. This year we are beginning to see why Liverpool paid the money for him. Under Rodgers tutelage, Henderson is becoming a complete midfielder. The only thing he may lack now is goals but again, with his new-found confidence, that will soon come. But what he does give Liverpool now is energy to press, energy to get back in position, energy to break the oppositions defensive line with deep runs and his passing has improved dramatically. He is by no means the finished article and he will admit that himself. But he is a box to box midfielder. He can get up and down and now with his passing improving and positional sense, he is what a midfielder is all about.
Adam Lallana, the Southampton captain, is flying under the radar this season. His team has the best defensive record in the league and they currently sit fifth in the league with only three goals conceded. Lallana is a major part of his team’s recent success. He has grown as a player under the guidance of Argentine Maurico Pochettino. He is a home-grown player, captain of his club, two goals this season and is keeping Uruguayan international, Gaston Ramirez out of the side.
One of the main reasons he is keeping him out of the team is his ability to press high and quickly when his team don’t have the ball. Pochettino has imposed the pressing style on the Saints and no one does it better than Lallana. He also doesn’t shy away from defensive duties and to date, has pitched in with two goals. To put it simply, he is a more all-round midfielder than Ramiez. Lallana against Fulham on the weekend, made sixty passes with fifty-two of them being successful. Twenty of those successful passes where in the attacking third with thirty successful passes in the middle of the park. Although starting on the left of an attacking three, Lallana moves all over the pitch in a fluid midfield structure. He has very good feet and is very calm and cultured on the ball. Like Henderson under Rodgers, Lallana has improved greatly as a player under his new manager. He has added precise passing and intelligent movement with his all-round energy and pressing ability. He has started every game this season and is one of the first names on the team sheet I would imagine. After Southampton’s 2-0 win over Swansea in early October, Pochettino had this to say about Lallana getting an England call up:
It’s not my decision in the end, but if he keeps performing as he did today he’ll be actually very close to getting that call up to the national side. His performance has been amazing over the last few games.
With modern-day midfielders, as I mentioned before, you have a specific job. Players like Nasri are asked to play between the lines, play incisive passes and become compact when they don’t have the ball. Holding midfielders, like Wanyama, are told to protect the back four, intercept passes and play quick passes forward for better attacking transition. If you go back even ten years ago, a midfielder was asked to do everything. Run, tackle, defend, attack, pass well, win aerial battles and cover team mates. What happens in today’s game is, yes ok we are trying to produce more intelligent and technically advanced players but, by doing this we are honing their skills to a specific position or area of the field, thus pigeon holding them. It is an area of youth development we must be careful of. We must not groom players just to have certain qualities or certain responsibilities.
England, and the other home nations, are hoping to produce these technically gifted attacking players but they only need look at Lallana and Henderson to see they have two home-grown and all-round midfield players right under their nose. Both players technically sound and are currently being educated on how to play certain styles and systems by their managers. In our search for new ways of playing, new styles of play and new types of players, we must not forget that sometimes and old school player with old school abilities can be productive in the modern game.