This development can be contrasted with the situation five to fifteen years ago, the age of the powerful defensive midfielder. This was personified by the likes of Patrick Vieira and Edgar Davids, who used their speed and power to intercept passes, with the simple technical task of recycling possession to a teammate once they have to ball to start a new counter attack. There will of course always be demand for such players due to their obvious suitability to the role, explaining why players like Sergio Busquets currently hold down this position for world-class teams such as Barcelona.
The transition currently taking place can be normatively explained in light of Barcelona. Over the past five years, teams across Europe have decided to follow trend-setters Barcelona by retaining possession and playing the ball out from the back, with the emphasis upon controlling games and waiting for the opposition to make mistakes due to tiredness. This has of course led to unprecedented success of Guardiola’s Barcelona, and has meant other teams, initially La Liga sides, had to adapt to be more organised in order to restrict the threat of being progressively sliced open through tika-taka football. The use of inverted wide midfielders also sprouted from Barcelona’s influence: an Andres Iniesta figure who can thread a pass through the eye of a needle is currently preferable to a Keith Gillespie of yesteryear, who can fly down the wing and deliver a deadly cross. That trend is alone worth writing about.
As the more advanced teams loosely followed the passing style of Barcelona, less technical sides have countered this problem by defending using two banks of four. Such tactics are personified by the current Sunderland squad led by Martin O’Neill and England manager Roy Hodgson during the European Championships. Chelsea’s champions league semi-final performance against Barcelona themselves provides a perfect example of this system used during a single game. Although a very good team with excellent players, they knew they were no match for Barcelona’s intense passing game and rightly decided not to fight fire with fire. All of these teams were aware at the time that the best way to maximise their potential and get a result from games against more technical opponents was to find themselves difficult to break down. To their credit this has worked reasonably well, particularly for Chelsea who went on to win the Champions League that season.
Defensive organisation as rigorous as this has encouraged another trend. It has also led to the use of small, technical defensive midfielders. These players are seen as an ideal counterbalance to the threat of intricate through balls and small, skilful attackers, whilst being technically gifted. It is now more important than ever that these holding midfielders possess strong technical ability, in order to deal with the increasingly common use of high pressure put upon teams with possession of the ball in their own half. Having smaller, more talented holding midfielder means that teams find it easier to distribute the ball quickly and accurately from the back. Xabi Alonso of Real Madrid, Mikel Arteta of Arsenal and Lucas Leiva of Liverpool are all useful examples of how the top teams have adapted to these changing trends in European football. These players are all currently seen as indispensible by the respective clubs, and for good reason.
However, as a result of such strict organisation and the adoption of smaller holding midfielders, a new type of player has re-emerged – the use of powerful attacking midfielders. This new generation of playmaker has been deployed behind the strikers in order to quickly blast through smaller and more organised opposition with minimal fuss. They are particularly useful when counter-attacks are needed to finish a team off, as they often have the leg span to outpace tired defenders.
At 6 ft. 2, Moussa Sissoko’s sensational performance against Chelsea ten days ago affirmed this new trend. His two goals on the counter attack, clever through balls to Papiss Cisse and his expeditious, powerful runs shifted the balance of play almost single handedly. Sissoko was seen at his very best in two particular moves against Chelsea from either wing. He tore past world-class full back Ashley Cole on the right hand side to release a shot and force a corner kick, and feinted his way past an equally powerful Branislav Ivanovic on the left hand side to release another shot on target, albeit a tame one on that occasion. It is no surprise then that Alan Pardew admitted after the game that Newcastle would not have won against Aston Villa or Chelsea had it not been for his new star player.
Yet players such as Sissoko have not only came to the fore over the past month, they have been on the rise since at least the start of last season. The use of fast, powerful attacking midfielders have been used elsewhere to great success. A recent example is the superb Miguel Michu, who has scored 16 goals in 29 games in all competitions and is 6 ft. 1. Michu was so successful in the number 10 role behind the likes of Danny Graham that he has now replaced Graham as their key centre forward in order to maximise his goal-scoring threat. Within the Premier League there is also Mourane Fellaini of Everton, who is having his most productive season to date with 10 goals in 20 league games, playing behind Nikita Jelavic and/or Victor Anichebe and stands at a towering 6 ft. 4 ½. Both Michu and Fellaini have also proved the usefulness of their size when making late runs into the box and scoring headed goals regularly.
Yaya Toure (current African Footballer of the Year) could also easily be categorised as a product of this trend at 6 ft. 3, although Roberto Mancini does not always use him in this way. He excelled in this position however against a defensively well-organised Newcastle United last season that Manchester City had struggled to break down for the best part of an hour – two Yaya Toure goals later after Mancini switched Toure into the number 10 role and City were in with a chance of claiming the Premier League title for the first time.
Moreover, as powerhouse attacking midfielders are a relatively developing trend in football, their valuations have not yet inflated – Sissoko and Michu both cost within the region of £2 million. At a hefty £24 million Yaya Toure is rightly seen as a more expensive example, but he was used predominantly by Barcelona as an effective defensive midfielder at the time. Overall the rise of the powerhouse trequartista could be the first step that leads to a shift away from some of the more technical elements of football developed by Barcelona towards a more direct and physical style of play across European football.