No, this isn’t an article bemoaning the tendency of players in the Premier League to pick up yellows for cynical fouls and diving, this article discusses the discipline of players concerning the role they have on the pitch; the increasingly unclear function each player has in the team.
Generally, football in England’s top tier has developed into a more attacking, fluid style recently, and with the change in strategy comes a change in player responsibilities. Alongside the traditional 4-4-2, that has been synonymous with England throughout history, player roles have transformed with the rising influence of foreign approaches.
I challenge you to name five players in the Premier League that fit the label of a ball-winning midfielder, a central midfielder whose priority is to close down the opposition and win the ball, before giving the ball to a more technically gifted and creative player. A selfless grafter who relishes regaining possession for his team; an occupation many players had in the past for England’s top teams, explicitly Roy Keane, Patrick Viera and Dietmar Hamann. All over the pitch players are abandoning defensive duties for a more offensive brand of football, a pattern leaving neutrals salivating and supporters wincing. I will consider whether this trend is having positive repercussions for the league while taking a look at the biggest culprits.
Cast your mind back to 2010, when the domineering Ivorian Yaya Toure first arrived in the Premier League, brought by the nouveau riche Citizens to protect a vulnerable back four, a defence that leaked an average of 51 goals a season over the three years prior to Toure’s entrance. Initially, the former Barcelona man helped to stem the flow of goals, as City conceded a mere 33 goals in his first term. For the majority of the season Toure was employed as the anchor man in the side, often described as ‘the Makelele role’, working tirelessly for his teammates. However, in his second season, that season, he began to slowly cut his tethers in the defensive midfield position and express himself in more offensive areas. The Ivorian brilliantly represents the point I am making: despite the position of defensive midfielder, Toure constantly strode forward to attack, delighting fans with his ability to fashion chances from brute strength and power, yet leaving them susceptible at the other end. Toure displayed his inability to concentrate for the entirety of the game with the task of holding midfielder, failing to exercise discipline and intelligence as he recklessly dashed forward game after game. Although he was effective, Toure’s keenness to attack was careless; something that I feel should be eradicated from today’s game in certain positions, particularly centre-back and defensive midfielder.
On the topic of forward thinking players, observe the current Chelsea team, a team littered with players who appear more concerned with scoring goals than conceding them. With the three amigos operating behind the lone frontman, Chelsea has an enviable array of attacking talent capable of destroying any defence. Therefore, Ramires and Mikel have the sole purpose of shielding the defence in a dual holding role, allowing players with the guile and flair of Eden Hazard, Oscar and Juan Mata to pull the strings. Yet, this is not the case, as both players frequently conjure lung bursting runs in support of their teammates in more advanced positions. As if that is not attacking enough, the full-backs Ashley Cole and Cesar Azpilicueta, or Dave to his mates, patrol the touchline, crossing the ball as often as they make an interception to assist their partners on the flank. Even at centre-half, a position that once had connotations with burly, no-nonsense skinheads, players like David Luiz are marauding forward in the name of fluid football. All of this attacking is having an adverse effect on Chelsea, who lay in 4th place, 22 points off the top. It is also reflecting badly on the league, (without trying to sound like a certain grumbling Scotsman) an average of 48 goals are conceded by each team every season.
On the contrary, there are exceptions to this trend, as players such as Lucas Leiva and Cheik Tiote demonstrate; the art of the ball-winning midfielder is not a dying one. In addition, some players represent an anomaly in the pattern, as players in advanced roles are assisting more in defensive areas of the pitch. One such player is Jack Wilshere, a playmaker who is equally adept at putting a foot in. He has been the stand out performer in Arsenal’s campaign; his enthusiasm and talent mean he has matured into a box to box midfielder while operating in the number 10 position, allowing him to influence the game more. Wilshere is not the only player to have made this transition, Moussa Dembele and Yohan Cabaye, of Tottenham and Newcastle, respectively, have developed their games to become a balanced player, capable of efficiently attacking and defending.
To conclude, the increasingly indistinct nature of player roles has resulted in a more exciting, fluid, attacking brand of football. Granted, this style is great to watch, but is it really the best way to play the game? I believe that attacking and defending should be divided within a side, four or five attackers and five or six defenders. The defenders should be determined to focus on not conceding, there should be no thought of attacking, and likewise for attackers defending. Sometimes players are overcome by greed and the prospect of hitting the headlines instead of exhibiting a level of discipline and concentration, something David Luiz feels free to demonstrate week in, week out. That said, the likes of Toure and Fellaini have helped their respected clubs to their best seasons in years running from deep in midfield.