The disappearance of the Midfield General in today’s game

When tactics and formations change so to can the conventional roles of certain positions on the pitch along with extra duties being assigned or certain positions becoming more specialised.

The holding midfielder, the 9 ½, sweeper keeper and attacking full backs are all roles that have come to prominence over the last number of years in the Premier League and have all evolved from what was required of them a number of years ago.

Just as new roles are introduced, some roles become redundant as tactics become more advanced. Players these days are asked to behave more like cogs in a well oiled machine and more as a collective than ever before.

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One of the main roles that was championed in the Premier League up until a few years ago was the Midfield General. This type of player was a representation of what the England’s top league marketed itself on.

Speed, power and a swashbuckling style of play. The Midfield General was a leader that was expected to drive the team forward while also putting out fires at the back.

Roy Keane, Patrick Vieira and Steven Gerrard are all prime examples of this type of all action player. Every top team had one, a stand out midfielder who would do it all, or at least try.

When the biggest teams squared off against each other their would always be a fierce battle between both Alpha midfielders, like two stags charging at each other, the winner of this battle could often determine the winner of the war.

This type of player has fallen out of favour with the newer generation of managers though as the game seems to become more intricate and more complex.

We still hear pundits use the phrase though from time to time. Arsenal up until this season were always lacking a Midfield General according to some of the lazier voices of authority we see and read daily.

Really they were just missing someone who could tackle at the base of their midfield and that could add some much-needed physicality.

When Lucas Torreira put in a few good performances it wasn’t long before he was being compared to Roy Keane. Keane was much more than a player who could just tackle though as we know.

Players such as Steven Gerrard for example, were tactically very good and had great positional sense but would they have fared as well playing in today’s game.

Gerrard isn’t that long finished at the top-level but even in the short spell that has passed since his best years at Liverpool a lot has changed.

Everything these days is measured to within an inch of its life while players are judged more and more on stats per game than individual moments of brilliance which can sometimes leave a distorted view of that player and his performance.

Gerrard’s pass completion rate and XG (expected goals) stats would have made for interesting reading.

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It’s probably one of the main reasons we see less of that type of player. Midfielders nowadays need to be functional and versatile while also able to play in a system were risks are calculated based on the movements and positions of the whole team and not just that individual’s position.

We still get all the skill, speed and power but it’s more planned and calculated than being totally off the cuff. Performing as part of a midfield three is more about the collective and facilitating the attack and defence together rather than the individual actions of one player.

You rarely get a player now whose job it is to break up play and make bursting runs into the box or score goals; it’s usually one or the other.

It also raises the question of how much better could some of these older players have been if they played in today’s system under the more modern managers.

I mentioned Gerrard earlier and how his stats might not have looked as good in today’s game, but if he had been coached by someone like Pep Guardiola then he would probably have operated solely as an attacking midfielder and would have scored a lot more goals than he did and provide a lot more assists (not that he didn’t score and supply plenty).

It’s a bit like when Rafa Benitez moved him out of the centre and on to the right-wing, resulting in Gerrard’s best goalscoring season in the league.

Benitez freed him of all his other responsibilities and focused him on one role instead of the multiple ones he had been juggling in the middle as the General.

Trends come and go in football as we know and it won’t be long before a new breed of managers come and reshape the way our game is played.

The days of two overly dominant midfielders squaring off against each other like Keane and Vieira used too are a thing of the past for now.

Midfield battles are more a game of cat and mouse rather than a clash of heavyweights.

The Author

Philip Flanagan

A West of Ireland based football writer/blogger. You can find me daily over at The Bottomless pit of football.

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