Few positions have undergone such dramatic developments in the modern era as that of the defensive midfielder. Once a role largely neglected across Europe, the concept of the midfield anchor has become central to contemporary tactical thinking.
Real Madrid and Chelsea’s Claude Makélélé wasn’t the game’s first defensive midfielder, but he was the player who made the position his own and has demonstrated the importance and value of the holding role during his long and distinguished career.
Since Makélélé’s heyday under Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, the nature of defensive midfield players has appeared to diversify, the role accommodating players with a far wider range of styles and skill sets. No better was this illustrated than yesterday when, during the Chelsea/Arsenal and Real Madrid/Deportivo La Coruña games, we saw the full spectrum of modern defensive midfielders in the shape of John Obi Mikel, Sami Khedira and Xabi Alonso.
John Obi Mikel
Michael Cox over at Zonal Marking recently put forward a theory that viewed Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets as a “modern centre-half”, essentially a deep-lying midfielder taking his role to its defensive extremities. Against Atletico Madrid last month Busquets spent the majority of his time as a third centre back, playing alongside Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique in order to allow the Barcelona full-backs to get forward more freely.
Mikel, as he showed in Chelsea’s win over Arsenal yesterday afternoon, is a very similar player to Busquets. Although he may not drop between the centre-backs quite as regularly as the Barcelona man, his role is exclusively a defensive one as he is expected to break up opposition attacks and hold position in order for Chelsea to keep shape when out of possession and, perhaps more importantly, when with the ball.
Mikel’s role is nothing new or revolutionary, we have seen other players perform the same functions in the past, but him and Busquets are perfect examples of the concept of the defensive midfielder taken to its defensive boundaries. They are more Makélélé than Makélélé himself and absolutely vital to the tactical make-up of their respective teams.
Real Madrid’s 6-1 thrashing of Deportivo last night may not have called upon the talents of Los Blancos’ defensive midfielders too often, but summer signing Sami Khedira was particularly influential to the pace and shape of Madrid’s play before being rested and replaced by Lassana Diarra at half-time.
Forming part of the ‘2’ of Jose Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1 alongside Xabi Alonso, Khedira was the slightly more advanced of the pair and was the crucial link between the defence and attack, setting the rhythm with 45 passes in the first half alone.
Where John Obi Mikel represents the most defensive of midfielders, Khedira is a very different player altogether despite sharing the “holding” tag with the Nigerian. A hybrid of the defensive and box-to-box types of midfield player, Khedira is the ballast in Real Madrid’s system, the man who prevents the formation from getting top heavy as well as ensuring that the front four do not become isolated from the back six.
The German international is also charged with the responsibility of shackling opposition playmakers and tracking runs from deep in order the shield the centre-backs from being overrun.
Khedira, not a traditional holding player in the defensive sense, has to balance both attacking and defensive duties which are vital to the coherence of his team’s system. It is not an easy job, but it’s one the former Stuttgart player, with his very rounded and complete skill set, fulfils to good effect.
Alonso, one of the finest distributors in the European game, performs a fascinating role for Real Madrid, acting – as he did at Liverpool – as both the ball-winning defensive midfielder and a deep-lying creative outlet.
Playing alongside Khedira in front of the back four (although slightly deeper than the German), Alonso is arguably more of an exceptionally deep Regista than a regular holding midfielder. Although less prone to get forward than a player like Andrea Pirlo, Alonso performs a similar function to the Italian as he sits at the base of the midfield and drives his team forward with his unparalleled range of passing.
Equally adept when out of possession, Alonso is superb at breaking up opposition attacks and winning the ball back for his team. Where Khedira is the literal and direct link between defence and attack, Alonso is the architect who creates the space and time for those linkages to be made. With that being the case, Alonso’s role is difficult to define as he is both a ruggedly effective ball-winner and a sublime creative midfielder.
As with Mikel and Khedira, the Spaniard is yet more evidence of the diversification of the concept of the defensive midfielder, the most varied and developmental position in modern football.