In English football, some of the most celebrated players in recent history have been the dynamic box-to-box midfielders. Typified by Lampard and Gerrard in recent times, their place in English hearts is secure. These players are seen as the heartbeat or engine room of a team. We here in Britain have historically placed more emphasis on physicality, strength and stamina over technical skill and tactical awareness. But seeing as the 4-4-2 is set to be replaced by 4-2-3-1 as the most popular formation in the english top-flight (It was a close second last year, but there has been two 4-4-2 teams relegated, and two 4-2-3-1 sides promoted from the championship) – what does this mean for our lung-busting, grass-covering box-to-box midfielders?
As the British game plays tactical catch-up with the continent, one of the more interesting changes we’ll see is the way the midfield is structured. If we assume 4-2-3-1, or variations thereof, to be the formation used with most success, then the traditional “box-to-box” midfielder so highly prized in English football is on the way out. Midfielders will be arranged into more specialised roles. Of the three attacking midfielders, one will be in the trequartista role, behind a lone front man, and the other two will be wingers, or converted strikers in the case of Wayne Rooney, David Villa, and Dirk Kuyt. These players are rarely required to track back and help the team defend – although in Rooney’s case it’s often hard to stop him.
Packing the midfield with five midfielders has long been accused of being defensive in England, but this is not the case where three of those midfielders have such attacking roles. Yes, the two wingers will be put under pressure by opposition attacking full-backs, but at the same time, they’ll be supported going forward by their own full-backs, who will provide width allowing the wingers to play almost as old-style inside forwards, as they drift towards the goal area.
The other two of the five midfielders, in contrast, will not be required to charge forward to join attacks as central midfielders in 4-4-2 formations have previously had to. Depending on the opposition, these players will either be defensive midfielders such as Mascherano, Van Bommel, De Rossi; or deep lying playmakers in the mould of Andrea Pirlo.
The question that a lot of English football managers will have to face is – If I’ve build a squad around 4-4-2, how do my players now fit into this new system. For the defenders, there’s no real change – still a back four, full backs will still build partnerships with wingers, and central defenders will still do what they’ve always done. Up front, the 4-4-2 has produced some cracking parterships thoughout the years. The “big-man / little-man” combo has worked so well – good examples are Heskey and Owen, Beardsley and Rush, Crouch and Defoe. The new formations currently being played with success generally feature one striker up front. So there will be decisions about which player is able to lead the line on their own – will it have to be the big man? Andy Carroll looks like he’ll play that role for Liverpool, but a natural finisher such as Javier Hernandez can’t be asked to play anywhere but closest to the goal for Manchester United, surely? Other forwards will be asked to drop into the trequartista role, or pushed out onto the wings. I can think of players such as Van Persie in contention for a place with players such as Samir Nasri – forwards being asked to drop back, and midfielders being asked to push up – vying for the same position effectively.
The other positions in midfield are the two defensive midfielders, positoned in front of the back four. But will they both be asked to perform the same role? I think it’s a step too far for the fans of the Premierleague to watch teams lining up with effectively more than half the outfield players lining up on defensive duties. Instead, I think that we’ll see this partnership being comprised in a similar way to some of the great central midfield partnerships produced from the 4-4-2. Keane and Scholes, Makelele and Zidane, Simeone and Veron. All parings of two distinctly different players. One for defensive duties, and one for attacking. So, in order to function properly, a 4-2-3-1 must also have a similar partnership at its heart. A defensive midfielder in the Makelele role – players like Flamini, van Bommel, Hargreaves (when fit – and wherever he ends up!) and Mascherano. The other player must look to link defense and attack. This player will take up a deep lying role, working alongside a player who will win the ball off the opposition and then pass it five or ten yards to his more creative partner – then he will put his head up, and look for the runs of his team-mates. Much like a quarter-back in American Football.
Perhaps the best example of a deep-lying playmaker is indeed one that was converted from trequartista – Andrea Pirlo. He perhaps even deserves to have the position named after him.
Pirlo, of course, has the benefit of playing with one of the best ball-winners in the game – Gennaro Gattuso. It’s a very simple system – Gattuso or one of the back four wins the ball from the opposition, and then gives it to Pirlo. Pirlo has excellent vision and awareness – his team mates know this, so as soon as he gets the ball they set off on runs, trying to get into a bit of space to get the ball, they know Pirlo can make that pass.
There are players on these shores which already specialise in this position, but they are quite rare – why do you think Liverpool were so keen to get their hands on Charlie Adam? I’ll tell you why – because they shouldn’t have sold Xabi Alonso, that’s why.
Players such as Michael Carrick, Tom Huddlestone, Joey Barton (Again, wherever he ends up) and Jack Rodwell would all siut this role particularly well. But most interesting, in my view, is the players who like Pirlo would suit a conversion from attcking midfielder to deep-lying playmaker.
Ryan giggs is one of those who has already made the switch – in order to prolong his career, he’s swapped bombing up and down the wing for a more withdrawn role. As the quarterback position doesn’t necessarily involve a lot of movement whilst on the ball, or a lot of chasing and tracking when not in position, this job would suit a lot of players coming into their thirties. Players such as the aforementioned Gerrard and Lampard might be able to make the switch in this coming season or the next, although it has to be said that there is some question whether either player would have the necessary discipline required to sit back and dictate play, rather than get forward and join in. Lampard in particular glories in holding onto the ball in an attempt to finish a move himself – or looking to play one-twos for the same reason. The main attributs needed for a successful deep-lying playmaker are vision, creativity and the ability to execute the pass once spotted.
It used to be said that many a foreign import didn’t adapt to the premiership – the example of Veron psrings to mind. If the English Premiership had been more tactically advanced I’m sure he would have been a far greater success. Maybe we just weren’t ready for him?
Since the watershed moment of the 2010 World Cup disaster for England, it has become the case that the Premiership will adapt itself to accomodate these players, rather than trying to shoe-horn them into a 4-4-2. As I said earlier, the continent is still advanced with regard to tactics compared to the premiership – that’s why players such as Nuri Sahin at Real Madrid, Arturo Vidal at Bayer Leverkusen (just snapped up by Juventus) are so highly thought of, and snapping at their heels ready to make a big money move are players such as Steven Defour at Standard Liege, Moussa Sissoko at Toulouse, and Joao Moutinho at Porto.
Terrific article, great insight into the advancement of tactics, but there is one glaring error I can’t help but correct.
Andrea Pirlo has signed for Juventus.
To this day, I can’t figure out why Rafael Benitez wanted to sell Xabi Alonso in order to try and bring Gareth Barry in. Baffling stuff from Rafa. A world class deep-lying playmaker for an average centre midfielder? Then when he turns them down for Manchester City, they wait 2 years before spending £30m on 2 other average midfielders (Jordan Henderson and Charlie Adam).
One box-to-box midfielder I can think of is Anderson of Manchester United. Originally playing a position known in his native country as a “meia” (attacking midfielder), Sir Alex Ferguson signed him and immediately dropped him back to a role known in Brazil as a “volante”, where he has had to develop/improve defensive skills like marking, tackling, and general covering.
This coming season will be massive for him: with the departure of Paul Scholes (and Owen Hargreaves!), the continued aging of Ryan Giggs, the mystery illness of Darren Fletcher, and the lack of experience of Tom Cleverley, Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison, he will be playing many more games than in previous seasons. He has shown that when given a run of games, he can deliver the goods, especially last season where he was scoring a goals and generally being a menace at one end and helping out immensely in the defensive area of the field.
Depending on how well he performs individually and how United perform on the whole, it might not be the death of the box-to-box midfielder afterall.
What about the formation of Barcelona? If they are to devolop their game another step, wich is likely, they are probely going to inspire many teams to play as they do. In their formation there are two box-to-box players. And they have also been good at devolping good box-to-box, in recent years, players in Barcelona. Xavi, Iniesta, Thiago(higly likely to be a world class player), maybee Cesc can also be included.
Maybee in the next years managers will be faced with the question, 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. If Barcelonas sucess continues, I am almost sure that more teams will support the idea of 4-3-3 and that will not lead to a death of box-to-box players.
When mentioning Rodwell as a fit in the new mold of deep positioned playmakers, how on earth are you able to leave out Wilshere? I think there is noone who fufilled that role better than him on English turf during the 10/11 season
I would not say Barcelona are playing 2 box-to-box midfielders. They rather have 1 holding and 2 playmakers, effectively making their formation close to a 2-1-4-3, as their fullbacks mostly are up on side of Xavi / Iniesta. What diferenciates Barcelona from English teams, is their quality in passing, and their skills at pressing when disposessed. But their pressing game also leaves them more fatigued at the end of matches, as can be seen against Arsenal both 09/10 and 10/11
I’ll try and get through all the comments here in one fell swoop!
Bill – he’s still got the rabid Gattuso when turning out for the Azzuri! (You buying that??)
Great point about Anderson – we may well see the best of him this season.
Anonymous #1 – I agree with Anonymous #3. I don’t see Xavi and Iniesta as box-to-box midfielders. Busquests and the back four take care of defense. I did not mention Barcelona in this article as they don’t play the 4-2-3-1, and that was the direction the piece moved in as I was writing; but they are still in my mind further evidence of the death of box-to-box midfielders. And not every team (Actually NO team) has a midfield pair like them – so a system has been evolved around them with another defensive midfielder doing those duties for them. Sure they may break up some plays, but that’ll most likely be through interceptions – neither is a renowned tackler.
Anonymous #2 Yes, there are a few others who I could have mentioned, Wilshire being probably foremost amongst them.
Thanks for the comments everyone!
Reading this article just after Scholes’s testimonial brings tears into my eyes on the thought that we are not going to see such a technically gifted englishman for a long time.
Our only hope is Wilshire!
Glad someone else has mentioned Anderson, means I can make this a short one.
Yep it’s interesting that in this age of split midfields he’s a rarity, a box-to-boxer who’s good offensively and defensively. He’s had more than his fair share of stick for not being ‘world class’ by the age of 4, and I think after this season people will eat their words. He was excellent in the Community Shield and showed similar form in patches last season. If we don’t sign Sneijder he’ll surely play 30+ games in the league.
Pep Guardiola is trying to implement 3-4-3.. he’s also placing busquets and mascherano in the heart of defense.. but unluckily, injury has taken its toll on the team..
looking into the premier league as a whole, there are players like scott parker, luka modric, meireles, cleverley, wilshere (both unlucky to be injured) etc who could possibly define the whole season for their respective teams.. as seen from the matches, Arsenal are the ones missing wilshere, and Manchester United are also missing cleverley..
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