Football Tactics For Beginners:The Box to Box Midfielder

The Box to Box Midfielder and its decline.

The Box to Box Midfielder

The Box to Box midfielder is a term which is used to describe a midfielder who influences or impacts the game at both the ends of the pitch. This type of midfielders generally possess high stamina,energy and the ability to go on lung bursting runs through the middle of the park. Arturo Vidal and Yaya Toure come to mind when one thinks of players having such quality,although both of them play more refined roles for their clubs.

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 their heyday , 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 has been replaced(in most cases) by 4-2-3-1 as the most popular formation in the english top-flight ,where does this leave the latest generation of 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 partnerships throughout 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?  Other forwards will be asked to drop into the trequartista role, or pushed out onto the wings.

The other positions in midfield are the two defensive midfielders, positioned in front of the back four. But will they both be asked to perform the same role?  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, Matic 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.

 There are players on these shores which already specialise in this position, but they are quite rare. Brendan Rodgers seems to have succeeded in converting Steven Gerrard to one.

Players such as Michael Carrick, Tom Huddlestone would all suit this role particularly well. But most interesting, in my view, is the players who like Pirlo would suit a conversion from attacking midfielder to deep-lying playmaker.

It used to be said that many a foreign import didn’t adapt to the premiership – the example of Veron springs 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?

Although,the double pivot in the 4-2-3-1 rarely accommodates a box to box midfielder,slight tactical tweaks to the system allows such players to strive. Yaya Toure and Fernandinho both like to drive through to the penalty box and they have been given the freedom to,whether this tactic will be successful against the big sides and whether Pellegrini will allow them that freedom remains to be seen. The diamond which Prandelli employs for Italy also allows for such a player. So the box to box midfielder might not be totally extinct,but certainly its more rarer than ever.

-Tom Nash & Ritesh Gogineni

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