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Focus on defensive midfielders

Holding a team together

July 8, 2010
By Richard Jolly

The 2006 World Cup may have been the tournament of the centre-back - Fabio Cannavaro in particular - but also of defenders in general. However, 2010 seems the year of the holding midfielder. They are multiplying, too abundant for the liking of the exponents of free-flowing football, but an essential component of each of the successful sides in South Africa.

Mark van Bommel leads the celebrations at the final whistle
GettyImagesMark van Bommel has played an important role for Netherlands.

Theirs is an essentially unglamorous role; these are the damage-limitation experts, operating with a minimum of fuss. But amid the inquests into the underachievement of leading creative talents such as Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Franck Ribery and Kaka, the midfield anchormen merit a chapter: they restrict space, regain possession, frustrate and irritate.

They do so without even the benefit their predecessors enjoyed of being able to scythe numerous opponents down before incurring the disapproval of the referees (well, all apart from Mark van Bommel, anyway). Some have done it efficiently, and Van Bommel rather more cynically, but they are the common denominator in the sides who have progressed; fine defensive records cannot be attributed solely to defenders.

A shortage of goals suggested Spain were insufficiently attacking by playing two holding midfielders and a third player, in Xavi, who often dropped in alongside them. Halting Mesut Ozil's previously serene progress was justification; so, too, are the statistics. Xavi has completed more passes than any other player in the World Cup, followed by Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets. Retaining the ball automatically restricts opponents.

Theirs is a particularly Spanish slant on the job, though Rafael Marquez's astute distribution was a feature of the Mexican game. Others have adopted a more conventional approach. The precocious Anthony Annan cemented a reputation as the new Michael Essien with his forcefulness in the Ghanaian cause. The ultra-disciplined Yuki Abe prospered for Japan. Paraguay and Uruguay possessed players of limited attacking intent but limitless commitment, patrolling the area in front of the defence and Egidio Arevalo was especially influential for Oscar Tabarez's team.

So, too, has been the persistent irritant Van Bommel. Perhaps only Wesley Sneijder has enjoyed a better tournament for Holland. While their surge into the final was aided by Bert van Marwijk's decision to replace the more negative Demy de Zeeuw with Rafael van der Vaart at the interval against Uruguay, their previous progress owed much to the axis of Nigel de Jong and Van Bommel.

Policemen guarding the back four, they have been the antidote to talk of Total Football. In a role where positional awareness is of paramount importance, it is surprising, therefore, that the outstanding example has been set by a new convert. Two years ago, Bastian Schweinsteiger was on the wing; two months ago, he was earmarked to be the more attacking of the central midfielders. Michael Ballack's absence changed that but, by taking a step backwards on the pitch, the Bayern Munich player has made a huge advance in his career, seemingly gravitating to the major role.

He has proved both destructive and constructive, as his waltz through the Argentinean defence to set up Arne Friedrich's goal in the quarter-finals showed. A comparative newcomer to a specialist position, Schweinsteiger made it look all too easy.

While Germany's excellence has been aided by him, some of the more undistinguished exits from the World Cup are notable for the failings, or the complete lack, of holding midfielders. Argentina's Javier Mascherano is among the finest but, without support, he was hopelessly outnumbered when the Germans advanced. Shorn of Esteban Cambiasso, it was an eminently avoidable error from Diego Maradona, who ignored the Inter Milan player.

Gareth Barry
GettyImagesGareth Barry: A regular under Capello

English unfamiliarity with the role and its duties were apparent as Ozil eluded a semi-fit Gareth Barry at will (is it any coincidence that England's leading practitioner, Owen Hargreaves, was schooled in Germany?). Andrea Pirlo, the outstanding anchor man of the last World Cup, was limited to 35 minutes in this. As a deep-lying playmaker, the Italian is far more creative than many of his counterparts and his cameo against Slovakia almost contained enough invention to save Italy.

France, meanwhile, missed the more athletic Lassana Diarra though, given the number of other problems they fashioned for themselves, it would be wrong to pretend that was the sole cause of their embarrassing elimination.

Many of the holding midfielders have excelled in harness with likeminded players; it is one of the merits of the 4-2-3-1 system. It didn't take Brazil to the sixth World Cup many expected, but that was due to a failure of temperament rather than tactics.

While Gilberto Silva was a model of understated effectiveness, his supposed accomplice was not: Felipe Melo threatened to be sent off against Portugal and was dismissed against Holland, by which point he had played an unfortunate role in each of the Dutch goals. Indeed, he lacked the one element that, above all others, the holding midfielders have brought: control.