The future defensive midfielder

July 2017, rumors swirled that Barcelona were considering bidding 100 million euros for Italian superstar Marco Verratti. Los Blaugrana saw Verratti as Andrés Iniesta’s natural heir.

“Is he your successor?” Asked Blaise Matuidi Iniesta after the French club defeated the Catalonians by 4-0 in the knockout match of the Champions League.

“Yes, I think so,” replied Iniesta.

In the years 2008 to 2012, Marco Verratti played for the Italian club, Pescara. The young lad started as an offensive midfielder, an advanced playmaker. But when former Roma coach Zdenek Zeman joined the club in the summer of 2011, Verratti was re-positioned down to Andrea Pirlo position. Verratti played as “a” Pirlo. He became a regista, as they say in Italy, or as the dictionary defines it – a “producer”. People started talking about him and were also nicknamed “The Owl from Manoppello – because of his delicate and intelligent look for the game.

And just the intelligent look of the game is what defines a defensive midfielder today.

Xavi said; “without Busquets, Barcelona and Spain could never have achieved what we have achieved”.

The former Arsenal legend, Patrick Viera, thus said; “the role of the defensive midfielder has changed. In the past it was just about protecting the back four, but now you are asked to do everything: score goals, make assists and defend. Intelligence is the right word for this position”.

It is arguably the most important position in football. During the past years, it has been referred to as the holder, defensive midfielder, deep-lying playmaker and in Argentina they call it the number 5, while they in Portugal call it as “trinco” or “pivot”.

For most coaches around the world it is the “number 6” role and without one, the quality teams struggle to maintain the control of the game. The no. 6 has vitally important functions. When in possession he must link the defensive line with the midfield and know when to transfer the ball from back to front and side to side.

Now it is almost established what a defensive midfielder is and was in the good old days. But I want to explain to you the two types of defensive midfielders we see in recent times.

Defensive midfielder – the ball winner

The playing careers of Roy Keane, Edgar Davids and Gennaro Gattuso were beginning to fade from the collective footballing memory – the rise of deep lying playmakers largely responsible – but the battling ball-winning midfielder is beginning to make a comeback, and e.g. in the Premier League there is players like Granit Xhaka, Jefferson Lerma etc. While in the Bundesliga, Dortmund’s Danish destroyer Thomas Delaney is leading the charge of this kind of defensive midfielder (see the clip).

The characteristics of a so-called “destroyer” are;

       Placed in front of the defence

       Wins the ball back with tackles and interceptions

       Covers teammates when they go forward

       Physically fit and tenacious

       Often defensive minded

Their main job is to break the oppositions play. Rely mainly on ability to read the game as well as good tackling. They are generally strong in nature. However, it is not necessary as a CDM with a smaller stature can be combative as well. A player who was skilled at these characteristics is Javier Mascherano (see the clip – minute 1.25 – 2.45)

Defensive midfielder – the ball winner

“It’s Thiago or nothing,” so said Guardiola on taking up the reins at Bayern in the summer of 2013. The current Manchester City coach got his man, and the Bavarians have been reaping the rewards ever since.

The characteristics for a good deep-lying playmaker is;

  • Placed in front of the defence
  • Creative playmaker from deep
  • Distributes to teammates, near and far
  • Set the team’s tempo
  • Good technical skills

Here we see how Thiago places himself on the blind side of the pressure, the body posture and orientation before receiving ball. Note that he is pointing with his hands and indicating that he wants the ball while scanning the open space opposite the ball side.

The game has changed a lot, from the time Gennaro Gattuso was a defensive general to today, with players like Thiago and Verratti being no. 6 with a more offensive mindset. Even though in modern football you practice developing no. 6 as a deep-lying playmaker, there are still many skilled “destroyers” in the clubs. In my example, I mentioned a skilled Dane in Thomas Delaney, but there are several players heading in the same direction.

In the Premier League we see a trend that I thought is quite remarkable. In clubs like Burnley, Sheffield United, Bounemouth, etc. we see more types of “destroyers” than “deep-lying playmakers”. In Italy we see several clubs practicing a mix, playing with double pivote, one being the “destroyer” and the other being a “deep-lying playmaker”.

No football coach, expert or others has the right answer, but to excel the no. 6 of the future, it is important (in my opinion) to train a defensive midfielder who possesses both offensive and defensive qualities.

What do you think? Do you think we will get more of “destroyers” or do you think the no. 6 of the future are a mix of deep-lying playmaker and “destroyer”?

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