In many ways, the world of football and evolution of tactical theorem is relatively similar to the fickle world of fashion. Currently, the trend of the moment is the winning 4-2-3-1 set up, which is maybe the smart, navy V-neck of it’s time- proving to be a comfortable fit, flexible and an all round winner.
Cesare Prandelli’s revival of the sweeper role against the Spanish felt a bit like the Italians stepping out in denim on denim; an outfit that has made many a man look a fool, but the Italians somehow pulled it off.
But as with all fashions, some just seem to fade into obscurity. So what of the archetypal holding man? What happened to the slightly more limited footballer, but the player whose industrious ways and imposing physicality made him the chief of the defensive midfielders? Watching Scott Parker hustle and scamper around against the French on Monday, you couldn’t help but feel he is perhaps the last of his kind. What has happened to the role of the holding man?
It’s interesting to look at the defensively minded sections of the Euro 2012 favourites, Spain and Germany’s midfield. Whilst Spain played a slightly altered, 4-3-3 set-up against the Italians, the deepest midfield players were both Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets. Likewise, the two holding players in Germany’s starting line-ups were Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger. Out of the four mentioned, only Khedira really resembles anything like the aforementioned holding player or the style that we are particularly accustomed to in the Premier League each week.
Both Del Bosque and Löw’s teams are set up against a backdrop of fluidity and technical excellence. For both these managers, the defensive elements of midfield aren’t simply there to serve one, sole purpose.
The role of the defensive midfielder underwent a real renaissance when one Claude Makelele spent the best part of the 2000’s bailing out both Real Madrid and Chelsea’s back four. Both Madrid’s inability to recover from the Frenchman’s loss and Chelsea’s subsequent success, ensured that the very position of ‘holding midfielder’ or ‘anchorman’ was gloriously renamed as the ‘Makelele role’. This role was difficult in execution, but very simple in principal. Sit in front of the back four, protect at all costs and remain highly disciplined throughout. The success of Claude Makelele came in his ability to negate, not to create.
But as Makelele’s influence at Chelsea dwindled and his career entered the twilight years, the evolution of the role, which he set to encompass, began to evolve. Let’s not forget that Spain won Euro 2008 with their very own Makelele, in Marcos Senna. But four years on, there is no place for a Senna like figure in their team.
As the likes of Spanish and German’s wonderful, fleeting attacking forces are looking to be cloned and implemented across the continent, it is interesting to see that both teams are as well placed to defend against it as they are to play keep-ball and dominate themselves. The defensive units of their midfield work upon the concept of space, not incessant man-marking and stifling of personal space. Busquets and Schweinsteiger don’t need to be hatchet men or tackling specialists. Their trade is interception and positional intelligence, which also assists the team going forward; with a defensive midfield unit that is so adept at distribution and keeping the ball under pressure, in turn, the opposition has less chance to test the back four anyway. Layman’s terms- you don’t concede as many goals if you’re not giving the ball away.
And to an extent, we are beginning to see this trend implemented at club level. Of course Barcelona have been at it for several years already, but even Manchester City have embraced the art of the evolving volante. Nigel de Jong’s influence at Manchester City was reduced drastically in their title-winning season, with Yaya Toure and Gareth Barry as the favoured, deeper midfield pairing. As much as some of the Barry-bashers out there may snigger, Gareth Barry’s positional sense and short, but effective distribution was as important as anything else in that team. Furthermore, Toure may be physically imposing, but as this season has shown, it was his work with the ball at his feet and his positional sense that won the plaudits.
This isn’t to say there isn’t more than one way of playing football. Mark van Bommel is still causing chaos for the Netherlands in a more traditional holding sense and indeed if Jose Mourinho sees it fit to give perennial hot-head Pepe an outing in defensive midfield from time-to-time, then there is still plenty of life for the Scott Parker’s of this world.
But perhaps the Tottenham man encompasses some of the real flaws of English football. Parker is a brilliant footballer and in the Premier League, he is in a league of his own in what he does. But you can’t help but get the feeling that English football is still four or five years behind everybody else. Our international rivals at Euro 2004 or 2008 may have lauded Scott Parker. But the sight of him and Gerrard toiling in the Donetsk heat chasing French shadows, spoke as much about the evolution of the midfield unit as it did about the state of English football.
What do you think about the role of the holding midfielder? Is there any way England could set a team up like Spain and Germany? Or are we right to stuff them and play the way of the Hodge with Parker and Gerrard? Let me know and get involved with the debate, follow @samuel_antrobus