Defensive midfield is a deeply versatile role in modern football. Far more than a water-carrier, the ‘number six’ can vary from a defensive guardian (anchor man), to the primary creator in the team. From the crunching tacklers to the elegant playmakers, the defensive midfielder is growing in importance in modern football.
The best teams almost always have one of the best defensive midfielders. Defences win titles and good defences require top-class protection. Teams need some security to allow their attacking players to fully commit in the final third, they need an insurance policy, and this is what a truly world-class defensive midfielder offers.
Yet we have seen so many Premier League teams overlook this role. Manchester City have spent extravagantly across their squad, but seemed to opt for a cut price option when they signed Fernando, for instance. The Noveau-riche of Manchester were at their best when Nigel De Jong was playing at his peak, a destroyer – not popular in the modern game – but he gave Yaya Toure the freedom to really dominate sides in the middle and final thirds. Manchester United have relied on Michael Carrick for far too long and Arsenal opted for the budget alternative by drafting in Francis Coquelin. Although bringing a youngster through should be applauded, Coquelin’s inclusion in the Arsenal first-team has been too little, too late. The Gunners are possibly the worst culprits for overlooking the defensive midfield role and it has cost them trophies for years.
Alternatively, look at the two success stories of this season. Although Leicester do not play with a natural defensive midfielder as such – because of their 4-4-2 system – N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater are clearly both players with the sort of tactical awareness and defensive responsibility that makes them able to protect their centre-halves. Tottenham are the ultimate example of the importance of a defensive midfielder. Mauricio Pochettino bravely moved Eric Dier into a number six position at the start of this season and he has been one of the players of the campaign as a result. Now Dier is almost guaranteed to start for England in France this summer, the ex-Sporting Lisbon man has shielded Spurs’ defence (which has been better than any other in the league) and given Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela the opportunities to express themselves in the final third without the concern of leaving their defence exposed.
It is one of the less glamorous positions in football, admittedly, but that doesn’t excuse professional clubs with teams of scouts and analysts being simply ignorant to the importance of the role. Chelsea had one of the best defensive midfielders in Europe in 2014/15 in Nemanja Matic and it was no coincidence that they won the league, he was as under-valued and under-praised as anyone. Does the big money splashed on the forward players mean they have to cut back on their defensive midfield budget? If it does, that needs changing. Manchester City have never addressed the issue since the loss of De Jong – who, despite his limitations, was crucial – and even when they did spend heavily on Fernandinho, this was not the player they truly needed. Arsenal have brought in Mathieu Flamini on a free and picked up Mikel Arteta on a cheap deal, but why did they not think that this position needed greater investment? Even at their best, neither Flamini or Arteta were up to the standards of a title-winning defensive midfielder.
Amid all the talk of philosophy, the defensive midfielder is neglected. Football’s greatest philosopher, Johan Cruyff, was a great champion of the role and its importance in setting the team up in both an offensive and defensive sense. The ‘number six’ will not sell shirts, he will not become a club icon for his dramatic goals, but he is a player that can make or break a team structurally. The longer that clubs refuse to accept their importance, the longer they will be beaten by teams with that extra man in defence and controller when in possession. Eric Dier provides and out-ball for Spurs when in possession and, although he doesn’t have the passing range of others, he is an excellent defensive midfielder.
The #6 in your team needn’t be like Nigel De Jong or Nemanja Matic, he may be a controller with exquisite passing like Carrick or Alonso, but opting for the cut-price alternative is costing England’s biggest clubs in both domestic and European football.