Mails: On the evolution of midfielders

Date published: Friday 23rd September 2016 9:49

If you have anything to say that isn’t about Wayne Rooney, send your thoughts to…


On the evolution of central midfielders, and lots of it
In response to Al (centrally-trained defensively-minded left-sided right-footed false no 10 attacking midfielder) Williams’ question about why we use various types of central midfielders nowadays, its a chain of events which stayed in around 2005. Those days you had almost every team played a pair of Central midfielders which did/attempted the task of cancelling the other team’s pair. Suddenly one manager realises he can have more control in the middle of the park by adding another midfielder. It works out pretty well against teams playing 4-4-2. So the teams playing 4-4-2 had to give up paying 4-4-2 and add another midfielder in the middle to not lose out against those who played three in the middle.

Playing three in the centre obviously meant one less person in the attack. So teams started putting the most attack minded midfielder ahead of the other 2 to support the lone striker or to link play between the midfield and attack. And to nullify the advanced midfielder, the one with better defensive instincts of the 2 remaining midfielders dropped back. This left us with a CAM, B2B and a CDM which are seen today.

This evolution is not over and likely to continue with a lot of new ideas and improvement in in sports science bringing about massive improvements in player performance. Who knows we may even see the 4-6-0 again some 6 years after it was first seen with 6 B2B midfielders with superb stamina running up and down the pitch.
Franco (Congrats on completing 20 years at Arsenal Mr. Wenger) Goa


…The reason teams can’t field just regular midfielders is because, as you mentioned, the game has moved on. It happens in every sport as the rules, interpretations, standard of play, equipment etc. changes. See Jonah Lomu is Rugby changing the current role of the Rugby winger, the speed of Wimbledon pitches slowing and quality of returning to remove the effectiveness or Serve/Volley tactics, 20/20 cricket chaining the pace of run scoring in test matches etc..

In football, the current game (For me, clive) was changed by Barcelona in the mid noughties. Barcelona perfected the possession based game. Gone were lumps up from the back, and in was every player being comfortable in posession and short passing. In order to keep the ball, players would ‘get between the lines’ and pop up in spaces. To counter this, teams needed 3 players in midfield (Rather than two) with a defensive minded midfield player who wouldn’t get dragged upfield chasing shadows.

My guess would be the trends that changed the game towards this possession based game were an improvement in the standard of pitches (Therefore being able to play a passing game without the ball bobbling all over the place) and the stricter rules on tackling (Leaving it tougher to physically impose yourself on the opposition and chop someone down mid move with a simple slap of the wrist from the ref). Even in the current game with teams going towards to concession of possession and fast paced counter attacks you would still get caught out without specialised midfielders with both midfielders running forward leaving you exposed.

Man Utd with Keane and Scholes got away with this as the opposition were typically not capable of exploiting the spaces they left behind them by passing their way into these spaces. i.e if you lost the ball and Keane and Scholes were both upfield, the opposition would invariably lump it long to relieve pressure rather than an incisive counter attack with quick passes. The latter would leave them exposed and this probably was exposed in Europe and is why they didn’t win more European Cups.

Anyone want to take a guess at the next tactical shift in football?
Rich (CPFC), Croydon


…In response to Al (centrally-trained defensively-minded left-sided right-footed false no 10 attacking midfielder) Williams’s email about ‘normal center midfielders’. I’m assuming he’s referring to two box-to-box midfielders, the players in the middle of a 4-4-2. By definition, they play in the middle of the pitch and are required to help with both attack and defense.

Al cites Scholesy and Keano as his examples. Perfect examples, too: Scholesy and Keano were a fantastic combination of attack and defense themselves. They were committed to the cause, compatible with each other and dominant because they knew they owned the most important patch of the field.

Those kind of midfielders (and this system), in the English game specially, has been phased out in favor for something more technical. When the world tried to find a way to beat Barcelona (it must be said), the English game decided to switch irreversibly from standard two-man center midfields to three-man. This had had massive knock-on effects that see the 4-4-2 (or 5-2-3, anyone?) an abandoned formation and two box-to-box players as ‘not normal’ CM’s. Perhaps unrelated, but this also the time when player power shot through the roof, particularly in England, but that too effected the on-field football.

Firstly, for the country that ‘owns’ football, Engerland is rather slow in its innovation department. If the England National team had a tactically innovative coach, they would’ve found a way to fit Scholes, Lampard and Gerrard into the center (like they’re trying today with Dier/Alli, f*cking Henderson and m***********g Wayne Rooney) instead of seeing more merit in a Heskey-Michael Broken striker partnership. Even when Rooney broke onto the England scene in his prime, two strikers were played as opposed to a well drilled 3-man midfield (at which point, assuming he could’ve been coached far more positional discipline, Rooney was one of the top 10 players in the world). Rooney was physically made for the number 10 role but wasn’t utilized as a specialist there till he’s turned 29-30 years old… Go figure.

Secondly, let’s be honest: even Sir Alex Ferguson (the bestest ever) didn’t move away from 4-4-2 till Barcelona began dominating world football and till Wayne Rooney started moaning about wanting to play ‘all over the park’ as opposed to where he was told to. You can argue all you want that someone else created the ‘number 10′ role as we know it today, but I bet Fergie was most relieved at that being an actual role he can claim Wazza played. More seriously, he only shifted away from a 2-man midfield when Park Ji-Sung (and Danny Welbeck) was played with the sole intent of stifling an opponent’s third midfielder. Never forget: Anderson and Tom Cleverley were once genuinely being hailed as a potential two-man midfield partnership for United’s future (literally just once, after a game I forget everything else about other than the ensuing headline the next day)… all ’cause Fergie took his time moving away from 2 box-to-box players in the center . Which, incidentally, Ferguson might have delayed to resist being forced to change his system by Rooney (or even Ronaldo before him).

Nowadays, number 10’s (and even modern wingers) are seemingly bereft of defensive duty, and if you scream too loudly at them, they’ll bounce to another club. Can you imagine Ozil (a player who claims to prefer the center of the field to the flanks) having to play alongside Roy Keane in a 2-man midfield?Can you imagine how much harder Roy Keane would’ve gone in on THAT interview? On the flip side, does it make you cry that a 31-year old Wayne Rooney (and not a 31-year old Paul Scholes David Beckham) is playing as a ‘number 10’ in this team ahead of Pogba and Schneiderlin, behind Ibra and in between Mata and Martial? Admittedly, defensive midfielders do attack far more than their attacking teammates help them out but that’s also a Pep effect: English teams seem to need a box-to-box man spare in midfield to play against the European teams.

European teams don’t tend to have a box-to-box man. Some players tend to have with more stamina and so cover more space on a field, but European teams (teams that Guardiola and Barcelona of the 2000’s have influenced today) have one defensive midfielder/destroyer to sit deep and spray the ball and also snuff out danger early (Busquets at Barca, Modric at Real, Alonso at Bayern last year); one player to connect the defense with the attack (Iniesta/Rakitic at Barca, Kroos at Real, Vidal at Bayern last year); and a ‘number 10’, who could be a proper striker playing deep or a midfielder just operating higher up the field (Iniesta/Rakitic/Turan at Barca, James/Isco at Real, Muller at Bayern). Players in these roles are technically proficient, first. Even those who can be described as proper old-school CMs, would claim to specialize in one of those aforementioned roles specifically as opposed to calling themselves box-to-box. England, as a country, has not been able to produce a good enough midfielder for that middle category (Wilshere is the closest thus far) since switching to a three-man midfield. So, English teams (international and club) play a box-to-box player in that slot to compensate for a lack of technical ability with extra stamina/physicality. Players produced in/by the English youth academies tend to be physically far more superior (and technically inferior) than their continental counterparts (various factors, whole other debate).

But the 3-man midfield, requiring technique over physicality, is being persisted with at all levels. Why? Because:
1) English coaches are not innovative enough to identify their own biggest strengths and stick to them as opposed to getting influenced irreversibly by Guardiola and Barcelona.
2) English players have identified this and attempted to, and failed entirely, in trying to become specialists. Milner, Henderson, Drinkwater, Dier, Alli, Wilshere are all midfielders who have attempted to lay claim to be specialist in one of the three midfield roles, and disappointed entirely. But, armchair pundit question: If Dele Alli and Eric Dier played as the midfield two for Tottenham week in week out(without a number 10), would they be much worse than the Scholes-Keane axis? (I think they’d be even greater for club and country). Nowadays however, being an English player at an English top flight club is being an automatic (even if unofficial) captain: if you want to pretend to be a specialist, even against the wish of your manager, high chance you’ll outlast the manager at the club.

As a result, 4-4-2 is gone. England lining up with a midfield of Lallana, Alli/Drinkwater, Dier, Sterling behind two of Kane/Vardy/Sturridge/Rashford would be incredible except for the fear of getting drowned out in midfield. That fear only exists because the teams England face have accepted, and fully embraced, if they’re technically or physically proficient… Engerland (and by extension, English teams in Europe) spend too much time trying to be technically impressive as opposed to embracing their increased stamina, speed and physicality. I’m not advocating medieval football, I’m advocating the quick/efficient game Fergie trademarked or Mourinho was once known for. That also explains the influx of foreign talent: ‘specialists’ were needed once Guardiola f***** everyone’s minds.

Even United, I think, should play a 4-4-2 with Pogba and Schneiderlin as the center midfielders, with Herrera and Carrick/Fellaini filling in when required; this would allow Martial and Ibra to line up front (no, Marcus Rashford can not be starting… after he watched the 1999 Champions League final, he took a sh*t where he was sitting, because he was 18 months old); any two wingers out Mata/Mikhy/Memphis/Lingard/Young (Rooney at right back). How bad can that go?

One of my favorite things about Leicester is that they still play 4-4-2. That alone continues to make them a beacon of hope going into this season, too. Unfortunately though, I don’t think we’re about to see this formation (or these kinds of midfielders) revived any time soon in the EPL… If anything, we’re seeing situations where it doesn’t matter if you have three or five midfielders, it’s guaranteed your team will be starting three of them in the center.
Emad MUFC Boston


…I think it’s all in the naming. Roy Keane was a Defensive midfielder, Paul Scholes an attacking midfielder. They just weren’t called that. Todays players have a positional label. So midfield partnerships (and threesomes) do exsist we just split them into their roles more specifically.
Graham (I blame Makelele for it) LFC


More games to watch this weekend
Bournemouth – Everton. This should be fun. Bournemouth will be attacking as always, and Everton are in free-scoring form in the league. As if this weren’t enough, shot conversion stats suggest Bournemouth should be scoring more and Everton conceding more. Romelu Lukaku tends to play a bit from the right, which will put him closer to Steven Cook, the stronger of the Cherries’ two central defenders. Eddie Howe can’t be looking forward to Charlie Daniels marking Yannick Bolasie. But Adam Smith at right back has been attacking at will, and with Kevin Mirallas not the best defender, he might have some joy. The midfield contrast will be fascinating, with Bournemouth using Andrew Surman as a deep-lying playmaker and Everton countering with Ross Barkley as more of a number ten. The two should see a lot of each other.

Swansea City – Manchester City. Don’t laugh. Francesco Guidolin has been changing systems almost weekly, so although the final result may seem inevitable, the tactics aren’t, and even less so because the sides just played each other in the EFL Cup. There Swansea went with a 4-5-1 plus high line, squeezing the attacking space, and for 45 minutes it worked against a low-key Citizens second XI. But as soon as Swansea pressed a bit more, they got torn apart on the counter. Was the 4-5-1 a feint? Might they switch to a diamond to frustrate David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne, trying to force Man City wide? Or maybe a 4-4-1-1 with Gylfi Sigurdsson behind the striker? And how much longball to Fernando Llorente or Borja Bastón? Half the fun will be how Pep responds. And if you’re thinking Swansea’s best chance will be on free kicks and corners, the stats have them dead last in shots taken from their set pieces.

Sunderland – Crystal Palace. Sunderland lost only one of their last 11 games under Sam Allardyce, and that to the league champions. But things are already getting desperate for David Moyes, although injuries and a tough schedule haven’t helped. Papy Djilobodji and Lamine Koné might be able to hold off Christian Benteke in the air, and Jan Kirchhoff is slowly rounding into form. But how will Jermain Defoe get the ball, and can anyone else provide a goal threat? I’m guessing Sunderland will press a bit higher up the pitch than usual. Meanwhile, Palace are on the positive swing of the celebrated Pardew Pendulum. But Scott Dann is injured (which hurts their set pieces too), and James Tomkins might be out as well. Still, with Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend ready to run, and James McArthur in the form of his life, Palace remain a slight favorite with the bookies.
Peter G, Pennsylvania, USA


Mourinho and Einstein
Do we really think that a man who has tried Pogba and Fellaini together in midfield, for a month of poor performances, should be dismissing the man who said* “Insanity is trying the same thing twice and expecting different results”?

Maybe he could also have learned to “try not to be a man of success, try to be a man of value” as well.

Still I’m sure he’d have loved this quote: “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds” from em…Einstein. Maybe that one was about Pep.
M. Yass
*I know that he didn’t say that but it’s frequently misattributed to him.


Analysing Rooney’s quotes (and the only Rooney Mail I’m publishing)
I woke this morning and had a quick read of the quotes in the press from dear old Wayne regarding his form. I found them both interesting and insightful to understand the level of delusion that must be going on at the top level of the game. To quote from the guardian :

“I think I’ve had that my whole career – a little bit more of late, I think, but that’s football. I listen to my coaches and my team-mates, the people around me, and I don’t really listen to what a lot of people out there are saying because a lot of it is rubbish. I have to focus, work hard, of course, and I’ve done that throughout my career. I’ve worked hard and tried to do my best for the team.”He added: “That’s football, I think. We don’t win in three games and, of course, everyone is going to talk about it. We had a bad week, a bad eight days where we’ve lost three games, and it’s important now we react well to that and come through that.”

Wayne appears to be making the following points (i) He has had criticism his whole career, (ii) the feedback from his coach and team mates are more important and (iii) the criticism levelled at him is a recent affair because they have lost 3 club games. Taking Rooney’s comments at face value, I can only assume that he has at best an incredibly selective memory or at worst is delusional. To take each in turn :

(i) Criticism his whole career : Actually, he has not. He has been hailed, since the age of 16, as one of the most talented players of his generation and the great hope of England. We have been frequently told that club and country should “build their team around him” and that he is “tireless” in his sacrifice for the team. Further, when he has been criticised it has been due to his questionable lifestyle choices (smoking), poor form or professional decision making (e.g. handing transfer requests in as a way of engineering a new contract). One could easily argue that due his status and relative success he has been afforded more, not less protection from criticism over his whole career

(ii) Feedback from coaches / team mates : while I don’t disagree with this view, the implication is clear – he has not had sufficient criticism from his coaches (LVG / Jose / Hodgson / Allardyce) or his team mates to cause him concern regarding his form. This borders on negligence on their parts – he is one of the most highly paid players in the world and captain for “the biggest club in the world” and country. This is a player who spectacularly underperformed at the European Championships and has, by any measure, been well below his peak in terms of goals scored for the last 4 seasons. At Man U, since 12/ 13 to the end of last season (15/16), he played 155 games and scored 64 goals, averaging 0.4 goals per game. During this time he has been one of the highest paid player in the world. In the 4 seasons that preceded that (08/09 – 11/12) , he played 176 games, scoring 104 goals, averaging 0.6 goals per game. There has, statistically and anecdotally been a sustained and significant drop off in Rooney’s ability to score goals and it appears he is not being criticised for it by club or country despite being paid more than ever before

(iii) The criticism from the media is recent : Again, this is demonstrably not true. For the last year, more likely 2, there has been intense debate surrounding Rooney’s form, best position, physique, longevity and capacity to sustain form at the top end of the game. The criticism is not new – it is just now reaching the point where people are asking legitimate questions about one of the biggest clubs in the land accommodating them in their team at the expense of other players and, on all available evidence trying to explain the drop off.

All of this sounds like a player who is cocooned and over protected by club and country and he is failing to come to terms with his own decline in performance. It cannot be said to be “form” if over a period of 2-3 years there is a sustained drop off in performances. It looks like Rooney is a 31 year old player trying to play as he did when he was 16 and he just can’t do it anymore but he doesn’t have the team, manager or self-awareness to see it.

the question therefore is this ; does he have the intelligence to see this and adapt his game to still deliver at the highest level? Based on his above quotes, the answer is a resounding “No – he doesn’t even realise there is a problem”.


More fanmail for continuing to point out that homophobia is abhorrent
Ched Evans attempted move to Oldham (innocent in the eyes of the law now lets not forget), Ryan Giggs, Jamie Vardy and now Andre Gray. The football365 Judgement Juggernaut rolls on.

Winners and losers and the weekly awards both making mention of his past indiscretions, not at all taking into account that Gray was at that time a man who’d recently been stabbed in a gang fight and clearly was very angry at the world and a society that does largely leave behind those who’ve grown up in poverty and violence.

Never mind the fact he may not be that person anymore, he may have focused his attentions on football and grown into a mature man rather than an angry youth. I’m sure you can completely relate to his situation so just judge him none the less from your nice cosy London office and go home to your nice middle class families in white suburbia.
Rob, Guangzhou
(MC – Typical lazy readerlism, assuming we’re in London. Leeds, actually)


Maybe we should have one sexy pass at the end of every Mailbox?
Although it’s no Bergkamp ’98 I couldn’t help but bring up this gem of a goal again.

Any excuse to rewatch the old divil Roberto gracefully snaring the ball just before it hits the deck from a young Pirlo’s halfway line pass. Bellissimo!
Paddy, Dublin

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