There was a time in the not too distant past when the defensive midfielder was thought of as an unskilled position. It was where you would deploy your terrier, someone to harry and disrupt the opposition. In recent times however, it has become one of the most important roles within the side and when done well is an integral part of a successful team.
Although the position suggests it is predominantly defensive we are seeing more instances of players becoming far more offensive. In fact in some cases there is even cause to suggest the position can be undertaken by the playmaker, which is probably best demonstrated by Andrea Pirlo of Juventus and Italy. He is able to make space for himself in tight situations and then dictate the pace of the passing when his side breaks forward. Being blessed with a fantastic range of passing enables Pirlo to truly pull the strings for his team.
I still remember the first time the defensive midfield role really made me sit up and take note; it was Fernando Redondo’s performance for Real Madrid against Manchester United in 2000. The way he conducted his team was like something I had never really seen before; he tackled, he passed, he did an amazing trick to assist Raul for Madrid’s third at Old Trafford and became my favourite player overnight. It was a complete contrast to seeing someone like Roy Keane or Patrick Vieira who were the leading exponents of that role in the Premier League. Its not that they were bad players, both are probably two of the leading examples of central midfield play in England but they didn’t have that little bit extra; they would not have had that extra thought to outfox an opponent and provide that creative spark.
This position is now more crucial that ever before with the advent of the ‘false 9’ position which is becoming ever more popular. With fitness levels ever increasing the space between the midfield and defence is getting increasingly hard to marshal with runners coming from central and wide positions. The finest defensive exponent of this was Claude Makelele who has been paid the biggest compliment of all by renaming the position as the ‘Makelele role’. The best players are always the ones who make things look easy and Makelele made the defensive midfield position integral to Madrid’s Champions League triumph in 2002. Their defence was not the best and it struggled often for numbers as the full backs were usually found rampaging up the wings. The discipline Makelele had enabled the side to play to their attacking strengths and with him in place the defence was not exposed as frequently as it could have been.
Having mentioned some notable players already it is now time to look at the latest of the leading defensive midfielders in world football. Although he is not the most potent attacking threat his ability to read the game, change position and to keep the ball moving makes Sergio Busquets the ideal modern day player. Of course he is aided quite considerably by playing for Barcelona who are currently the best club side in the world. His manager Pep Guardiola is continually trying new tactics and testing new formations. He is extremely lucky that Busquets is such an intelligent player; often when the Barcelona full backs attack he will drop deeper to form a defensive trio alongside Pique and Puyol. For a side that dominates possession and generally play in their opponents half this ability is so vital to the way they set up and play.
Everyone was able to witness how Manchester United were torn apart by Barcelona in the Champions League final last year and how they lacked someone to shield the back four. This position is specialist and there are very few truly great players in that position playing at the moment. With football evolving and adapting as the years go by it will be fascinating to see how the role develops in the coming years. I for one would imagine that the role will become more creative as the game evolves; the game is moving away from the defensive side of things and goals are what everyone wants these days.