The heart of a team, Defensive Midfielder
Pep Guardiola once said: You watch the game you don’t see Busquets, you watch Busquets and you see the whole game.
This is how important the defensive midfielder position can be for a team. Both in defense and offense, the defensive midfielder position is crucial for a team. In defense, it can disrupt the opponent’s attack and in offense, it can create rhythm and be the connection between the defenders and attackers.
Like all other positions, there are different types of defensive midfielders and also different roles within the team tactics. In this chapter, we will describe these types and roles and also what game situations are most crucial for defensive midfielders to possess. In total a defensive midfielder has 15 defensive and 13 offensive fundamentals. This is one of the fewest of all positions, but the complexity of the fundamentals is one of the highest.
The reason for this is that everything happens around the player. A defensive midfielder can be pressed by attackers and by other midfielders, which means that his cognitive skills have to be very high, he has to do a lot of head checks to constantly have all information, Xavi is well known for his head checks and after this became known, the emphasis on head checks in training has become much bigger.
Another important thing is his body positioning, because a defensive midfielder limited amount of time to execute, he has to have the right body positioning to be able to not get pressed by the opponent and to have a good perception to base his decisions on. When a DM has his back towards the opponents goal it’s much harder to see everything and it takes longer to turn when receiving the ball. With these things a DM can make progressive actions like passing forward or dribbling forward. Playing or dribbling forwards is one of the most important things for a defensive midfielder as this creates an imbalance in the opponent’s defense and it gives the attackers opportunities to have the ball in dangerous areas of the pitch.
We will now describe the different types and team roles a defensive midfielder can have. We will combine the two so you can paint an image in your head of what types of players these are. As we described before DM’s are used in different formations. One of the most known types of defensive midfielders is the architect, the player who creates the game and directs his team. All attacks go through him and he dictates the rhythm and speed of the game. Well-known examples of this are Sergio Busquets, Andrea Pirlo, and Thiago Alcantara. The second type of defensive midfielder is the pitbull type. This player protects his defence, wins balls, and disrupts the opponent’s attacks. Players who are known for this type of play are N’golo Kanté, Casemiro, and Gennaro Gattuso. The last type we will talk about is the all-rounder, this player can do it all but is no expert in any Players who have this playing style are Valverde, Kovacic, and Camavinga. Usually, teams use a combination of these three types of defensive midfielders. It’s rare that a team plays with two of the same types as this would create an imbalance in the team.
Another thing that can be hard for a DM is when an opponent chooses the strategy to mark him out of the match. The opponent recognises that everything goes through this defensive midfielder and decides to shut him down. In these cases, the DM can still be of huge influence, by positioning himself in a smart way, so that either his teammates can progress easily or that he still finds the space himself to receive the ball and dictate the match.
So with these types in mind, clubs and scouts look at various skills a defensive midfielder has to possess. Of course, passing is the one that’s most looked at, no matter what type of defensive midfielder you are, there’s always a certain amount of passing that’s involved in the position. Even players such as N’golo Kanté and Casemiro, who are known for being the pitbull type have good skills on the ball and can receive and move the ball around. For the architect type clubs will not only look at passing, but also how much of this passing is done forward. As mentioned before, breaking lines with passing from this position, puts opponents in a difficult position, because highly skilled attackers can attack a defense straight on.
But the data is not everything, the best DM’s move between the lines and find the small gap between attackers and midfielders of the opponent. While the little less quality DM’s play it safe and will drop outside of the opponent’s structure, so they can’t get pressed from all sides. These DM’s will have high passing rates and successful passes, but it won’t do a lot for the team. That’s why it can be important to look at the statistic ‘packing rate’, which shows how many opponents you’ve passed with your passes.
As with all positions, also the defensive midfielder position is influenced by football culture. Every country has their own view on what a defensive midfielder should do and be able to do. In Spain, which is more influenced by the possession style of football, it’s expected that the DM can dictate the game, and make a lot of passes. While in England there’s maybe a bigger emphasis on being able to tackle and make long cross passes
Even though there are so many different aspects of the defensive midfielder position, we’ve identified the most crucial game situations for DMs. In the next chapters we will discuss what these are and how you can train them.