Following on from the previous article looking at the more defensive-minded midfield roles, this week I’ll be looking at the role linking both attack and defence; the ‘support’ role.
Like their more defensive counterparts, midfielders fulfilling the support role are often underrated, understated and under-appreciated. Similar to the ‘anchorman’ in the team, players operating in the support role are often the forgotten men and unsung heroes of the team. Even worse is that the role itself is vastly under-appreciated; every fan or pundit worth his salt recognizes the value and importance of the defensive mid, whilst few recognize how truly vital the support role is to the team.
Before I go into their impact, however, I’ll start by explaining the two main types of ‘support’ midfielder; the box-to-box midfielder and the deep-lying playmaker.
The deep-lying playmaker is a role gaining more and more renown in the modern game. Players like Xavi and Xabi Alonso have revolutionized the position with their performances for Barcelona, Real Madrid and Spain drawing huge praise. The swing towards a more short-passing, possession-based game has certainly aided this, with a midfield metronome needed in the centre to retain possession and keep play ticking over. In a team playing this sort of football, the deep-lying playmaker is needed to allow the game to flow, always making themselves available for the pass to ensure the player on the ball has an easy option to play the ball out of danger and allow the team to retain possession. They are similar in a way to the midfield anchorman in the way they recycle possession and keep the play simple, however their role is far more specific to utilizing possession well rather than winning it back.
They do this by drifting slightly more freely when off the ball, looking to be in a good position to receive a pass rather than guarding against a potential change over of possession. This means that instead of sitting back and watching for potential counter attacks they are actively searching for ways to receive and use the ball. They also work at a somewhat slower tempo than the best anchormen; instead of winning the ball and immediately laying it off, the deep-lying playmaker often slows the play and holds up the ball, allowing the team to reorganize after an attack or helping to regain control of a game if the opposition is dominating. This, in particular, is a vital job of the DLP; when the opposition is on top and the midfield is being overrun, a good player can slow the play and reassert control of the midfield area, keeping the ball and maintaining possession.
This ball retention is also incredibly useful when the team is in the ascendency, keeping the ball moving as the team probe for an opening and allowing the other players to move around him as he picks them out. However, whilst players in this role traditionally keep play ticking over without providing too much incisiveness – even players like Xavi have a remarkably low goals and assists tally – they can also add extra creativity to a side without compromising on defence. Xabi Alonso is perhaps the best example of this, providing an extra body in front of the defence, keeping the ball during transition and also providing an extra creative outlet, opening up the opposition with splitting through balls and quickly countering with his trademark long passes.
The box-to-box midfielder role, however, is the complete opposite. Whereas the deep-lying playmaker slows down play and retains the ball, passing rather than dribbling and remaining fairly stationary on the pitch, box-to-box mids increase the tempo with dynamic play, adding spark with bursting runs from deep.
In defence the B2B midfielder is reminiscent of the typical ‘destroyer’ from the defend role; they normally lack the technical tackling ability of the anchorman and so do their bit with hard work, commitment and stamina, tearing around the pitch and tackling hard. This is how players like Yaya Toure operate – they aren’t specialized anchormen and so lack the exquisite anticipation and reading of the game, yet make up for this with pure hard work and a powerful engine.
In additon to this, box-to-box midfielders do far more than just provide an extra body in defence. They are responsible for carrying the ball from defence to attack with dynamic, storming runs, suddenly increasing the tempo and moving the ball quickly from defence to attack. This provides the same effect as a counterattack even if the team currently had possession – the sudden change in tempo overwhelms the opposition and overloads their defence, creating space and passing options and preventing them from reorganizing.
The most important contribution of the box-to-box mid is this sudden change in tempo. This is what makes players like Jack Wilshere and Yaya Toure so important – their ability to add fresh impetus to a side is invaluable and is one of the few footballing tactics that cannot be stopped. Teams like Arsenal and Barcelona can pass the ball around as often as they want but, as Barca have found this season, a packed defence and teams ‘parking the bus’ can close off space and completely nullify the defence-splitting pass possession teams require. It can’t, however, stop a quick one-two and a surging run from deep as it completely disrupts a team’s defensive organization and moves the ball too quickly for the opposition to react, plus it is hard for a defender to stand firm when a powerhouse like Yaya Toure is hurtling towards them at full speed. I firmly believe that, had they retained the powerful Ivorian, Barca would have achieved significantly more success this season as they would be able to drive straight through a packed defence when their tika-taka failed rather than forlornly knocking on the door and trying to thread passes past three or four defenders.
Both roles are incredibly important, as is apparent in what a difference they make at the top level of football. Mikel Arteta fulfils the deep-lying playmaker role for Arsenal and has added extra stability to the midfield, combining composed, elegant midfield play with hard work and defensive discipline. Without him in the side Arsenal struggled to hold on to the ball – a travesty for a possession-based side like the Gunners – as well as being overran in midfield without a second, more disciplined, ‘sitter’ to cover for Song and Ramsey/Rosicky. This impact was especially telling in the shocking stat that Arsenal won just one game without Arteta present, and that was only due to an Almunia-level of incompetence from West Brom’s stand-in goalkeeper Fulop on the last day of the season. Similarly, Yaya Toure’s impact on the Man City side was only truly noticed in his absence – when he was away for the African Cup of Nations City’s form dipped and they looked stagnant and stale; it was Toure’s return that added fresh impetus to the City attack and allowed them to change up the tempo rather than rely on Nasri’s mindless sideways passing.
In short, the ‘support’ role is gaining more and more prominence in modern football for good reason. Even midtable sides such as Swansea now employ a quality deep-lying playmaker in Leon Britton and, unlike a few years ago, he is gaining plaudits in the media instead of being entirely glossed over. The reason for this sudden acclaim has to be the success of players like Xavi, who is becoming for the ‘support’ role what Claude Makelele was for the anchorman. Box-to-box midfielders, however, are far more rare. This is because of the shift from a two- to a a three-man midfield, meaning that players who before would have been box-to-box are now pigeon-holed into far more specialist roles. Gerrard and Lampard, for example, are classic box-to-box mids in a 4-4-2 and yet, in the popular 4-5-1/4-3-3 are often consigned entirely to an attacking role. It makes you think what would have become of Keane and Viera – surely the most successful B2B mids in Premier League history – if they were playing today. The thought of these two world class players consigned to a purely defensive role is not a good one. Despite this, the likes of Yaya Toure show the role is not dead and, if given the chance to shine – as Mancini did by pushing Toure forward and utilizing him as the focal point in a 4-2-3-1 – can be immensely effective. This is why players like Jack Wilshere, whom can operate in both the box-to-box and deep-lying playmaker roles, are so highly value; he is able to dictate play, retain possession and pick out passes as well as add that spark and dynamism so sorely needed to change up the tempo and break open a packed defence.