4 footballers who successfully played as both centre-back and defensive midfielder at the top level

Lothar Matthaus was incredibly versatile as a footballer
Lothar Matthaus was incredibly versatile as a footballer
Subhadeep Roy

“Attack wins you matches, but defence wins you tournaments," goes the popular saying in football.

A good defender is arguably even more important than a good attacking player for deciding a team’s fortunes, because of the simple fact that a team cannot lose if it does not concede a goal. However, not all defenders are similar in their playing style. Some are easy on the ball and good passers, while some are tough tacklers and man-markers.

The position of a defensive midfielder is very important in today’s football, as no team plays without one. The defensive midfielders shield the backline by thwarting opposition attacks in the midfield. Sometimes, they play as the de facto third centre back and create attacks from the midfield.

It is not easy for a player to play both as a defensive midfielder and as a centre-back because of the different demands of those two positions. A defensive midfielder has to venture into the opposition half at times, while a centre-back needs to have great positional awareness and anticipation skills.

Here, we take a look at four greats of the game who have played in both the positions:

1. Lothar Matthaus

Lothar Matthaus
Lothar Matthaus

Matthaus remains one of the greatest and most versatile midfielders in the history of the game. He has played as a DM, CB, box-to-box midfielder and attacking midfielder for his country and clubs.

Matthaus was renowned for his passing and shooting skills, and a stint at the Serie A made him a supreme ball-winner and tackler as well. He earned 150 caps for the German national team and played more than 750 club matches in his incredibly long career, which lasted 20 years.

He also scored 204 goals in his club career and 23 for his national team.

Matthaus used to play as a defensive midfielder early on in his career and went on to blossom into a more complete player in course of time. He spent four fantastic seasons in the midfield for Inter Milan and played as centre-back for Bayern Munich in the latter part of his career.

He won seven Bundesliga titles for Bayern and one Serie A for Inter. In the 1999 Champions League final, Manchester United managed to score two goals only after Matthaus was substituted.

Matthaus also played as a sweeper in the World Cup 1998 and Euro 2000 for the German national team, besides playing as a defensive midfielder in the 1986 and 1994 World Cups and as an attacking midfielder in the 1990 World Cup winning team.

2. Marcel Desailly

Marcel Desailly
Marcel Desailly

Desailly is one of the greatest defensive players the game has ever seen, and he too played in both positions.

He started his career as a DM for Nantes and Olympique Marseille, and became a better player while playing in the glorious AC Milan teams under Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello.

Desailly won one Champions League and one Serie A title for Milan in the five seasons he spent with them. He had also won one Champions League title with Marseille before that. He then moved to Chelsea and played as a centre-back for them for six seasons.

Desailly was a brilliant tackler and very strong in the air, and those traits made him a great defender. He was also very strong physically and never shied away from one-to-one challenges.

He won the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 with the great French national team while playing as a centre-back. He won 116 caps for France in total.

Both the Milan side of the early 90s and the French national team of the late 90s were superb defensively, and Desailly was an intrinsic part of both. He also played in more than 600 club matches through his career.

3. Fernando Hierro

Fernando Hierro
Fernando Hierro

Hierro was a defensive player who scored more than 150 goals in his career, thanks to his prowess in set-pieces. He was easy on the ball and had very good distribution skills.

Hierro played as a sweeping centre-back for Real Madrid and as a defensive midfielder for the Spanish national team. Needless to add, he was very successful in both of those roles.

Hierro started his career at Valladolid and spent two seasons with the club before being signed by Real Madrid. He played with Real for 13 years and appeared in 610 matches for them. He also won three Champions League and five La Liga titles for them.

Hierro could not win any major silverware for the Spanish national side, but played in 89 matches and scored 29 goals for them.

He was one of the best exponents of the free-kick in his prime. But he was no slouch defensively, and remained a clean tackler throughout his career. He was also very strong in the air.

Hierro ended his club career with English club Bolton Wanderers and played as defensive midfielder for them too.

4. Javier Mascherano

Javier Mascherano
Javier Mascherano

Mascherano is another player who is blessed with superb tackling and man-marking skills. He is also very brave and fast, and does not often evade challenges.

Mascherano started his career in Europe for West Ham and spent one season there. He then moved to Liverpool and played as a defensive midfielder for them.

He had considerably good ball skills and aided in attacks too. He spent five seasons with Liverpool and scored two goals in 132 matches for them.

Barcelona signed him in 2010 and gradually, he became a centre-back for them. Mascherano’s defensive instincts meant that he would regularly fall back into his own penalty box even while playing as a defensive midfielder. He was also extremely strong in the air and was dependable while defending set-pieces too.

After Carles Puyol’s retirement, Mascherano became a regular centre-back for Barcelona, with Gerard Pique as his defensive partner. He played 334 matches for Barcelona in eight seasons and won two Champions League and five La Liga titles with them.

Mascherano is the most capped player in the history of the Argentine national team, and won a World cup runner-up medal with them in 2014. He has appeared in four World Cups and played in 147 matches for Argentina. However, for the national side, Mascherano has played as a defensive midfielder throughout his career and been very successful at that too.

Edited by Musab Abid


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