As with the rest of the world, football is also witnessing the effects of information explosion – minute by minute analysis of player positions, heat maps, chances created and a flurry of other cutting edge stats that ensure no action/contribution is missed out. The players who used to be unsung heroes in the past are celebrated more than ever – it is no longer fashionable to hail Eden Hazard as Chelsea's key man while the "underrated" N'Golo Kante is around.
Not just Kante, there is a case to argue that the defensive midfielder is the most important player in every top-6 team in the Premier League. Jordan Henderson continues to lead the league in number of passes even after missing so many matches. Tottenham simply don't look the same without Moussa Dembele and Arsenal still have no idea how to replace Santi Cazorla.
Guardiola once said that if a team has three Fernandinho's, they would be champions, while Ander Herrera has been a revelation in the new look Manchester United midfield.
So why is the defensive midfielder so important?
#1 Avoiding the gap between the midfield and the defence
Alongside the gap between the centre back and the full-backs, the gap between the midfield and defence is the most commonly exploited aspect of a suspect defence. Especially in the later stages of a game when the defence drops deep to protect the lead or plays high up while chasing, it is crucial that the midfield accordingly adjusts its position.
A defensive midfielder is crucial in this aspect – ensuring that the area in front of the defence is covered, the edge of the box is sufficiently patrolled to block long-range attempts and help defenders in aerial duels against giant centre forwards.
A centre back like John Terry managed to lead a title-winning defence at 34 years of age (in 2014-15) because of the presence of the formidable Nemanja Matic in front of him.
#2 Stopping opposition number 10s
The hub of football creativity is just behind the most advanced player in a team – whether it be the striker dropping deep to creating chances, the number 10 drifting around elusively, or the wingers cutting in to shoot. Therefore, as the player that covers this area, a defensive midfielder needs to be one of the most intelligent players on the pitch, anticipating every move from the opposition with vital interceptions and crucial blocks.
Most instances of a creative team being stifled involves a stellar display from a defensive midfielder – whether it be Adrien Rabiot against Messi in PSG's 4-0 victory over Barca, a young Reece Oxford announcing himself to the world by marking Ozil out of the game or Mascherano's impeccable performances on the way to Argentina's 2014 WC final run.
The defenders, as with the goalkeeper, can only ensure that chances are not converted – it is up to the defensive midfielders to ensure that chances are not created in the first place.
#3 Playmaking / late runs from deep
Apart from the defensive duties, players like Pirlo and Xabi Alonso have taken the role to a whole new level – managers realised that with the whole pitch ahead of them, defensive midfield is a key strategic position from where to open up the opposition. Especially when the opposition attackers do not put in a diligent defensive shift, these midfielders have all the time in the world to dictate the tempo of the game.
One of the more recent experimentations in this regard saw Steven Gerrard deployed as a quarterback in 2013-14. It was an inspired move which helped the Liverpool captain overcome his lack of mobility and make full use of his vision, range of passing and driving runs from deep.
The role Lampard played for Chelsea / Manchester City in the later years of his career also highlights the tactical advantages a defensive midfielder enjoys – in being able to make untracked late runs into the box.
#4 Covering wingbacks and counterattacks
The full-back position has epitomised the evolution of football in the 21st century. With players getting fitter, faster and stronger than ever, a full-back is expected to make telling contributions at both ends of the pitch. With more and more inverted wingers coming through the ranks, full-backs are expected to provide the attacking width.
In a two defensive midfielder formation, such as a 4-2-3-1, the two midfielders are entrusted the task of covering their wingbacks during their occasional forays up the pitch. The Everton team of 2013-14 used this tactic to devastating effect - Barry and McCarthy covered Coleman and Baines, and the latter duo racked up goals and assists.
In a lone defensive midfielder formation, the centre-backs split when the full backs venture forward, and the defensive midfielder drops in as the third example. An example of this case is Fernandinho's role when Manchester City plays a four-man defence.
In either of these cases, the presence of the defensive midfielder allows the wingbacks to play with freedom and protects the team from being exposed to sudden counterattacks.
#5 Providing an outlet to others in possession
Most big teams in the world prefer to play the ball out from the back these days. Although they may not exactly be proponents of Tiki-Taka, there is a clear preference to keep the ball on the ground and play fast incisive football. There is also the realisation that playing out from the back invites the opposing team to press, and this, in turn, distorts their defensive shape and leaves them vulnerable.
For such teams, the presence of a defensive midfielder is invaluable. Players like Sergio Busquets for Barcelona, and Joe Allen during his Swansea days, demonstrate this role. The sight of Busquets dropping deep to receive a pass in a tight area, and then pull off a skilful turn to beat an attacker and set his team on the move, has become very familiar over the years. In the words of Vicente Del Bosque, “You watch the game, you don't see Busquets. You watch Busquets, you see the whole game.”
Perhaps that description suits the general role of a defensive midfielder as well – someone whose performance dictates the passage of a whole game; yet whose name you might not find in many fantasy football teams.