Role of the Defensive Midfielder in state of flux
For all the discussion that the game has left old-fashioned defenders behind, there is one position just in front of them that seems in a similar state of flux. It is little wonder that the majority of elite Premier League teams have issues in defensive midfield, or that as many as three of the Champions League’s main contenders have been monitoring Southampton’s Morgan Schneiderlin.
The Frenchman has been trailed by Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United and Arsenal. Arsene Wenger has had long-term issues with that position, and the sudden encouragement provided by Francis Coquelin after his performance against Manchester City had already been complicated by questions over his next contract.
Louis van Gaal is pinning his own hopes on Roma’s Kevin Strootman arriving in the summer to thread his entire team together, while Mauricio Pochettino has been forced to adjust his formation, even if the fine form of Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb has helped.
One major problem at champions Manchester City, however, is that area of the field doesn’t appear to being doing enough to help out a surprisingly fragile defence. It is one in which Vincent Kompany has looked rash and Eliaquim Mangala has appeared raw, partially because of the way they’ve been exposed by a lack of protection. Fernando hasn’t quite been as formidable as he initially looked.
It is even less of a wonder, then, that Chelsea’s Nemanja Matic has been so lauded and effectively become the player so many are specifically missing. Many other managers would be entitled to wonder how their team would look if they had the Serbian. He was at it again against Liverpool on Tuesday, charging back to cover before driving the side forward with his play.
What defines a defensive midfielder in the EPL?
The entire issue does beg the question over what a modern Premier League defensive midfielder should be able to do, and what the requirements of the role now are. Both Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson spoke a few years ago about how they felt the position was now about technique more than tenacity, but Matic is a player who seems to have struck a new balance - and one that is all the more crucial given the gradual erosion of ‘defence-first’ defenders.
For one, there is a stat that stands above all others: Matic wins more balls in the middle third of the pitch than any other player in the Premier League, at 5.71 per game. The list is somewhat surprising, not least for the fact Fernando finds himself 56th with 2.94, while Mathieu Flamini is 58th on 2.88.
Beyond that, and looking at the stats from the main defensive midfielders across the top band of clubs, Matic scores highly in terms of tackles (3.7), interceptions (2.3) and fouls per game (1.5). In other words, he gets right in amongst it, as you only have to watch from the way he thwarts so many attacks with force.
The conspicuous thing here is that so many of the players who fill one of the core physical roles of the side offer so little physicality. The average for tackles per game among the 10 players above is 2.5, and average fouls per game is 1.2. Michael Carrick and Mikel Arteta naturally appear to be the archetypes of the model that Ferguson and Wenger spoke about, primarily offering possession rather than protection.
There are only a handful of these players that come close to Matic in terms of that aggression, but the offset is they tend to be more lacking in the technical side. Flamini, for example, only makes an average of 48.5 passes per game - compared to Matic’s 67.7. City’s Fernando is even worse in that regard, but doesn’t appear to offset it either, with meagre defensive stats.
It is also not just that the likes of Matic and Schneiderlin maintain possession as well as they win it. They also try to make things happen, as seen by their higher frequency of key passes and shots. A perfect example was Matic’s glorious lofted ball over the top in Chelsea’s 6-0 win over Arsenal last season.
Ultimately, it seems that the changes in defenders are also causing changes in defensive midfielders, with the onus now back on them to win more ball. The biggest wonder is whether more Matics and Schneiderlins will come, or whether they will remain at a premium.
Who do you think are the best defensive midfielders in the Premier League?