The Importance and Evolution of the Holding Midfielder in English Football

Monday’s top of the table showdown between Manchester City and Chelsea proved an excellent vehicle to illustrate the importance and evolution of the holding midfielder in English football.

The Birth of the Premiership

In years gone by, midfields that have conquered the Premiership, and prior to that the First Division, were largely based upon the traditional 4-4-2 formation. The most classic examples of central midfield duos of this era were United’s Keane & Scholes and Arsenal’s Petit & Vieira combo (whilst Blackburn did commandeer the Premiership in 94-95 the midfield unit of Tim Sherwood and David Batty are perhaps THE two most one dimensional central midfielders and a team so lacking in balance could never pose a threat in the modern era of ‘non 4-4-2’ football).

In Ferguson’s midfield core, Keane was the ‘holding’ midfielder (just as well given Scholes’ total inability to tackle) and by the same token the talismanic Patrick Vieira performed a similar role for Arsenal. Both players would have to be considered more ‘total midfielders’ and by this I mean, in contrast to today’s holding midfielders, these two were more than capable of notching 10 goals a season from midfield as well as accruing an equivalent amount of cards (yellow and red) whilst performing their more defensive duties.

The Continental Influx

Fast forward to the next era of the Premiership and both Benitez and Mourinho are now installed as managers at Liverpool and Chelsea respectively and with them came an evolution in midfield play and the abandoning of the rigid 4-4-2 system.

Benitez inherited Hamann but more pertinently acquired the prototypical modern holding Midfielder in Xabi Alonso and a year later Mascherano.
Meanwhile in West London amid a flurry of transfers perhaps the most pertinent was that of Claude Makele who was later joined at the club by Michael Essien (so important was the holding midfielder to Mourinho that he also had the sparingly utilized Scott Parker and Lassana Diarra waiting in the wings should Makelele and Essien be injured or suspended).

With the arrival of new systems new requirements of their holding midfielders became available – the screening midfielder must now have positional and tactical responsibility, technique, stamina and most of all a range of passing to fulfill the role – heart and tenacity alone were no longer sufficient i.e. Batty and Sherwood. This range of abilities probably explains why England have been left so far behind tactically as the only England player in recent history capable of such an array of responsibilities was unfortunately the injury jinxed Owen Hargreaves (coincidentally the ONLY recent English player to have developed or polished his game outside of England).

In Mourinho and Benitez’s systems the holding midfielders became synonymous with success. Whilst I am a huge admirer of all that Frank Lampard Jnr has achieved at Chelsea, he has been afforded a huge luxury of playing as a, to borrow an NHL expression, ‘one way’ player – he has next to NO defensive responsibility (for NBA fans see Kobe Bryant’s role as an LA Laker). In Lampard’s time at Chelsea he has been given a world class ‘holding platform’ in front of which he has the freedom to time his runs into the opponents box, assist players ahead of him and of course shoot from range, and to deadly affect.

Meanwhile in Liverpool’s system of the equivalent era, it should come as no surprise that Gerrard’s best run of form coincided with playing ‘off’ of Fernando Torres as a support striker. More pertinently, simultaneous to this the Liverpool midfielder comprised of the likes of Alonso & Mascherano who expertly screened the back for and enabled Gerrard an equivalent freedom to conserve all thoughts and energy for attacking means.

It is frightening to think what the likes of Scholes and Vieira could have achieved by way of goals and assists (the crude modern manner in which attacking midfielders are judged these days) had they been furnished with deep lying screening midfielders behind them.

Mourinho the Master

Pellegrini’s arrival at Manchester City brought about the arrival of the understated singing Fernandinho – a very responsible deep lying midfielder whose name often goes unnoticed. In seasons past Yaya Toure, perhaps the most complete midfielder in world football, has been asked to assist in holding the City midfield together. However, since the Brazilian’s arrival Toure has been set free to maraud forward and this had made City an almost indomitable force.

And so to Monday’s fixture where Mourinho was rightly praised for the manner in which Chelsea dismantled an otherwise seemingly unbeatable Manchester City. It should be noted that Fernandinho was absent for this fixture and was replaced, unsuccessfully, with 33 year old centre back Demechellis and to add insult to injury Toure was also subsequently required to play a more defensive game, thus shackling City’s creative heart.
To further compound City’s misfortune, Chelsea elected to play two holding midfielders in the form of Luiz and Matic, the man ironically sold to finance the Luiz purchase and recently resigned at approximately 10 times his original value, which paved the way for a performance of the ages from the ever improving Eden Hazard.

A Bleak Brazilian Summer?

As England prepare for this summer’s World Cup, the question “who will anchor the England midfield?” is one of increasing concern. Of the current crop of England players perhaps only Michael Carrick has the positional responsibility, range of passing and technique to screen the England back four whilst providing an attacking platform for the likes of Townsend, Oxlade-Chamerblain, Wilshere and Barkley.

Carrick’s game that, however, lacks tenacity and his unquestionable lack of pace which will surely be exposed at the highest level (refer to Manchester Utd’s recent forays in the Champions League without the stricken Darren Fletcher).

The gulf in class between Carrick and his International peers (Busquets, De Rossi, Strootman, Matuidi) I fear will be more than evident this summer which will likely result in England’s characteristic reverting to the age old Premiership formation of yester year, 4-4-2.

Laudrup Sacked, Kinnear Not Here – Football Banter Podcast

Plenty going on this week as the team discuss Joe Kinnear’s departure from Newcastle – Michael Laudrup’s sacking from Swansea, the bizarre goings on at Elland Road and we ask ourselves just how old is Charlie Adam??

Groundhog Day At The Emirates As Wenger Fails To Buy A Striker

Another transfer window has passed by with the whole world waiting for Arsenal Wenger to buy a striker and of course, true to form Mr Wenger did not oblige.

Can’t See The Wood For The Trees

It isn’t just Arsenal fans that can see they desperately need a striker to keep their title challenge on track, the whole of football knows it. Super ego Nicklas Bendtner knows it. The dashing Olivier Giroud knows it. Even Arsene’s late great grandfather Manuel Pellegrini knows it. In fact, Wenger’s corpse, currently in charge of Manchester City probably wanted it to happen. It’s no fun beating a team that don’t actually try.

Arsene Wenger

The Bendtner Factor

There has to be better than Bendtner out there. Well actually, of course there is. Bendtner is rubbish, he’s an in-joke that everyone in football knows about, much like Fernando Torres. Arsene didn’t even need look far for a decent striker, just down the road at Craven Cottage puffing on his 20th Silk Cut of the day is Gru from Despicable Me, sorry I mean Dimitar Berbatov. Sure he’s not the player he once was, but is he better than Bendtner? Yes he is. Actually I’m not even sure how much of a qualifying question that is anymore, you could swap anyone’s name out there and the answer will almost certainly be yes: Crouch, Jelavic, Ba, Benteke, Chamakh, ok ok, maybe not Chamakh – but you get the picture.

It’s even more ridiculous when you consider Arsenal’s 2nd top scorer Aaron Ramsey is currently injured. Theo Walcott is currently injured. Olivier Giroud is looking tired lately, and why wouldn’t he be? Leading Arsenal’s line and fighting off the ladies with a stick is a tough job, but someone has to do it and Gervinho was never going manage the latter. It was only a few months back when Wenger was trying to sign Luis Suarez and/or Gonzalo Higuain. Two incredibly talented strikers that would certainly have given Arsenal the firepower they desperately need. Old grandfather Pellegrini over at City must be laughing in his coffin: Aguero gets injured and he’s got a ready made replacement sat twiddling his thumbs ready to step up.

Has Spring Arrived Early?

Arsene’s stubbornness will cost Arsenal the title this year, and everyone knows it. The sad thing for Arsenal fans is, they’ve seen this all before. It’s like Groundhog day at the Emirates. Every year than fans gather around in chilling conditions waiting for the sleeping Wenger to crawl out of his elongated bubble jacket and tell them spring has arrived. Only it hasn’t. It’s still Winter.

Wenger Splashes The Cash

Finally Arsenal fans get what they wanted. Arsene Wenger starts splashing the cash…

Yohan Waves Cabaye – Football Banter Podcast

After a no show last week we’re back to talk Juan Mata, Yohan Cabaye, Arsene Wenger’s corpse and a lot more – also check out the new intro…


Mick McCarthy Makes A Cup Of Tea GIF

It’s every bit as good as it sounds and quite possibly the best gif I’ve ever seen! It’s Mick McCarthy making a cup of tea. Nuff said.