Creating a +2 in Possession (Part 3)

In the past two parts of this series, we focused on the goalkeeper in possession and the rest defense of the team out of possession. Today, we’re shifting gears almost entirely and looking at creating the second man advantage through midfield. Slightly longer introduction here because I’ve got to give two different semi-shoutouts to people who have helped me develop the thought process.

The first is a tweet from Kees, which got my wheels turning about midfielders and whether or not it is possible for both of these things to co-exist. Can a midfield simultaneously put it’s best foot forward, and it’s best foot backwards? That’s what we’ll look to tackle.

The second, still stemming from Kees’ tweet, is a conversation that I subsequently had with a recruitment analyst for a team in one of Europe’s top leagues. While we both shared some similar views tactically, he added in the impact that this has on recruitment. Most managers want the same things from their defensive midfielder: the complete package. They are expected to be mobile, good on the ball, strong defensively, tactically aware, not too old, etc. The laundry list of requirements here is long, and the few who check every box, are playing at the highest level already, thus making them difficult for any non-Super League tier club to find.

This created an interesting puzzle within my head:

  • What are the duties of a holding midfielder?
  • Could those duties be performed by someone else?
  • Can our ‘best’ players contribute on both sides of the ball?
  • Do we even need a ‘traditional 6’ in our team?

And subsequently, related and yet tangential:

  • Can we tactically remove the ‘traditional 6’ to make recruitment easier?

My answers to those questions will be the basis for this weeks article.

The Role of a Traditional 6

In the past couple decades, the view on a midfield as evolved a fair bit, but expectations haven’t changed a whole ton. In a ‘4–3–3 era’ the idea of a defensive midfielder is more apparent, while in the early 2000’s a more box to box role shows up due to the usage of a 4–4–2. This slight shift has only accentuated our necessity for a ‘true 6’ who can do it all, and is defensively focused. In the past, players like Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane not only contributed defensively in a massive way, but could hold their own on the ball while playing what most would call an ‘8’ role. Since this 4–3–3 renaissance, players like Fernandinho, Casemiro, and Busquets have taken center stage playing in that ‘6’ role. Despite the slight differences on the chess board though, both have similar expectations: act as an offensive conduit and a defensive wall.

Some of those responsibilities:

  • Shield the defensive line
  • Draw the opposition pressure to a narrow point
  • Central positioning in possession as a fulcrum for switches of play
  • Intercept counter-attacks
  • Help organize the midfield and attack when out of possession
  • Aid in progression whether through passing or carrying

Creating Our New Midfield:

This is where we get a bit more abstract now. The main goal here is that I’d like to see players like Ndombele, Keita, Bellingham, or Kouadio Koné* contribute simultaneously high up the pitch, and deep, where they’re both effective. This would hypothetically create functionally a +1 in the midfield, where the opposition has likely dedicated an inferior player** to this defensive midfield role, we’ve dedicated all three positions to high energy, well-rounded, midfielders.

*If you’ve never watched Koné from Gladbach, highly recommend. One of my favorite players right now, and probably Gladbach’s POTS in a bad year.

**the difficulty in finding players who check the boxes hoped for often means sacrificing one of your preferences. I have no actual backing on this statement, but it feels like athleticism is the first to get tossed out the window, followed by ability in possession.

Build-Up Without a 6:

This is one of the most difficult pieces of this article for me, because it’s almost entirely theoretical, I have almost no team to look at whether or not this part works. I’ve hit probably a hundred mental dead-ends over the past week, but I think I have a rough idea of what I’d like from my midfield in build-up. The unavoidable fact that I really want to stress here though is that there is almost no replacement for what a solo defensive midfielder can do in this phase. The easiest solution that I could think of is simply dedicating one player to performing this role in the build up. Things like keeping the press narrow and altering the opposition cover-shadow are concepts a midfielder should be relatively comfortable with at the professional level and I’m fairly confident tasking one of your three midfielders with this job will work.

Pretty basic idea here, the opposition here is pressing in a 3–4–3 shape, where the midfield positioning compacts the winger almost on top of the striker to try and create space elsewhere (wide) and circumvent progression. The positioning of the 6 also keeps the striker close, by pressing hard the center-back with the ball has the ability to play a ball to the goalkeeper who could play that pass central. I’m personally fairly confident that we could just assign one of the midfield three this task, and assuming they do it across a multitude of matches, opposition scouting will have us land in the right spot.

One of the other things that a 6 is excellent for in build up is showing for passes, receiving, and playing a 2–3 touch pass into space somewhere for another player running onto it. I’m not really going to try and over-complicate this, the solution is the same, just task one player with occupying that zone.

Midfield Usage Further Upfield

While in the last pieces we’ve separated defensive and offensive principles, I’m going to be combining it here. Going to attempt not to cross the wires too much and keep a coherent train of thought throughout. To start, we’ll talk about the midfielders role while in possession.

As with most midfields, there’s a fairly long list of tasks that our midfield (and almost all midfielders) are expected to perform while on the ball and with their positioning. One of those first objectives is quite obvious, look to combine through the middle and hopefully create some sort of opportunity through that. Most would agree that this is probably the least likely opportunity to create a chance though given the nature of opposition defensive blocks though, so this is where the next two jobs come into play.

First, is a role we see most often performed by midfielders playing for sides near the top of their competitions, particularly ones who play a possession dominant style. This is that of a circulation path, where the midfield provides a route from side of the pitch to the other. To keep it pretty simple below, ball moves from the fullback, to the pivot, across the pivot, and into space for the other fullback. The graphic doesn’t show this part super well due to the size of the circles but one of the main reasons that you do this is to shift the opposition block and search for space in different places. A lot of people mistake midfield circulation for ‘possession without a purpose’ but that’s often far from reality.

This is one of the more non-negotiable parts of a midfielder’s job on the ball. Be able to receive on the half-turn, open hips and look for the next pass in the sequence. Related too is an idea I like to call ‘being an escape route’ specifically for wide combination play.

In situations like the one above, we’ve created a wide overload (5v4) but it’s still a really tight space and could result in a dangerous turnover. From here, our fullback might take the choice of a pass to one of the midfielders. This would allow him to open up and begin to switch the field similar to our last graphic, or play a ball through the lines to take advantage of the overload already there. Essentially: be an outlet option if the opposition closes down your space or passing angles wide. After receiving, play a pass that continues to threaten the opposition in some way whether through possession retention or through threatening passes between the lines.

One aspect specific to a defensive midfielder that is often talked about as well is their ability to control the tempo of a match. Characterized by pace of pass and timing of when the pass is played, players like Thiago and Verratti are probably the two modern masters of this and their sides reap the benefits. A vast majority of game models benefit from this, and ours would certainly struggle without one person controlling tempo. Some center-backs can perform the role to an extent, but it would still be lacking, no doubt.

All of these on-ball impacts and roles are obviously massively important, but I think often they’re often overrated in terms of what a midfielder’s ‘main role’ is. Whereas many people would probably suggest that a midfields role in possession is massively related to chance creation, I would personally propose that a midfielders primary duty while in possession is off-ball.

(Sorry, I don’t know where to insert this, but you’re bound to disagree if you disagree with my views on “how football should be played” just given the nature of the sport. That’s what makes it fun!)

There are two things to discuss with regards to midfielders off-ball with regards to the opposition half:

  • Creating and finding space on the horizontal and vertical planes.
  • Expectations within Rest Defense

The first is multi-faceted and is something I’ve had the opportunity to observe loads with Dortmund due to the way their midfielders are used. In most scenarios, midfield positioning is pretty rigid for the most part. You rarely see Kante or Fred playing as a winger in any sequence, where BVB do it pretty often. The graphic below illustrates this, penetrating the half-space or the wide areas with runs behind the winger.

While there are loads of possession and spatial occupation benefits to these types of runs, the main benefit that I want to focus on is the way that this diversifies our midfield positioning. It adds another element to the midfield’s play and opens the door for well-rounded players like Jude Bellingham to impact both sides of the pitch. This is our overarching goal.

At Dortmund, these runs are compensated for in a variety of methods. The first is on the right where Reus and Brandt essentially just play both positions, filling the gaps when one vacates the space. On the left it gets slightly more complicated. I’m convinced there are two Jude Bellingham’s on the pitch, but still at times Guerreiro will invert central, Malen might drop into that space, or Dahoud will simply step forward a bit. The reason I mention this though is our final point: role in rest defense.

My favorite example of a midfield rest-defense is Liverpool, they’re a fascinating case study for what kinds of expectations are held out of possession. While a majority of chance creation comes wide and from the defensive line, their midfield is expected to almost entirely act as a gegenpressing mechanism.

The image above roughly illustrates this: a narrow front line, the striker helping to overload the midfield, wide fullbacks, and a goalkeeper participating in build-up. I have maybe hyperbolized the actual effects… anyways, green box is our midfield area of coverage. As that central triangle shifts from side to side, it stays compact and is able to win the ball back quickly, recycle it, and then return back to their job. This is their form of rest defense, and I don’t actually think it requires a ‘6’ in the traditional sense.

The aim here is to pack our midfield with well-rounded players on both ends, highly athletic and mobile. Working under the assumption of a relatively narrow gegenpressing model with the goalkeeper involved in build-up; we find our second extra man.

So my title might be slightly hyperbolic or figurative, but my idea here is that by focusing on pressing when out of possession and making a variety of runs forward in the front line along with interchanges between the midfield three allows for players who are more dominant in all facets of the game rather than focusing simply on one specific aspect.

The Affect on Recruitment:

Far from my area of expertise, this would hypothetically allow for a slight change in focus when recruiting players. Rather than looking for the next Fabinho in every player, we’re looking for a player mold as simple as Fred.

  • Athletic and mobile
  • Decent on the ball (in all areas)
  • Works hard out of possession

Maybe somewhat idealistic, but hypothetically we could ease the burden on recruitment departments to find a ‘perfect’ fit, and focus on breadth over depth in player style.

The next and final piece of this series will tackle at combining everything we’ve talked about into one overarching game model, look at how we recruit for the positions of note, and the practicality in both the professional game and in the youth game.

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