Saturday, 16 March 2013

Middle Ground

By Shane Thomas

There's no doubt that football is an ever-changing, amorphous construct, open to the altering of trends and demands of the game. In the Premier League, the place of the central midfielder is not immune to this.

These days, we seldom see any player operating in what is known as "the Makelele role", named after former Chelsea player, Claude Makelele. Once seen as a must for every top-level side, it's a role now conspicuous by its absence - Youssouf Mulumbu, Lucas and John Obi Mikel seem to be a dying breed in England's top-flight.

We also see few players operating in the position of a "Number 10". The player who often has a free-role behind the centre-forward, regarded as the creative hub of the team, the man who makes things happen in the final third of the pitch. Known in Italy as a trequartista, the Premier League also has players with the skill-set to play this role (David Silva, Luis Suarez, Adel Taarabt), but instead they tend to start from a wide position or as a central striker.

This season, three main types of central midfielder have become de rigueur in the Premier League. They are as follows:

The Progenitor:

The last refuge of the technician. A few years ago, teams wanted to position their best tackler in front of their defence. Now it seems to be their best passer. In the frenetic world of the Premier League, it seems best to keep a progenitor away from the turbulence that can occur in the thick of the midfield.

Rather than the trequartista, who would often play the pass that leads to a goal, the progenitor tends to play the pass that leads to the pass that leads to the goal. Or the pass that leads to the pass, that leads to the pass that leads to a... well, you get the idea.

But the progenitor does more than just retain possession of the ball. He regulates the flow of play. The best ones can shape the very narrative of a match. It's a role that is oft suited to those who aren't the most athletic or dynamic. The progenitor needs intelligence and foresight; someone who hurts the opposition with subtlety rather than force. It's the thinking player's position.

Examples: (Mikel Arteta, Leon Britton, Michael Carrick)

The Shuttler:

This is an exemplar of the stereotypical nature of English graft over craft. Similar to a box-to-box player, the shuttler is a player who will be technically competent, without being exceptional.

They won't be a physical powerhouse, but they're also no pushover. Stamina will often be their strong point, and it needs to be, as they are the honest trier, the game's yeomen.

When attacking, they sometimes provide what Gary Neville calls, "the third man run"; bursting forward into the penalty box to get on the end of through-balls and crosses. But when defending, they tend to be the toughest tackler on their team. They give valuable assistance in front of the defence, operating as a second "screener" alongside the aforementioned progenitor.

Examples: (Leon Osman, Ramires, Jordan Henderson)

The Power 8*:

The lodestar for this position is Yaya Toure. When signed by Manchester City, Roberto Mancini surprised many by taking a man who had primarily plied his trade for Barcelona as a defensive midfielder, and stationed him higher up the pitch. This proved a shrewd move, using Toure's robust frame to barrel his way past opponents, similar to a flanker or a centre in rugby union.

But while the power 8's modus operandi is to be a weapon of blunt force (if they were in "Cluedo", they'd be the lead piping), the best exponents of this position are more than just an atavistic force of nature. They are also technically sound, with good all-round awareness of the game. Otherwise, the likes of Toure, or Marouane Fellaini wouldn't be such versatile players.

However, their specialised skill-set means that they work best in the final third. They are much like Juggernaut, the comic-book character from the X-Men; let them get a head of steam, and it's like trying to stop a train. They end up flattening you.

Don't believe me? Ask the Manchester United team that suffered against Fellaini on the opening day of the season.

Examples: (Yaya Toure, Marouane Fellaini, Moussa Dembele)

With that said, I'm sure there's a few players that I've missed, or maybe other aspects of the centre-midfield role that I've omitted. Also, given that this post has been Premier League based, what other players from further afield would qualify in the aforementioned roles? There's a comments section below for a reason.

* - Credit for the term, "Power 8" must go to journalist Rory Smith.

"The Greatest Events in Sporting History" is available to download from, e-mail us at and you can follow us on Twitter @TGEISH

No comments:

Post a Comment