Filling the Gaps: The Importance of Defensive Midfielders

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Defending, or a complete lack of, has been addressed seemingly non-stop for the last couple of weeks. But yet again we have had a weekend of high profile Premier League clashes defined by a siege of inept defending. Fingers have been pointed towards the likes of Klopp, Koeman, and Wenger, and all with much justification. However, I feel there is a common denominator shared by Premier League teams that defend well that is lacking in teams that have real trouble keeping out the goals. And it’s not all about good defenders – it’s all about protecting your defenders and the space in front of them. And for me, there are two players in particular that epitomise this.

The first player I want to talk about is Nemanja Matic. Everyone is aware of Matic’s high profile transfer from Chelsea’s title winning midfield and into Mourinho’s new look, powerful Manchester United team this summer. To say he is a perfect fit for Manchester United would be to do him a disservice as I believe he would be the perfect fit for any team in the world, Real Madrid and Barcelona included.

On their way to clinching the Premier League title last season, Chelsea conceded 33 goals in 38 games, an average of 0.87 goals per game. This season, without Nemanja Matic, Chelsea have already conceded 10 goals from the 9 games they have played, an average of 1.11 goals per game against at this point of the season. That may not seem like a huge difference, but if they continue at this rate for the rest of the season they will concede a total of 42 goals, 9 more than last season. Now, if you take a look at the Premier League table from the end of last season, the highest finishing team conceding 42 goals or more was Liverpool, who ultimately finished 17 points behind the Champions. It may seem like small margins, but you cannot concede that amount of goals and still expect to be a credible contender for the top spot.

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The other player I would like to mention that embodies all that is great about the unsung holding midfielder is the Premier League’s most capped player. Yes, it’s Gareth Barry. To begin with, Barry was a fundamental part of the first Manchester City team in 43 years to win the English top flight, a campaign in which he was David Silva’s vote for Player of the Season – an achievement in itself. During his 5 years at City, Joe Hart won the Golden Glove three seasons running.

Last season, with Gareth Barry anchoring their midfield, Everton conceded a total of 44 goals, an average of 1.16 per game. This season, with no Barry, they have already conceded 18, which equates to 2 goals per game. At this rate they are on track to concede 76 goals this season – only Hull conceded more than that last season and they are now in the Championship.

West Brom on the other hand have had a much more solid start to the season. Wait, did they sign Gareth Barry in the transfer window? You bet they did. Without Barry guarding the back line last season they leaked a total 51 goals, an average of 1.34 goals per game. So far this season they have conceded 10, an average of 1.11 goals per game, meaning theoretically West Brom are on track to concede the same amount of goals this season as Chelsea.

But why are these players so fundamental to a team’s defensive stability? For me, there a two types of defensive midfielder in the modern game. There are players such as the aforementioned Matic and Barry anchoring the midfield, and then there are players such as N’Golo Kante and Idrissa Gueye, providing the midfield with energy and athleticism. Both are equally effective kinds of players though offering substantially different attributes to a team. It becomes practically null for a team to play with a defensive midfielder if it is the incorrect type of defensive midfielder for their team.

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With the likes of Kante you receive a range of brilliant attributes. He brings energy and dynamism to a midfield. He will cover every blade of grass over the 90 minutes and you can guarantee he will leave everything he has on that pitch every single game. He will break up play and pass the ball on simply to start an attack for his team. He, individually, has been a fantastic acquisition for both Leicester in 2015 and Chelsea in 2016, and his type of player has brought a lot to the Premier League in recent years.

However, there is something that this type of player does not bring to a team, and that is not a criticism of Kante, it is just not the role he is in the team to play. While Kante was charging about the Premier League last season and justly winning the plaudits of his fellow players and pundits alike, there was a man stood behind him sweeping up what little Kante missed. That man was not David Luiz or Gary Cahill, or even Cesar Azpilicueta. It was Nemanja Matic. Matic has a footballing intelligence like no other in that Chelsea team and it is a skillset needed to play the position he does. He does not cover the most ground, nor make the most sprints. He does not have the most touches of the ball or even make the most tackles. And the reason he doesn’t do any of these things is because he doesn’t need to – his position is about spaces. There is space all over the football pitch, but there are certain spaces that need to be filled from a defensive point of view, and this is what Matic and Barry do. They don’t have to make the tackles because they have already plugged the space that would be a danger for their defence. These players see the game in a different way to other players which means they can prevent attacks before they have a chance to begin. Players such as Coutinho, Erikson and Hazard all operate within these gaps, but when the gaps are filled they become far less effective players. Manchester City got in behind Chelsea’s midfield far too easily earlier this season and the gaps are beginning to appear more and more frequently for the Blues. Everton are having the same problems while Arsenal have had the same issues since Patrick Vieira left 12 years ago.

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Last season Real Madrid became the first ever team to retain the Champions League. They have won 5 trophies since 2015. Two major things happened at the beginning of 2015 from Real’s perspective – Zinedine Zidane was appointed manager, and Casemiro was brought into the team after a loan spell at Porto. Since then Casemiro has made 77 appearances in all competitions for the Spanish giants allowing the likes of Ronaldo, Modric and Isco to go out and win those 5 trophies.

This position is no longer optional if you want to stop goals. Refusal to play with one is like omitting a centre half. If you want to prevent goals, mark the space not the player, the space is far more dangerous.