This year’s World Cup has shown just how important it is to play with a holding midfielder. These kind of players have become a tactical necessity but they do not all perform the same role. We have seen different interpretations of the holding midfielder from Sergio Busquets to Nigel De Jong to Rafael Marquez to Gilberto Silva. In this article, I am going to argue that these different interpretations are the result of the different styles of play of the countries, not just in this World Cup but in their local leagues as well. These countries face different incentives when producing defensive midfielders, and this is what leads to the variation in roles. I have used 3 countries that produce very different types of holding players and then tried to explain why England does not have the correct incentives to produce holding midfielders. These are the general patterns I have noticed. I am well aware that there are exceptions.
THE BRAZILIAN HOLDER – Defensive, Plays short sideways passes, good in the air.
Brazilian football is characterised by very attacking fullbacks who move forward at the same time. To be able to use such a strategy without weakening your defense, holding midfielders are required to cover the space that is vacated. These holding players are often expected to drop into the defense and play as extra centerbacks, with Gilberto Silva being the perfect example. Even though these players see a lot of the ball in the short Brazilian passing game, they are not playmakers and mostly make short passes to wingbacks and attacking midfielders. As I outlined in the Gilberto Silva article, these players have a safety first mentality because if they lose possession, there is very little cover behind them. The secondary function of these players is to deny space to the classic Brazilian playmaker, a dribbler who operates in THE HOLE. This requires the holding midfielder to be a good tackler and a good man marker. As long as Brazil continues with its use of dual attacking fullbacks and No 10 style playmakers, then the volantes will remain a tactical necessity.
THE ARGENTINE HOLDER – Very good man marker and tackler, tireless, decent passer.
Argentinian football is famous for producing attacking midfielders who are quick dribblers with a low centre of gravity. Even though they operate in the hole they are a lot more dynamic than traditional Brazilian playmakers and operate as deep lying forwards who love to run directly at defenses. (e.g.. Aguero, Lavezzi, Messi). By necessity, the holding midfielders assigned to stop these players have to be quick and have a lot of stamina so they can keep up with their tricky, speedy opponents. Jonathan Wilson once characterised Argentinian football as a bunch of defensive midfielders set up to stop a bunch of attacking midfielders, a very accurate description. Argentina tends to produce dynamic, tireless defensive midfielders who specialize in dispossessing quick direct dribblers, Mascherano and Cambiasso being the perfect examples of this. These players are expected to follow the attacking midfielder all over the field and close down and tackle aggressively but still get back to position when they do not win the ball. This obviously requires a lot of stamina and tactical acumen.Since these players are often marking players of short stature and they are not expected to play as center backs, being good in the air is not a requirement. Unlike Brazil, Argentinian football does not rely on fullbacks to carry the ball forward so the holding player is expected to be able to perform this role, meaning that he has to be comfortable with the ball at his feet and be able to support the attack.
THE SPANISH HOLDER – Good Passer, Comfortable with the ball, Fairly static, Defends zonally.
Most Spanish teams play a slow tempo possession game (obviously there are exceptions but even their under 17 side play in this way). The defense plays short passes to the holding midfielder instead of lumping the ball forward. As a result the holding midfielder sees a lot of the ball but unlike the Brazilian volante, this player is expected to play a through-ball if it is on. Possession based teams often play a high line, leading to the holding player being closer to his opponents goal, therefore more involved in his team’s attacks. Spanish midfields rarely resort to man marking preferring to defend the space instead, so the holding midfielder is not expected to be a brilliant ball-winner or be overly physical. His job is to be in the right place at the right time and he is rarely required to leave his central position in front of the defense.. Since the opposition is usually playing at a low tempo with passing attacking midfielders instead of dribblers, the holding midfielder is not expected to be very quick. The Spanish holding player is more valued for his technique than physique. When a team wants to play a more counter attacking style they are often forced to import a more physical ball winner as Spain does not produce this type of player naturally.
AND THEN THERE IS ENGLAND – At lower levels most English teams play 4-4-2. The central midfielders in a 4-4-2 are required to both attack and defend(the classic box to box midfielder). The high tempo of the game and the massive space these players have to cover requires that they have good stamina and be good tacklers. Tireless players who are good at winning 50/50 balls and getting the ball to the forwards quickly will naturally be the type of players who make it through this system. English midfielders are not required to deal with an attacking midfielder operating in the hole so there is no incentive to learn how to deal with this kind of player. Only at higher levels are English players required to play as real holding midfielders but by then it is too late to learn this highly specialized position. In English 4-5-1 systems, the defensive midfielder tends to be the least technical and tactically astute player in the team, valued mostly for his physicality. Recently Manchester United have broken this trend by using Scholes and Carrick in this position but it is too much to ask players to learn such a complex position at such a late stage. Gareth Barry has been referred to as a holding player by the British media but he has never played this position for his club (De Jong plays the role better than Barry ever could at Man City). He definitely was not playing this role in the Germany game.
The type of football that you and your opposition play will determine what kind of holding midfielders your country produces. Unfortunately for England, at lower levels they play a style of football that does not require a holding midfielder so they have no incentive to produce one. They got lucky with Owen Hargreaves who was produced by a different footballing culture but that is unlikely to happen again.