Tuesday, 17 July 2012

The death of the ‘water carrier’: the next step in modern football evolution.


Football, like all sports; and life, is in a constant state of evolution. We have seen the tactical evolution of central defenders from bald, toothless, aggressive thugs to finesse ball-players who are comfortable launching attacks from deep. Most world class clubs, with the possible exception of Manchester United, have all but abandoned the use of traditional touchline-hugging wingers. Another change has been the gradual disappearance of the traditional defensive midfielder, midfield destroyer, defensive shield or ‘water carrier’ as they were labeled in the ultra-defensive Italian culture of catenaccio of yester-year.

When one thinks of the traditional defensive midfielder, the mind automatically jumps to illustrious names like Gennaro Gattusso, Didier Deschamps, Carlos Dunga, Diego Simeone, the list goes on.  These players had but one role on their teams; break up their opponents’ attacks by any means necessary. If they managed that task, without fouling, they attempted to get the ball to their more gifted teammates to orchestrate attacks. They ran themselves into the ground, racked up the cards for the good of the team and didn’t get the plaudits that their more glamorous teams got. They rolled their sleeves, got mud on their socks and had all the bruises to show for it. They fought. Literally..

Gennaro G...
Rino Gatusso doesn't take kindly to being insulted

The Italian influence


For nearly two decades, from the 80s, through to the turn of the millennium, Italy ruled the roost of world football, especially at club level. Italy was where all the glamour and money was. And Italian success was built solid defensive and tactical discipline. The goal fests we’re enthralled by today were frowned upon by the likes of coach Arrigo Sacchi, whose Milan team won the Scudetto, in the late 80s, by beating nearly all their opponents 1-0, despite boasting stars like Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard. The Italian clubs employed one or two midfielders for the specific role of stifling the other team’s attacks. So, as always, everyone copied the winning formula. And that is the era that produced the Dessaillys and the Dungas.

The English get rich

All evolutions go through various phases. The next phase of the evolution came with the resurrection of the English club game. Around the turn of the millennium, the English League became the pre-eminent league in European football due its financial muscle.  Part of the Premier league’s appeal stemmed from the ‘exciting’, open, end- to- end high octane football on show; as opposed to the ponderous and rigid Italians.
With this brand of soccer came the need for fitter, athletic players; and it called for all midfielders to have a semblance of attacking prowess. Teams couldn’t afford to have the traditional ultra-defensive midfielders sitting around waiting to break up opponents attacks; yet they couldn’t compromise the defensive solidity of the team. Versatility and adaptability was key. In came the likes of Patrick Vieira, Roy Keane, Dennis Wise; and Luis Enrique and Edgar Davids on the continent. Players who performed their primary duty of fighting in the trenches but could contribute to the attack if afforded the space.

The Makelele role

Any discussion about defensive midfielders would not be complete without a mention of Claude Makelele. We remember him for his impeccable position and doing his job minimal fuss. He didn’t even get into much of the disciplinary trouble that comes with the position. Amazingly he seemed to do all this with a certain nonchalance that bordered on arrogance. He never seemed to break a sweat, yet he managed to get where he needed to be to disrupt play, cover his defenders and much more. He had that rare gift in sports of almost telepathically reading his opponents’ minds and preparing himself for their next move.

What most ignore is that he was the first truly transcendent player of his type. His passing range wasn’t expansive but his short passing game was as intelligent as they come. I recall a Chelsea game against Arsenal when Arsene Wenger(he may not be the greatest tactician but you don’t win 4 titles by being dumb) ordered the likes of Robert Pires and Freddy Ljungberg to ‘sit on’ Makelele to stop him launching Chelsea’s attacks from deep with his slick, underrated passing. Wenger had noticed that most opponents gave him time on the ball, and he punished them, albeit subtly and by proxy. Not to put too fine a point on it but Florentino Perez made probably the biggest mistake in his administrative life by letting Makelele leave Real Madrid for Chelsea in the summer of 2003, a decision that in my opinion, aided the return to prominence of Frank Rijkaard's Barca.

The Spanish revolution

Now that the Spanish are well and truly the masters of the world game, the emphasis has firmly shifted from defensive rigidity to attacking fluidity. Even if Spanish clubs, and to a lesser extent, the national had always been successful. The true breakout came with Pep Gurdiola’s Barcelona juggernaut that swept all before it. This team is also the spine of the all conquering Spanish national team. Gurdiola’s insistence on all his players being comfortable on the ball and being intelligent passers has taken football to the next level. It’s the new model of success.

 Perhaps the greatest example of this new breed of midfielder is Xabi Alonso. Just as comfortable playing deep as he is spraying the ball round the park with laser efficiency, he is the total package. The Italians, not to be left, behind have re-invented the regista position; a deep lying playmaker like the unimpeachable Andrea Pirlo who wrecked all sorts of havoc at Euro 2012. The Germans have Bastian Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos/Sami Khedira who are all extremely capable on the ball; and boss the game from the base of the midfield. 

The exclusively defensive midfielder is well and truly on the way out, and this change is also reflected at club level as well. Of  the Premier League Big Four/Five/Six(depending on who you ask), only Chelsea used a traditional ‘midfield shield’ (Obi Mikel), consistently last season. Even he temporarily lost his place under AVB, to the more technically gifted Raul Mereiles and Oriol Romeu.  Nigel de Jong lost his place at City, possibly because he offers nothing other than bone-crunching tackles and a touch of kung fu. With the likes Rino Gattuso and Massimo Ambrosini in the twilight of their careers, it is truly the end of an era.

"If you don't get the ball, get the man"- Ugandan saying

The future.

 I reckon teams are moving away from over-reliance on particular players as ball winners; and moving towards use constant ball pressure involving several players, as Gurdiola’s Barca did. The downside of this method being that it requires impeccable fitness and absolute comfort on the ball from most, if not all the players. Teams that don’t get with the program will find themselves country miles behind the Barcelonas and  Real Madrids of this world. 

I must say, one of the prime reasons, for England’s poor performances on the international stage is a failure to embrace modern trends in world football. They still feel most comfortable employing a traditional DM, a generic central midfielder, two wingers and two strikers; a system that is at least 10 years outdated elsewhere. The moral of the story is, “evolve or die”

Thanks, as always, for bearing with my rumblings.

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