The Multi-Dimensional Role of Midfielders
Historically, midfield roles in soccer were clearly defined and their responsibilities were obvious, even by name: Attacking Midfielders would attack, defensive midfielders would defend, and outside/wide midfielders would, you guessed it, stay wide.
However, the modern game has changed, and so have the roles and responsibilities of all players, especially in midfield.
Gone are the days that defensive midfielders would simply protect the back four, with their tasks including a variation of tackling, destroying, and tackling some more. Now, D-mids are not only responsible for protecting the defense and stopping counter-attacks, but this role has evolved into an essential piece in starting attacks and providing the link between the defense and the offensive positons.
The defensive midfield role serves as a “pivot” in helping to keep possession of the ball, by finding pockets of space between the lines of the defense and attacking midfielders, to receive the ball and switch the field in order to avoid getting trapped on one side. More and more, we are seeing players with elite passing ability and tactical awareness play this deeper role, despite their speed, strength, or defensive limitations, such as Andrea Pirlo, Steven Gerrard, and Xabi Alonso.
As the defensive midfield role has evolved, so has the traditional attacking midfield and wide midfield positions.
In the past, attacking midfielders would simply sit underneath the forwards and provide support, offering little defensive help and being responsible for providing the passing creativity and assists to the forwards. As high pressing the opponent when not in possession of the ball has become the defensive standard now in soccer, every role in midfield is tasked with providing greater defensive work rate and essentially playing both offensively and defensively from box-to-box.
Simply being an attack-minded midfielder who brings little to the team in defense is no longer an option. As is the case in goal scoring, where midfielders are required to chip in some occasional tallies on the scoresheet in addition to providing their customary assists. In wide midfielder roles, depending on the system, players must tuck in centrally at times to help defensively as well as to help find the ball in possession.
There is more fluidity than ever in the roles of midfield as players’ interchange, and they must be aware of the roles and responsibilities of each of their teammates, particularly on the defensive end when possession is lost.
Every midfield player is responsible for having great passing ability, tactical understanding, and elite conditioning level to meet the demands of the position. There is much more multi-dimensional skill and positional flexibility than ever in modern soccer, and this has forced players to adapt in order to survive.
For youth players envisioning themselves as the next defensive midfield maestro, such as Sergio Busquets, or the future attacking midfield sensation a la Eden Hazard, be sure to watch and learn from all roles in midfield, as you never know where you may find yourself on the field in any given game.