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The extinction of the box-to-box midfielder

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The recent success of Barcelona and Spain dictates that this is the era of possession. High-profile triumphs such as Spain’s three consecutive tournament victories means many have tried to copy them – but do tactics and player positions come in trends?

As Darren Bent has found to his cost at Aston Villa, it is seldom enough for a striker to be a mere ‘goal scorer’ anymore. Forwards are expected to defend from the front and improved their defensive organisation and fitness, meaning that the traditional goal poacher is going out of fashion.

In tactics, the advent and subsequent popularity of 4-2-3-1, a subtle tweak from previous configurations, has led to the near extinction of one of English football’s most treasured participants: the box-to-box midfielder.

For years, the box-to-box midfielder typified the English game: strength, speed, power, the ability to win a tackle at one end of the pitch before storming up to the other to have a shot at goal.

It is no coincidence that this type of midfielder has thrived in this country more than elsewhere, where athleticism has often been valued over pure technique and tactical aptitude; Lothar Matthäus, Jean Tigana and Torsten Frings were all excellent players, but they would perhaps have been even more greatly appreciated if they had plied their trade in England, where Roy Keane, Patrick Vieira and Bryan Robson, amongst others, embodied the classically British style of play.

As many outfits began to move away from 4-4-2 in preference of an additional man in the middle, those teams that stuck with just two central midfielders became dangerously outnumbered, and were forced to effectively cede control of the ball.

For example, when Arne Wenger increasingly began to favour a variation of 4-2-3-1 in the mid-2000s, Sir Alex Ferguson would alter his Manchester United line-up to numerically match the Gunners in midfield, where the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Mathieu Flamini and Tomáš Rosický frequently awarded Arsenal possessional domination.

The main consequence of the advancement towards 4-2-3-1 has been the growth of specialists. There has always been a conscious intention to strike a balance in midfield – witness the distinct tasks performed by central midfielders in some of the most eminent sides of the last decade, Zinedine Zidane and Claude Makélelé at Real Madrid to Deco and Pedro Mendes at Porto – but this has intensified in the past five years.

Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, talismanic figures for Chelsea and Liverpool, were routinely unable to play together for England, where Sven-Göran Eriksson and Steve McClaren repeatedly failed to realise that two box-to-box players could seldom play together in a 4-4-2.

Attempting to shoehorn the best individuals into a starting eleven neglects the fact that, in football, the whole is invariably greater than the sum of its parts; Eriksson largely ignored this and, after deciding that Michael Owen needed a strike partner to flourish, should have been brave enough to opt for either Lampard or Gerrard alongside a more disciplined player in the centre of the park.

Indeed, Lampard and Gerrard excelled domestically when partnered with Makélelé or Dietmar Hamann, more defensive-minded players who allowed them to perform their box-to-box functions. It is noteworthy that 4-2-3-1 has since forced Lampard and Gerrard to almost become one or the other; the former is used primarily as a holding midfielder, although interestingly retains the license to join the attack on occasions, with one member of Chelsea’s attacking midfielders behind Fernando Torres expected to fill in as Ramires expertly demonstrated in December’s victory over Everton.

Gerrard also operates deeper on the field, with Liverpool continually benefiting from their captain’s terrific long-passing capabilities. Although this could be explained with reference to the pair’s rising age, the repositioning is almost certainly down to tactical considerations: Yaya Touré is in the prime of his career and has all of the qualities associated with a complete midfielder but plays regularly as a holder to correspond with Manchester City’s system, with Marouane Fellaini, Sami Khedira and Esteban Cambiasso’s more defined roles offering further evidence of the box-to-box man’s decline.

Despite appearing to be dead at the highest level of today’s game, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the box-to-box midfielder will be resurrected in the future. Although it is difficult to envisage contemporary coaches turning away from 4-2-3-1, systems will continue to evolve, and the success of a side playing a formation designed to counter 4-2-3-1 could see a replacement of what has become today’s default arrangement internationally.

The box-to-box midfielder, so often identified as the heartbeat and driving force of English sides, is clearly out of fashion. But just as skinny ties, platform heels and chino trousers have shown, it may not be gone forever.  

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