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.
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