The development of the advanced playmaker has always been closely linked with that of the holding midfielder. Proactive and reactive. Creator and destroyer. And the holder has always developed as a shadow and a mirror image of the creator – where tactical innovation has opened a pocket of space for the playmaker, an equal and opposite reaction takes place in an attempt to stifle it. For every Zidane there is a Makélélé, for every Riquelme a Mascherano. The role of the playmaker has changed, but what impact has this had on the holding midfielder? How is the role of the destroyer changing in the modern game?
The playmaker is in a continual state of flux, going through a series of different incarnations. At the top level of modern football the old-fashioned, foot-on-the-ball trequartista is obsolete, negated by the rise of tactically-disciplined destroyers like Claude Makélélé whose role is to stifle creative play ‘between the lines’.
This doesn’t mean that the playmaker has disappeared, but that the effective area for creative play has shifted. Specifically, it’s shifted out to wider areas of the pitch. Advanced playmakers either start as a wide midfielder and drift inside (like Luka Modric often does for Tottenham) or start centrally but move into wider areas (like Aaron Hunt at Werder Bremen).
So what does this mean for the holding midfielder? The ‘Makélélé role’ entailed protecting the centre-backs, but the preferred method of unlocking a defence has changed – playmakers now look to exploit the gap between full-back and centre-back. This change could be seen during the World Cup – Spain would often deploy a wide player (initially Jesús Navas and later Pedro Rodríguez) on the right, obliging the opposing left-back to hold a wide position, thereby stretching the defence and manufacturing a gap for a creative player such as Andrés Iniesta to exploit. The gap between full-back and centre-back is therefore increasingly requiring of protection – necessitating the evolution of a new breed of holding midfielder.
How, then, will the new breed differ from its progenitor? First and foremost, the new holding midfielder will not have the brief of directly negating a particular player – the role is more focussed on controlling space. As such, interceptions will be as important a method of gaining possession as tackling, if not more important. This new type of midfielder also needs to be mobile and more technically adept than its predecessors – teams can increasingly ill-afford to field specialists at the highest level of football.
There are current examples of this type of player. Javier Mascherano is perhaps the prototype of the new holding midfielder – covering the full-backs and shutting down space in wide areas – but he is technically limited. A truer example would be Sergio Busquets. Agile, intelligent and possessing of a rare tactical awareness, Busquets is indisputably a holding midfielder, but of a kind almost unrecognisable to Makélélé or Gilberto Silva.
During the World Cup final, Busquets was quick to provide cover on the left side to shut down Arjen Robben – exactly the sort of player to potentially pose a threat between full-back and centre-back. He was also the second-highest passer in the tournament, making over 200 more passes than Mascherano – remarkable even when taking into account that the Argentine played two games fewer. Even more notably, Busquets was undeniably effective in winning possession, yet was far from the most prolific tackler in the tournament – an indication of the increased importance of positional discipline, of knowing how to be in the right place at the right time to intercept a pass.
This is, of course, not the final stage of development. No doubt this evolution of the holding midfielder will open up space in another area of the pitch, which will eventually be exploited. The next tactical innovation is only ever the blink of an eye away, and a corresponding defensive manoeuvre will never be far behind.