22 November ~ Manchester City’s decision to start the recent derby game with a midfield of Gareth Barry, Nigel de Jong and Yaya Touré was an extreme example of how much the “holding midfielder” has become a part of the football scene. More than half of the teams in the World Cup used formations with two holding players, and it is just as common to see the same pattern in Leagues One and Two. Not bad for a position that Leeds United legend Johnny Giles describes as “a myth”.
It’s not unusual for the press to credit José Mourinho with introducing the role to English football, and just as often it has become associated with Claude Makelele: the “Makelele position”. But in various guises it has been around in the English leagues for a long time and in world football for longer still. Arsenal’s combination of Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit could lay claim to being a holding partnership, as could Brazil’s pairing of Dunga and Mauro Silva. Nobby Stiles might well feel he had already made the Makelele position his own before the Frenchman was born, as he screened Jack Charlton and Bobby Moore to World Cup success.
The position goes by several names and, depending on the team shape, can be played in different ways. In Stiles’s day it was often the “anchor” role, while David Pleat has illustrated some of the variety in names: defensive midfielder, screening role, holding midfielder or destroyer. Makelele captured the role with a modest simplicity: “They (attacking players) would take risks, I would take care of the opposition attacks.” On the other hand, Chris Coleman, during his time in charge of Fulham, saw the Frenchman in more significant terms, believing that “everything goes through Makelele” and built a game plan to nullify his impact. Despite Makelele’s characteristic understatement, in the hands of the most accomplished practitioners it is as much about starting an attack as bringing one to a full stop.
For Spain, and in the past for Liverpool, Xabi Alonso added a very different dimension to the role – that of deep-lying playmaker – through the accuracy of his long passing, much as Falcão did for Brazil in the 1980s or Andrea Pirlo for AC Milan. Members of successful partnerships often display complementary talents. Alonso’s international partner, Sergio Busquets, can often seem invisible and resembles Makelele in one important way through his selfless contribution to the team, while Pirlo’s club partner, Gennaro Gattuso, added snap and snarl to the partnership. Dutchmen Mark van Bommel and Nigel do Jong offer a different approach through their muscular, and at times brutal, interpretation of the role. Although both can play, they more often tip towards Pleat’s “destroyer”.
Giles stresses that successful central midfield partnerships are often based on mutual awareness: “[Billy] Bremner and myself got up at the right time and we got back at the right time,” a view perhaps formed in a different and less tactically sophisticated era. And yet his views find an echo in the attempts to pair Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard that often focused on how they could work together to provide defensive cover while exploiting their attacking talents. Their repeated failure to adapt is perhaps as much a condemnation of much English coaching and its failure to give players, even at the highest levels, a rounded appreciation of the position they play.
Despite all of this, there seems to be a compulsion to find a place for the holder in many teams. The motivation is insurance and risk avoidance. All too often players have to fit to the chosen team pattern with the holding role performed by less gifted and more limited players. The end result is often defensive and overwhelmingly negative. Like the libero position in the past, the potential of the role is lost through poor application and our game looks as cumbersome and tactically out of date as England’s performance against France. Brian Simpson