The dribbling central midfielder: A new species?

February 3, 2013

As football becomes more possession-based, could we see the rise of a new midfield role?

Ronnie Macdonald

Through the revolving door of football tactics, player types are thrown in and out. The decline of the 4-4-2 has made the box-to-box midfielder a rare breed, while the rise of the 4-2-3-1 has given the deep-lying playmaker a welcomed renaissance. Such changes happen in accordance with one of football’s few constants: the gradual move towards possession, passing and technique. (A progress accelerated by the purism of Barcelona.) And so now, casting a look at Europe’s tactical sophisticates, it is tempting to ask: could we see the rise of a new midfield role?

The evidence is scarce, but there is enough to theorise. Take three of the finest passing sides on the continent: Barcelona, Arsenal and Tottenham. Each builds attacks over several moves, push their full-backs forward, stretch the play. Consequently, each week they find themselves trying to break down stubborn, compact defences. Incidentally, to cope with this, each team also has a dribbling central midfielder: Andrés Iniesta, Jack Wilshere and Mousa Dembélé respectively.

This is interesting.

Tactical context

There is no overly convincing connection between this new role and the three teams. Things could have been different. Dembélé could have chosen another club. Wilshere’s injury could have set him back. Iniesta could have been restricted to the normal laws of gravity. But in the context of the teams’ tactical philosophy, possessing this (relatively rare) type of player makes sense.

Imagine a top side’s arch-typical frustrating afternoon. In a should-win league fixture, a technically superior side controls the game at home. They face a solid, compact, destructive opponent designed to steal a 0-0 draw (picture a lacklustre Arsenal versus a cynical Stoke at the Emirates, Arsène Wenger reeling on the sidelines). The ball is recycled endlessly, from side to side, up and down, without penetration. The fans are moaning. It is a classic scenario.

Consider the options. Powerful midfielders (think Steven Gerrard) often lack the wit to break through, bar a fierce long-distance shot. Deep-lying playmakers (Andrea Pirlo) are a good bet, but they depend on a clever run. On a bad day, that may not arrive. With two banks defending close together, attacking midfielders (Mesut Özil) may struggle to find space. What is needed is an element of surprise; a player who can single-handedly kick-start a move.

This is what dribbling central midfielders can do. They create in spite of a collective standstill. Nobody else needs to move. By passing the central midfield, they first create an overload between the lines. There, they commit defenders to them, leaving spaces for one-twos or killer passes. These are dangerous situations. While the purpose of a deep-lying playmaker/attacking midfielder combination centres on finding the latter between the lines, the dribbling central midfielder can reach this position on his own. It is a get-out-of-jail card for good teams on a bad day; like a kick-start to a broken-down car.

Examples

Of the role, Andrés Iniesta is a prime specimen. He often dribbles in from the left, rather than centrally, but this is more common when the opposition is less organised and concede more space. Facing nine men inside 20 yards, Iniesta is often found in the middle. He is a master at accelerating past players within just a few metres. His balance – arguable the finest since Zinédine Zidane – enables him to slip through between defenders. Once past, he may play a one-two, or execute deft pass leading to a goal.

Pocket of space: Xavi and Busquets often find Iniesta in this area

Pocket of space: Xavi and Busquets often find Iniesta in this area. He then takes on the defensive midfielder

 

Although from a slightly different position from that above, Iniesta’s assist for Samuel Eto’o in the 2009 Champions League final against Manchester United is a decent example.

Wilshere and Dembélé are different in that they operate in double pivots. In essence, they fulfil the role of a deep-lying playmaker by being the chief driving forces behind their team’s attacks. Wilshere is perhaps more similar to this type; his passing is excellent, and Arsenal can depend on that alone. But he is less static. He passes – then goes again. And, like Dembélé, he is able to bypass the opponent’s midfield alone. This skill does not only apply outside the box, but also deep inside their own halves when pressured. Given how wide Arsenal and Tottenham stretch their play, there is always space centrally to work in. And Wilshere and Dembélé are excellent at exploiting this.

Move: the structure of a typical Arsenal attack started by Wilshere

Move: the structure of a typical attack started by Wilshere

 

While again, the video below does not portray the exact scenario above, it gives a nice demonstration of Wilshere as a dribbling midfielder.

Evolution

With no more than three examples to cite, it is speculative to predict this as a coming trend in football. What is certain is that the role is effective for modern, possession-based, tactically sophisticated teams like Barça, Arsenal and Tottenham. In overcoming a well-organised team, it is a key addition to a manager’s attacking tool box. As teams move closer to a more possession-based approach, the dribbling central midfielder could be an exciting species to follow.

– – –

Wilshere picture: Ronnie MacDonald

Iniesta video: Swagged Highlights

Wilshere video: Culann Davies

6 comments

I believe Thiago is also able to fulfil this role at Bayern due to his ability 1v1 and his acceleration. One example would be Toni Kroos’ goal from the Telekom Cup.

by J. Siwale on August 19, 2013 at 10:50 am. #

I’d say bayern is one of the better passing teams in Europe. In fact, the stats speak for themselves. After barca, Bayern boast high possession percentages. But, Bayern don’t have any dribbling central midfielders as far as I can see. Schweini doesn’t attempt dribbles does he? Can you throw more light on this?

by Jayanth koundinya on June 10, 2013 at 11:22 am. #

I think there’s a quite a few more examples of the ”dribbling” midfielder in the top European leagues. To name a few, there’s Valero (and to some extent, Pizarro) at Fiorentina, Hernanes at Lazio, Badelj/Arslan at HSV (whom both remarkably enough, start their surges forward from the bottom of the diamond!), Yaya Toure at City etc.

Rather than contemplating whether it could be considered a new tactical trend, I think exploring the differences between the two different approaches – pushing central mids forward with / without the ball – would make for a very, very interesting reading. There’s extremely contrasting approaches to this in Europe this season after all!

And a big thanks for your articles, I really enjoy reading them. Internet has truly done wonders to the English (speaking) football discourse.

by Konsta K. on February 27, 2013 at 9:06 am. #

Thank you for an interesting reply. I’m guilty of not watching enough Serie A/Bundesliga, so the names you mention may well be fine examples.

The difference with/without ball certainly is interesting, though that article will be for others to write. I guess, in a case such as Lampard who always pushes forward, you’d rely more on wingers to dribble past people (as when Robben/Duff fed him under Mourinho).

by Thore Haugstad on February 28, 2013 at 9:22 am. #

“Take three of the finest passing sides on the continent: Barcelona, Arsenal and Tottenham.” .. Surely Villarreal CF have developed a better passing/possession game than Tottenham, despite the fact that they are in the Spanish 2nd division.

by Pranav Angara on February 27, 2013 at 2:06 am. #

They might have. Just said Tottenham were ‘one of the’ finest :)

by Thore Haugstad on February 27, 2013 at 8:41 am. #