There was once a time when the most valued midfielders in football were the ones who hardly looked like footballers. They were often lanky, languid, and sometimes even short. The likes of Xavi, Iniesta, Kaka, Zidane, Ozil, and Pirlo are some of the most celebrated midfielders of the last 20 years in football, and they fit into this description seamlessly.
Unlike some of the best forwards and defenders of that era, who certainly looked like athletes, midfielders were judged by the speed of their brains and the elegance of their bodies – most notably, their feet.
We used to ooh and aah at the deft touch of Zidane, the lofted balls of Pirlo, or the needle passes of Xavi. While these types of players are still around in the modern game, they tend to make less of a difference, which has come as a disappointing shock to those who might consider themselves to be football ‘purists’.
Modern Dominant Midfielder
The dominant mold of midfielder in the modern game is the all-action, dynamic player who can do the dirty work in midfield while also linking the midfield with the attack. Look at the likes of De Bruyne, Kante, Partey, Henderson, and Kroos, who are all considered amongst the best midfielders in the world.
All of them have distinctive traits of course, but are more well-rounded than many of their predecessors – these types of players dominate football nowadays and cause problems for those who are more one-dimensional, no matter how strong they are in that single dimension.
This becomes obvious when you look at a player like Mesut Ozil, who is still the same technically gifted phenomenon he was at the start of his career but is struggling to make the grade in the modern game, despite being just 31.
As clubs desperately scramble to spend the big bucks on their all-round midfielders, Marseille in Ligue 1 found theirs in the summer of 2019 for a measly €13 million, in French midfielder Valentin Rongier. While Rongier had a somewhat slow start to his career at Marseille, struggling for the first month or two, his form since then has been nothing short of spectacular, as he quickly made a name for himself as one of the very best midfielders in Ligue 1.
Style of Play
The most intriguing part about Valentin Rongier is that it’s almost impossible to tell what his best quality is. For some players, this can happen due to a lack of standout traits. For Rongier, it’s the opposite, but with the same result: he thrives at nearly everything a midfielder is supposed to do. In many ways, he is a player that can do it all, and someone that can be relied upon extensively to deliver the goods in midfield, especially in a 4-3-3.
This season, Rongier has played mostly as a right interior midfielder in Marseille’s usual 4-3-3 formation, although he has played in both deeper and more advanced midfield roles on occasion when Andre Villas-Boas switches up his formation, highlighting his versatile skill set in midfield.
His intense, physical style of play allows him to thrive in the modern game, which is very much starting to become built on those 2 aforementioned traits, especially in the middle of the pitch. Midfielders no longer have to score and assist regularly to be a part of a successful team.
As full-backs begin to take more creative and attacking roles, midfielders are often used as a 3rd line of attack, while having the more critical responsibilities of winning the ball back when it is lost and maintaining flawless positional play to better protect their team from counter-attacks when the ball is lost and the full-backs are out of positions.
As mentioned earlier, Rongier has a lot in his locker. Sometimes, you will see him dictate the play and help feed the electric Dimitri Payet the ball between the lines. Other times, you’ll see him hounding the opposition and hunting the ball relentlessly. He might just be the most effective player in Ligue 1 in the critical 3-5 second frame right after the ball is lost. This time frame is when Rongier’s quality shines through.
Of course, the high-pressing system of Andre Villas-Boas has suited Rongier quite a bit, and it’s clear that the club saw the Frenchman as the ideal candidate to fulfill the vision for Villas-Boas’ midfield, as they went through a long, drawn-out process to bring him over from Nantes on deadline day last summer.
Alongside Morgan Sanson, Rongier plays a crucial role in the Marseille press. You won’t find the Frenchman venturing forward very often, but he is quick to close down the half-spaces when the opponent wins the ball, often shutting down the left-back alongside the other regular right-sided players such as Bouna Sarr, while cutting the passing lanes towards the midfield. He is very much a player who does most of his work in short, sporadic bursts, with a slow tempo to his play when his team is in possession, paired with an extremely aggressive style when his team loses the ball.
Taking a look at Rongier’s stats in comparison to some of the other midfielders in Ligue 1, there truly aren’t many that are as complete as the Marseille midfield marshal.
- 50% challenger win ratio in Ligue 1 (one of the seven midfielders)
- Wins 60% of his tackles
- 70% dribble success rate
- 59 ball recoveries in the opposition half
While he seems set to stay at Marseille, with no clubs seemingly interested him as of right now, things can change fast throughout a transfer window, and if he happens to stick around in Ligue 1 and have a strong 2020-21 season, he could be a hot commodity next summer, as the economic side of the game starts heading back to its normal wavelength.
Rongier could also be of use to the French national team, although Deschamps’ midfield is packed with top players such as Paul Pogba, Ngolo Kante, and Corentin Tolisso. Despite that quality, players such as Moussa Sissoko, Matteo Guendouzi, and Steven N’Zonzi have gotten call-ups within the last year, and Rongier currently playing better football than that trio, he could be in with a chance over the coming years if his form keeps up.