midfielder types in football

Midfielder Types in Football

When you’re watching a game of football, its important to analyze and watch the game with context. Specially when it comes to midfielders. A midfield, in our opinion is one of the most important positions on the pitch.

It’s responsible for controlling, handling, and determining the outcome of a match all on Its own. The midfield makeup also forms the basis of how a team will play football. Just like a combination of a midfield there are also midfield types.

So we’ll attempt to analyze and dissect different midfield types across Europe while supporting our arguments with facts and statistics to give you a better understanding of the roles that some play in big teams across Europe.

Our aim is to make sure you’re not comparing Fernandinho to Nabil Fekir in front of your mates (we’ve seen it). So let’s get started



What is a Midfielder?

In football/soccer, a midfielder makes up the entire foundation of your team. Every midfielder plays differently in regards to how a team is set up. The midfielders that you have in your team will determine the type of football your team will play.

If the midfielders are more attack-oriented your team will be the same while sacrificing defensive stability. If they’re defensive-minded, expect your team to be stable and solid while creating little going forward. The key to any successful team is balance. Teams that are able to balance these opposite ends of the spectrum are able to reap the benefits.

partey
Thomas Partey of Atletico Madrid

Some of the examples include Pep Guardiola’s 08-12 Barcelona teams. The Real Madrid side that won 3 consecutive Champions League trophies and even a blast from the past with the Manchester United team that won the only treble in English football.

So lets investigate different midfield types extensively in football

The No. 6

Called many names over the years such as Regista or Mediocentro, The ‘6’ is the midfielder that plays the role of a deep-lying playmaker who positions himself just in front of the CBs.

Predominantly they aren’t the best of defenders since that’s not their primary role. They are responsible for dictating a team’s play and being the link between the second and third phase of play (center to final third).

A typical example of such midfielders are Xabi Alonso, Andre Pirlo, Jorginho, and Busquets. As you can see from the screengrab below, Xabi Alonso gathers the ball from the center backs with the entire play in front of them.

Alonso passing
Xabi Alonso Position

The Spanish midfielder here has multiple options in front of him. He can go short to Benzema, he can play the safe ball towards Ramos and he can attempt the audacious long ball towards Marcelo (he does).

To judge these midfielders you have to look at the the following metrics for context

  • Passes played
  • Key passes
  • Passing accuracy
  • Passes that lead to dangerous situations

Since they aren’t positioned near the final third its unreasonable to expect the ‘6’ to provide assists and goals on a consistent basis. What is reasonable is to expect quicker link play and the ability to provide more regular passes into the final third with speed and precision.

Although due to the added responsibility on these midfielders to progress the play for their team, the opposition normally end up marking them out of the game or targeting them for a pressing trigger. Hence they are normally partnered with midfielders who are exceptionally athletic and defensively aware.

These midfielders are their legs and due to this dependence the ‘6’ position has slowly evolved in the modern era with athletic midfielders that can pass well being preferred, sacrificing the elite ball playing capabilities for more solidity.

jorinho picking up the ball
Jorginho partners

Here the Jorginho (no.6 for Chelsea) has Kante as the legs in the game against Spurs. He takes Moussa Sissoko away from the Italian who in other words would have been able to either press or block the pass Jorginho would have made, giving him time and space to pick the best possible option to pass the ball.



The 8/10 Hybrids

The era of the pure attacking midfielders has slowly died down, so we felt that It wouldn’t be wise to mention them as they aren’t currently influential for top sides. The newer breed of attacking midfielders operate in two phases of play.

They are able to play at a central midfielder to form a possible midfield 3 when needed. They are able to play as a forward that drives through the middle with their powerful running and they can create goal scoring opportunities and chances from either drifting out to in and vice versa.

Perfect examples of these flexible midfielders include James Maddison, Luis Alberto, and of course, the mercurial Kevin de Bruyne. The imagery below showcases Maddison picking the ball up from the middle of the park and driving towards the opposition defense with it. This can be difficult to stop if your midfield line is caught high up the pitch

James Maddison

One of the best qualities of these midfielders is that they produce their own shots. Because of their aggressive running and shoot on sight policy, they provide their managers with the option of playing them as forwards too as we saw when Kevin de Bruyne single-handedly won Manchester City the game at the Emirates this season.

kdb
Kevin de Bruyne as a forward in the second half against Arsenal
Kevin de Bruyne creating space

Midfielders like this negate the need for a 10 and are prompting most teams to go with central midfielders with running power instead to provide support, the kind we’ll get to in a second. These modern attacking midfielders have also provided their teams with defensive output as well.

Owning to this fantastic dashboard on Modern Midfielders by Mark Carey (@MarkCarey93) we are able to define the defensive and offensive outputs of these midfielders.

Kevin de Bruyne/James Maddison

From the graph above we can deduce the following characteristics about these new hybrid midfielders (simplified)

  • They’re the midfield engine of their respective teams
  • They do their fair share of defensive work
  • Despite the defensive work, their creativity doesn’t diminish
  • They are VERY direct



Box to Box Midfielders

We like to call them ‘Mezzala‘ as they are very expressive and can change games in the blink of an eye on their own. These midfielders are present in both phases of the game, they have incredible stamina and usually they’ll be the ones covering the most ground in a side.

They’ll usually be found roaming the middle third of the pitch, contributing to both attack and defence with one keen trait: late runs into the box. This makes them incredibly difficult to mark and gives the team an extra dimension with which to attack the opposition.

Let’s take a look at one of Aaron Ramsey’s FA Cup winning goals as an example of this movement. Chelsea have just scored the equalizer and Ramsey plays the ball off towards Granit Xhaka after the restart.

Ramsey’s movement

He looks around for Kante as he’s been the midfielder who’s been marking the Welshman. Knowing he has ground on him, Ramsey sees an opportunity to gamble and gets into the box as Alexis Sanchez plays the ball out to Giroud.

If Ramsey doesn’t make the run, the goal doesn’t happen.

Aaron Ramsey scoring the fa cup winner against chelsea
Another FA Cup, Another Run into the Box

Statistically speaking, these midfielders are judged on a variety of statistical metrics that range from both offensive and defensive outputs. They can range from the following metrics

  • Shots per 90
  • Tackles
  • Interceptions
  • Distance covered
  • Output (Goals/Assists)

They’ve considered all-rounders and their actions on the pitch reflect that. They’re used as an extra forward with the license to roam, a goal threat, a pressing trigger, and much more due to their versatility. One of the prime examples of such all-action midfielders is the Inter Milan man Nicolo Barella

Nicolo Barella (Mark Carney’s Dashboard)

Taking different statistical definitions into effect from FBref, we are able to deduce that Nicolo Barella strikes a great balance in providing Inter Milan with viable defensive contribution as well as an attacking threat when going forward.

Holding Midfielders

When we think of a DM, what we actually mean is a holding midfielder. Someone who just sits in front of the back 4 and cleans up any potential threats that come his way. These midfielders are robust, physical specimen with great defensive nous and physical qualities.

Some of the examples of these midfielders include Fabinho, Kante and Casemiro. As time as evolved, so has this position as before it would be enough for them to just be defensively robust and cover large amounts of ground.

They’re tasked with dragging markers, making decoy runs while maintaining their tenacity, robustness and of course stopping any opposition breakaways.

Below is a statistical overlook of N’Golo Kante in his first season at Chelsea where he won the league title. He was immaculate and was a major driving force in Chelsea winning the league after finishing 9th the previous season

Tackles127
Tackles Success Rate65%
Interceptions82
Recoveries275
Clearances41
Kante Premier League 16/17

To understand how important the role generally is, we take a look at the tactics board below for better understanding:

dm spaces
6 is the DM

The shaded areas showcase where a holding midfielder is required the most. His midfield partners are normally tasked to protect the wide areas/half-space against the opposition with the holding midfielder tasked to provide support (blue). Where you’d want them is the areas in front and around the CBs to protect, in our opinion, the most vulnerable part of the team.

Kante stopping an advancing attack

You can see Kante here successfully cutting out the pass to an advancing Newcastle player, stopping a 2v3 situation at the back and leaving the defenders vulnerable. Its because of their ability to read the game well and position themselves into good situations, its wiser to judge these midfielders on interceptions rather than tackles.

This is because it showcases the intelligence to be in the right place at the right time. That’s much more valuable than tackle statistics that can be high from any number of factors on the pitch.

Wide Midfielders

One of the most polarizing positions in football is the wide midfield role. Why? Because in every team a wide midfielder is given different responsibilities and they have to be the midfielders who must be judged on the eye test more than anyone.

At times they are placed on the right side to provide a team with balance and given responsibilities related to maintaining that balance. Sarri successfully did this with Allan at Napoli.

Then there is, of course, Lionel Messi. One of the best players to ever play the game has seen some fantastic games in that right half-space of the opposition. Due to his world-class dribbling ability and his jaw-dropping numbers, he is at times unplayable.

Messi in the half space

Messi operating in the right half space is his trademark nowadays. It’s because of his dribbling ability that he is able to create overloads for Barcelona on that left hand side for Jordi Alba’s runs in space. Its the same thing players like Bernardo Silva do for Manchester City.

They create avenues for other players to drop into dangerous situations. These midfielders are space orchestrators and have slowly become necessary in how modern football is played.

Judging these midfielders on goals and assists is too simplistic (except Messi). Statistics like final third entries, key passes, dribbles and crosses are some of the more tangible elements with which these midfielders can be judged.

Youri Tielemans

The graphic above showcases how a player that operates in the half spaces does as we normally do see Youri Tielemans occupy that space despite starting from deeper positions as soon as Ayoze Perez moves centrally to provide Vardy with support.

Conclusion:

Football is easy to play but difficult to understand at times. Statistics only tells you half the story, so to judge a player context is very important with regards to how they start for their respective football teams.

Hopefully after this piece you’re able to grasp how different midfielders compare to one another and judge them accordingly. Realistic expectations should be placed on footballers who are integral to a side.

Until Next Time, Ciao…

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