Yes, this is still a thing! This is the final installment of a three part series on the defensive midfielder. Here, I talk about the defensive midfielder in the past ten or fifteen years, and why the passing holding midfield is the favoured kind.
The transition to a back three saw the evolution of both the sweeper and the defensive midfielder. Earlier renditions of the sweeper saw a player who, in more progressive styles of play, had the freedom to join into the midfield and attack. Even in Il gioco all'Italiana, the sweeper was a converted inside forward, and was necessary to build a counter attacking game. With a back three, though, the sweeper became far more defensive and destructive. While he could still push into midfield, he was also the spare man at the back against two-man strike partnerships, and enabled the wing backs in a 3-5-2 to push forward.
Thus, with the more destructive nature of the defensive midfielder now found in the sweeper, the defensive midfielder, or holding midfielder, became even more a ball-playing player, while retaining the ball-winning and positional ability of his destructive version. Argentina in 1986, for example, had three excellent, destructive centre backs, with Jose Luis Brown the sweeper. Jorge Batista, though, was very much a ball player, and Argentina were also able to fit Jorge Burruchaga, an attack minded midfielder, ahead of Batista. In 1990, England were able to have a midfield pairing of Paul Gascoigne and David Platt, as Mark Wright at sweeper behind a back four gave extra protection.
This emphasises the need for the deepest midfield player to be a capable passer. One can easily fit a destructive player in the defensive line, but without a deep midfielder who is able to distribute the ball well, all forms of attack, whether counter attack or a more patient build up game, becomes far more difficult, because the deepest midfielder is going to collect the ball more often, and see the ball more often.
And, as Jonathan Wilson recently wrote, there's been a return to the more destructive defensive midfield player playing at centre back. Javier Mascherano does so for Barcelona, having rarely deputized for Sergio Busquets, and Gary Medel does so for Chile. At the present, the tempo-setting passing holding midfielder, like Busquets or Javi Martinez, Mikel Arteta, Bruno Soriano, and Thiago Motta are favoured. Even in the Premier League, Everton have a revitalised Gareth Barry, and while he can sometimes struggle without a physical box to box midfielder alongside, Michael Carrick has good positioning and is good at setting Manchester United's tempo. Brendan Rodger's recent deployment of Steven Gerrard in front of Liverpool's defence points to the growing trend, and although Gerrard is not the most natural of defensive midfielders, it shows how much value is being placed on being able to creatively pass the ball from deep. When that player is much more capable defensively, such as Mikel Arteta, it becomes more obvious why the defensive midfielder is also a playmaker. They're not obvious choices, but with their intelligent positioning, and underrated tackling ability, they fulfill the role in a much cleaner and quicker way, and having won the ball back, quickly initiate attacks.
As Arsenal look for a player to upgrade on Mikel Arteta this summer, the player's passing ability will be of the foremost importance. The defensive midfielder is often the player making the first pass in transition, and the first player to be pressed. A good passer in that role is essential. Perhaps that will change in the future, but it is little wonder why someone like Marouane Fellaini was so-little wanted this past summer; his style of defensive play in the midfield isn't desired by Europe's best clubs, and his limited passing ability means that the best clubs and the best managers in Europe don't envision him as a tempo-setting midfielder. Having a passing holding midfielder allows for greater universatality and flexibility: it means a team can add more creativity, without greatly exposing its defence.