The Lost Art of (Defensive) Midfielding

Yesterday, while watching an entertaining collection of mostly off-the-ball incidents involving Danish former Everton and Real Madrid midfielder Thomas Gravesen, I began to consider the importance of controlled aggression in football. It became clear to me that Gravesen, in his both his physical and ‘banteresque’ exchanges with other players, was involved in a strategy of shadow throwing and exaggeration that one is more familiar with in wrestling or pantomime than in modern football. That evening, the Netherlands struggled against Germany, but failed to reach the violent nadir of their performances in World Cup 2010 – especially the final when the inarguably talented but weirdly boring Spain team ground out a win in a game reminiscent of some Christians trying to play keepie-uppie against a team of extremely hungry and irate lions with a penchant for self-loathing.One persuasive narrative to emerge from that night: the Netherlands were seen as anti-footballing villains while Spain were conquering heroes.

There’s little doubt that a rare strain of ultraviolence was embodied by that Holland team, but was that final really the night when, symbolically at least, a non-contact, packed-midfield brand of tiki-taka football was crowned? And, if so, where does this leave the defensively-minded midfielder who’s motivated not only by a desire to turn defence into attack by breaking play up through tackling and distribution, but also – see Gravesen – to turn the course of a game through psychological jostling, cumulative pressure and, yes, the occasional physical attack?

The growing aestheticisation of football, fed by a speed-reading of Barcelona’s fluidity crossed with fantasies of a Harlem Globetrotters-like touch of anti-gravity showiness (Krusty the Klown: ‘they were using a freaking ladder for gods’ sakes’) has perhaps blinded many to the successes of teams more fundamentally grounded in supposedly traditional footballing strategy: put a big lad up front, get it out to the wings and kick anyone who goes towards your goal. For some reason, Real Madrid and Stoke City spring to mind. Barçelona’s efforts to experiment with these ‘sorts of players’ haven’t been hugely successful: Ibrahimovic was a notable failure while Mascherano came in an aggressive, hard-tackling midfield mentalcase but is now someone who slots into defence when one or other of the favoured centre-backs is crocked. The logic of Barça under Guardiola dictated that the target man and the hard-man defensive midfielder must be tamed and domesticated in order to play within the system.

Where’s a defensively-minded midfielder (with a penchant for controlled aggression) to go, though? Strange that such a player, who offers a bulwark for defence, a certain kind of gonzo leadership and, at his best, a hub from which the spokes of successful counterattacking play can project, now finds himself unfashionable and unloved. But, then again, these players are always the least praised, and frequently demonised for their excesses: Roy Keane for his career-ending tackle on Alf-Inge Haaland, Gennaro Gattuso for his headbutt on Joe Jordan – Lee Cattermole for, well, practically everything he does whenever he gets on the pitch. (And then there’s obviously Van Bommel, whose reputation precedes him to the degree that when he fails to hack someone down, he resembles Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner, nervously picking around the laboratory in fear of turning into the enormous green anger monster.) To jump away from strictly defensive midfield for a moment, such vilification puts one in mind of another midfielder, though admittedly in a different galaxy from everyone else – both in terms of the quality of the player and the near-operatic tragedy of the excessive event – Zinédine Zidane’s ‘chestbutt’ on Marco Matterrazi in the 2006 World Cup final.

One of the disappointments of Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parenno’s Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait was its relative silence – Zinédine barely spoke apart from (according to my recollection) telling the ref to go fuck himself at one point. If that film presents the art of midfielding as one of quiet contemplation occasionally punctuated by success, failure and inexplicable violence, the Youtube footage of Gravesen (mostly from his time with Real Madrid and set to broad parpy comedy music) shows the industry with which one goes about creating the sort of legend that leads others – both on and off the field – to refer to a footballer as ‘that psycho’.

Posted by Karl Whitney

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8 thoughts on “The Lost Art of (Defensive) Midfielding

  1. tt9m says:

    Great read, but I have to disagree with the criticism(?) of Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait. The beauty of that film was the silence, the breathing, the sighing, the snorting. There was an internal agression shown in that film that SKYPLAYERCAM just can’t show. You can almost hear when Zizou is disappointed with himself, or at his teammates. I didn’t think it showed ZZ as quietly contemplative at all, more brooding and impulsive, but controlled.

    Anyway, nice Cattermole dig anyway.

  2. Karl Whitney says:

    Many thanks for your comment – I agree that Zidane is a fascinating film on many levels. I guess my point would be that Zidane’s approach was less based on interaction and more about his own internal state, whereas someone like Gravesen was constantly shouting, waving his hands, kicking and generally acting like a mentalist – different approach, different player. The Gravesen Youtube footage did make me wish there was more comedy and less tragic denouement in the Zidane movie, however.

  3. Alright tt9m,

    I know what you’re getting at with the objective of the film – it was perhaps an attempt to get us to view a player’s performance in a match as a series of discrete instances in time, and the changers undergone by a body through that series. I think it succeeded in that aim, bit it didn’t entirely capture the whole Zidane: yes, you were aware of the impulsiveness, but the editing cushioned that somehow. I don’t know. I haven’t watched it for a bit, so perhaps I’ll give it another go!



  4. hadroncollider says:

    Very nice article Karl. A few things: Hasn’t Mascherano played the majority of this season? He was first choice defender by the end of it, I think. He works for Barca there because of his great pace, the high line is all and Mash is exceptional at keeping it anywhere in that back 4, but his weakness is that his passing is merely good rather than excellent, and in the Barca and Spain teams that’s enough. It’s the same reason why many Liverpool fans don’t understand Enrique not getting picked – it’s because despite his other skills he just isn’t reliable and, especially, quick enough in possession.

    Another one is that Holland Vs Spain match. I think the Dutch were worse, but did you happen to see Spain’s previous (or quarter final, not sure which) match against Chile? Spain were absolutely filthy, and I don’t just mean diving and rolling around either, but snide trips, leaving the foot in etc etc, they were very lucky not to concede a penalty or two. It was the same in the final, the Dutch certainly weren’t the only ones giving it out.

    It is very interestingd, though, because the aggression does seem to have gone out of the DM. But perhaps this is an essential development for an essential player? If you look at Rafa’s Liverpool, for example, it was (and still is) rare for players, especially defenders, to be sent off. The organisation at the back is fairly sacrosanct – in match disruption is a serious problem. So you get the next generation of DM in Lucas Leiva, a player expected to play a role more like Alonso/Xavi’s who is now firmly established as our Busquets instead. But he has little to no aggression in most tackles, only when needed. He’s niggly, and will foul tactically very regularly, but you won’t see any sly elbows from him. That doesn’t mean he’s soft though – firstly, his tackling technique means that more often than not he ends up with the ball, or sends it to another red shirt, whether using head or foot. More importantly though, is where you do see his combative side. He might seem meek, but if there’s trouble Leiva will be there, pushing an opponent away, having a stern word with the referee, making it clear that to mess with one of us is to mess with all of us.

    Aggression in football is a powerful, brutal and often brilliantly exciting thing to see, it’s part of what we love about the sport, surely. But for me controlled aggression is where it’s at. Zidane’s headbutt was his stupidity and Italy’s win. HIs sister remains just as she was before, Materazzi was wounded not one jot, France lost the final. Zidane took the bait like a young, stupid fish, and was reeled in by a vastly less talented footballer, but vastly more talented wind-up merchant. Save the aggression for a quick burst at the ref after a bad decision. Focus it. Harness it. Make the opposition know that if they come at you you will come back harder – but don’t run around making stupid fouls and picking up yellows and reds – because, essentially, that’s a big part of why Cattermole and Barton will never make it to the very top. Discipline, grasshopper, discipline.

    Gravesen is easily the best Fester look-a-like ever to play for Everton, though.

    • Karl Whitney says:

      Or, perhaps, one of the two best Fester lookalikes to play for Everton: himself and Carsley were an uncanny double-act in central midfield. I actually remember Gravesen often playing in a more advanced role for Everton, with Carsley staying back. Carsley deserves a mention for a tackle he made on his international teammate Stephen Hunt when Everton played Reading: Carsley went in with what you can’t avoid calling a legbreaker of a challenge. I may have imagined it, but Hunt’s tibia seemed to bend. Then both players stood up. AND HUNT SHOOK CARSLEY’S HAND.

      I remember the Spain game you mention – it was as if they had been sent out to prove a point that they couldn’t be bullied. The effect was strange – definitely undermined the image of Spain as blameless.

      On Mascherano – I guess what struck me was that Barca bought someone who was a model of a good, scary DM but stuck him in defence. Obviously, with Barca there’s a lot more room for manoeuvre as a defender, so perhaps his shift in position is simply an index of the wider attitude towards what constitutes an effective formation at that club.

      Maybe players in that position are just getting more calculating. Leiva’s a good example – I also think of France’s Alou Diarra. Maybe the choice of player is now predicated on what’s statistically effective – the risk of having a more gonzo player in that position is too great. How many times has the sending off of a DM – whether it’s Roy Keane or Lee Carsley – completely and catastrophically shifted the balance of a game?

  5. Yeah, the point re sending offs is what exactly what I was getting at with the new generation. I had forgotten about Carsley though, thanks for that awesome reminder!

  6. […] and ice cream; the woeful neglect of Darron Gibson; Punditry and political stasis in Ireland; and the lost art of defensive midfielding (which is really just an excuse to talk about Thomas […]

  7. Marco Polo says:

    That 2006 final featured Viera, Makelele and Gattuso in the starting line-ups: a veriatable feast of DMs. But interestingly the most lauded of those (Makelele) was never the agressive type. Tactical fouls and niggles yes, agressive no, maybe that’s part of the lead-up to the current trend.

    I disagree about the Zidane-Materazzi incident though, in that Materazzi (as he had been throughout both the tournament and his career) was the agressive one in Graveson mould, here to hilarious effect in antagonising Zidane into a comical headbutt(he had already conceeded a penalty and been sent off earlier in the tournament against Australia). Me I see Materazzi, though not a DM, as a highly successful agressor (something Graveson was only fleetingly) much like Van Bommell. And Matrix did manage to clock up a mere 60 yellow cards and 25 red cards in his career according to wikipedia – you have to admit that a centre back with 25 red cards to his name as well as world cup and champions league winners medals is pretty outstanding.

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