Impressive Spurs youngster signals the return of the midfield all-rounder

Following the quietly impressive performances of Dele Alli, the best of which came in Sunday’s North London derby, many commentators have suggested that the Tottenham Hotspur youngster is something of a throwback. There is a sense that midfield roles have become increasingly compartmentalized in recent years; midfielders are now categorised as ‘defensive’ midfielders, ‘box to box’ midfielders and attacking midfielders (No. 10s). Both Gary Neville and Graeme Souness commentated that is was refreshing to see a young player like Alli, who looked equally comfortable with both the offensive and defensive aspects of the game.

That is the true mark of versatility in a player. Not versatility in the ‘Phil Jones’ sense, which is the ability to play a number of positions semi-competently. Rather, a player who is happy to receive the ball in any area of the pitch, in any situation and able to readily switch to a defensive mind-set once the ball is lost.

If you have read Living on The Volcano by Michael Calvin, reviewed on these pages a few months ago, you will be familiar with Dele Alli’s background. The chapter focused on MK Dons manager Karl Robinson is laced with lavish praise for Alli, with Robinson claiming that he ‘can be anything he wants to be’. His well-rounded skill set is outlined; a player who can dribble, create and score goals but who can also cover the ground quickly and win tackles. To a degree, some of this is down to ‘nature’ rather than ‘nurture’, as he is fortunate to blessed with ample pace and strength to do all of the above. Moreover, I think it is reasonable to speculate that Alli benefited from a spell playing competitive football in League One with MK Dons, rather than going through the motions in the sterile environment of Under 21s football.

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This has developed into a talking point due to the suggestion that the game doesn’t produce that type of midfield player as often as it used to. In England, there is an impressive lineage of midfield all-rounders who have graced our game, from Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira to Paul Ince and Bryan Robson. Many have postulated that the demise of 4-4-2 as a formation has contributed to this. In order for the system to be successful, the two central midfield players need to have the engine and respective attributes to contribute both offensively and defensively. Either that or, as Atletico Madrid have done successfully in the past under Diego Simeone, the two wide players have to play very narrow to ensure the midfield pair are not outnumbered. Atletico even supplemented this by dropping their two forwards in, often goalside of the opposition’s deepest midfield player.

The success of Barcelona and Spain, who adopted a 4-3-3 system throughout their success between 2008 and 2012, is often assumed to be the catalyst for the decline of 4-4-2. This is doubtlessly true, however within English football at least, the trend can be traced back to Jose Mourinho’s first spell with Chelsea. With Adrian Mutu injured early in the 2004/5 season, Mourinho fielded a 4-3-3 system with two wide players supporting Didier Drogba who was the lone striker. In reality the formation was more of 4-1-2-2-1 formation due to the fact that Claude Makélélé was midfield player who rarely moved too far from Chelsea’s two centre backs. Chelsea had great success, which in part began a fashion whereby teams began to play with a designated ‘defensive’ midfield player. To emphasis how much of an impact he had, Makélélé eventually had that position named after him.

In terms of player production however, the path of causation is difficult to trace. Do tactical fashions and systems alter to account for the type of players being produced, or are players produced to fit the tactical fashion or system? It is not an easy question to answer.

The separation of midfield duties continued further up the pitch. Though the ‘No.10’ role, a position of creative freedom usually afforded to the most gifted player in the team, has survived, the type of player filling this position has changed significantly. Now the position is likely to be occupied by a midfield player pushed forward such as Christian Eriksen (or Moussa Dembélé in recent weeks), Mesut Özil, David Silva or Philippe Coutinho. Formerly this role was occupied by a ‘second striker’ such as Dennis Bergkamp, Roberto Baggio or Eric Cantona who were primarily centre forwards, but who could also drop off into deeper positions and create. The desire to keep a ‘No.10’ in the team has seen 4-2-3-1 flourish as perhaps the most fashionable of all formations. The employment of a midfield player in the advanced attacking midfield role, it could be argued, has seen certain midfield players miss out on a real education in the defensive side of the game. For all of their ability, this is an accusation you could perhaps throw at Ross Barkley and Jack Wilshere. Even midfield players whose physical profile fits the ‘box to box’ type, such as Yaya Touré and Paul Pogba, have seemed happiest when played in a free role behind the forward line.

These two factors, the supposed extinction of 4-4-2 and more midfield players being fielded in advanced positions with less defensive responsibility, appear to be the driving forces behind the lack of ‘all-rounders’ in central midfield. However, though the following statement may be contrary to the purpose of this article, perhaps the real problem is our propensity to label and pigeonhole players.

Across North London from Dele Alli at Spurs, Arsenal’s Santi Cazorla has undergone a transformation from a player who played anywhere across ‘the three’ in a 4-2-3-1 to one of the divisions best deep lying distributors of the ball back in ‘the two’. However, among the footballing public there is an assumption that Cazorla is a defensive liability in that role. This is mainly due to a previously formed opinion of him as a ‘luxury’ player. Such a perception is a tad unfair; even when Cazorla played in a more advanced role he was always a hard worker. Andrey Arshavin he was not.

It is fair to say that if a pacey and powerful midfielder who can travel with the ball, such as Dembélé or Barkley, gets a running start on Cazorla then they will trouble him due to the Spaniard’s lack of pace. However, for the most part, Cazorla is very diligent defensively. Last season in Premier League he averaged 2.6 tackles per game and 1.6 interceptions per game. Arsenal have racked up 68 Premier League points in this calendar year from 31 matches, with Cazorla playing in that deeper midfield role in almost every game. If he was a shirker defensively, then he would not have established himself in in that role within a team that is doing so well.

The way in which Paul Scholes and Andrea Pirlo metamorphosed into deep lying midfield players is further evidence of why we should be careful about putting players, particularly midfielders, in certain boxes.

Featured image: all rights reserved by Martin Hesketh.

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