What happened to the defensive midfielder?

“Keane was an aggressive player who could win every ball. Maybe I can do this as well”
Marouane Fellaini following his deadline day transfer to Old Trafford

A strong case could be made for including the likes of Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira, in an all-time Premier League eleven. Keane and Vieira defined the role of the defensive midfielder in the first decade of the Premier League.

However, over time it is clear that the game has evolved considerably. One of the more striking evolutions of modern years must surely be the decline of the defensive midfielder in the image of those midfield generals. Is it therefore refreshing that Marouane Fellaini has the ambition to emulate Keane? Or has the role of the defensive midfielder at the top level of the game become about more than aggressive ball-winning?

1. The defensive specialist

In the early years of the Premier League most sides lined up with a ‘traditional’ 4-4-2 formation. In this formation, each player had a specific role. Teams tended to include wingers who were instructed to “hit the by-line and whip crosses into the box”, just as Jason Wilcox and Stuart Ripley did for Kenny Dalglish’s title winning Blackburn Rovers side as they supplied the ammunition for Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton upfront.

“You get it, you pass it to another player in a red shirt”
Brian Clough’s advice to a young Roy Keane upon joining Nottingham Forest

In the middle of the park, the model most teams aspired to was a partnership that combined a specialist destroyer to break-up the opposition’s play and a specialist attacking playmaker. The instruction to these players in its most simplistic form was for the former to win the ball and lay it off simply to the latter who would then initiate his team’s attacks.

The defensive midfielder himself was a characteristically combative figure. His role was to read the game in the midfield, intercept loose balls and stray passes, and put in the thumping challenges to dispossess opponents. Such was his key role in breaking up play, the defensive midfielder often found himself in hot water with referees. Indeed, Patrick Viera retains the record for most Premier League red cards (with 8 in 307 Premier League appearances), followed closely by Roy Keane, with 7 red cards in 366 Premier League appearances and the likes of Nicky Butt, Vinny Jones and Sunderland’s Lee Cattermole.

While more than accustomed with the ugly side of the game the message here should not be misconstrued. The likes of Keane and Viera were among the finest players of their generations. They were immense talents who played valuable roles for their clubs – namely winning the ball and playing it short and simple – driving them to success at the very highest levels of the game.

2. The ‘Makelele Role’

The arrival of the likes of Rafa Benitez at Liverpool and Jose Mourinho at Chelsea was accompanied with an evolution in the tactics employed by Premier League clubs. Perhaps the most important from a tactical perspective was the rising prominence of the deep-lying playmaker.

The deep-lying playmaker occupied the same space as his predecessor, the defensive midfielder. However, he was a far less aggressive incarnation. The role required a player who had a strong positional sense, could read the play well and intercept the attacking moves of the opposition. However, what marked this player out from the rest was his ability to initiate attacks from deep on his own, leaving his team less reliant on his more specialist playmaking midfield partner for the creation of attacking opportunities.

No player personified this role more so than Claude Makelele. Signed by then Chelsea manager Claudio Ranieri for almost £17 million in the summer of 2003, Makelele went on the be the mainstay of Jose Mourinho’s successful first spell in charge of the Stamford Bridge club. While by no means an offensive force in his own right (Makelele scored just 26 goals in 802 club appearances throughout his career), Makelele went on to define a role sitting in front of the defence and dictating his side’s forward play, much like Xabi Alonso has done at Liverpool, Real Madrid and Spain, and Andrea Pirlo at Juventus, AC Milan and Italy in recent years.

“I think Claude has this gift – he’s been the best player in the team for years but people just don’t notice him, don’t notice what he does”
Fernando Hierro, criticising Florentino Perez for allowing Makelele to leave Real Madrid

Makelele was the engine and fulcrum of his side’s play and fans, players and opposition managers alike were increasingly becoming aware of that. As a result, Makelele began to find himself the focus of the opposition’s man-marking. Indeed, in Chelsea’s West London derby defeat to Fulham in 2006, then Fulham manager Chris Coleman cited his team’s ability to deny Makelele possession as the key to his side’s 1-0 victory. This tactic became ever-more frequently deployed against Chelsea, prompting Mourinho to bring in Michael Essien to help relieve some of the pressure on Makelele in the defensive midfield zone.

3. The specialist generalists

Tactics in the Premier League continued to evolve during Makelele’s time in England. As managers like Coleman sought to nullify the influence that the single deep-lying playmaker had on the game, alternatives needed to develop.

Many of the top teams in the Premier League – and indeed Europe – now frequently play with a variant of 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. Critical to making these formations work is the midfield pairing. Whereas in the early 1990s the midfield pairing included a specialist ball-winner and a specialist playmaker, modern midfields are different. Recognising the benefits of deep lying playmakers like Makelele, Pirlo and Alonso, the top teams now play with not one deep lying playmaker, but two.

For example, Manchester United frequently line-up with Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley, Arsenal with Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey, and Chelsea with two of John Obi Mikel, Ramires or Frank Lampard.

None of these players fit the mould of specialist ball-winner or specialist playmaker. Rather, they increasingly tend to combine the attributes of both. At the highest level of the game, and where often it is the tactical edge that makes the difference, they are elite players able to combine the skills of both roles expertly and in a manner consistent with the requirements of the modern game.

Not only are these ‘specialist generalists’ (complete footballers?) able to shield their defences, intercept passes and break up play (perhaps surprisingly only Southampton’s Morgan Schneiderlin made more interceptions than Mikel Arteta last season, for example), but they are also equally skilled in the attacking department, having better vision and a greater range of passing, allowing them to hurt the opposition far more readily. For the defending team, it is simply not enough to man-mark one in the same way that teams did when facing the likes of Makelele. Now, opponents have to try and foil a growing range of attacking possibilities.

Final thoughts

The modern defensive midfielder is recognisably different from his counterpart in the early years of the Premier League. Nowadays, certainly at the top levels of the game, while the defensive midfielder continues to play a key role in protecting his team’s goal, he is a less combative character (Arteta has 2 Premier League red cards, Carrick and Cleverly none) and possesses a far greater attacking threat for his team.

No doubt tactics will continue to evolve, and teams will develop strategies to counteract the rise and greater influence of the defensive midfield ‘specialist generalist’. For now, it seems doubtful Fellaini will be a true success in the Utd team if he intends to be a defensive midfield enforcer alone…”

Follow James Bailey on twitter.


  1. I’d also make the argument that the prominence of the midfield destroyer also waned with stricter refereeing, especially in the English game. Also, I think you’re wrong to think of Vieira as a defensive midfielder, he was more dynamic than that. He broke down attacks, yes, but he also carried the ball forward and instigated a lot of attacks too. In what was arguably Arsenal’s best midfield pairing, it was Gilberto Silva (and formerly Petit) who was the destroyer, and Vieira the box-to-box playmaker.

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