May 18, 2017

What role does a destroyer have in the modern game?


Arthur Schopenhauer was a German philosopher, who came out with some pretty sound quotes. During a particularly lit period of serious thinking for Arthur, he claimed, “Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see.” It’s kind of inspiring, and utterly beautifully worded. But who do you think of when you think of that quote?

If you’re thinking of a footballer – and why wouldn’t you? – you might associate it with strikers. Either Ronaldos, 7 or 9, for example. Lewandowski, Suarez, Henry. Probably not Xabi Alonso though.

But Xabi Alonso is an idealist’s player. He is a man who more than sums up Schopenhauer’s theory of genius, and not just in the fact that he twice scored goals from inside his own half for Liverpool (that really is hitting a target no one else can see). Xabi Alonso is a genius because never reacts to play, he anticipates it. He doesn’t chase a game, he dictates it. Crucially, he doesn’t tackle; he intercepts.

“Tackling is not really a quality, it’s more something you are forced to resort to when you don’t have the ball,” Alonso once said. It’s an interesting point. Being in the right place at the right time is always the ideal situation, and that’s what a regista does. A destroyer is a physical presence: a limited, but militaristic role designed to intimidate the opposition, with little instruction on what to do with the ball once it’s won. A regista is a subtler role: a player designed to read play, shut down passing lanes and move the ball forward creatively. In an ideal world, a con artist will always pickpocket a man who wouldn’t notice they’d been robbed.

It’s 2017 though, and you might have noticed, but it isn’t an ideal world. The last great idealist of British politics, Jeremy Corbyn, may lose dramatically to the Tories this summer. The last great idealist of English football, Arsène Wenger, may have to surrender his dream too soon, after a woeful season at the Emirates. And the retirement of Xabi himself, is all too imminent.

It was Alonso who anchored the base of Real Madrid’s midfield when they won the Champions League in 2014. Just two years later, with the Spaniard having moved to Bayern and with Real on the verge of an eleventh European Cup, Alonso’s role in the team had been filled not by Kroos operating as a regista, but by Casemiro, as a destroyer. “Christ,” said the purists. In the run-up to that Champions League final in Milan, opposing manager Diego Simeone talked up the least glittering of all the Galacticos, calling Alonso’s replacement Real’s most important player, and claiming, “The presence of Casemiro gives them the possibility of regrouping better if they lose the ball.”

To some, it seemed like mind games, as if El Cholo was trying to convince Zidane to play a destroyer. If he was, his plan didn’t work. Real won, and having defeated Atlético again recently to reach another Champions League final, Zidane will probably start again with Casemiro in Cardiff.

As deep-lying midfielders become more mobile and liberos come back into fashion with back threes, good registas are hard to find. The last three champions of the English game have played relatively defensive football: it’s easier to find a destroyer than a regista, and it’s easier to develop one too.

Going back to our friend Arthur Schopenhauer, you can teach someone to hit the target, and it’s a lot harder to teach someone to hit a target they can’t see. If registas are favoured by idealists, destroyers are favoured by realists. There may be no greater realist in top level football over the last ten years than José Mourinho, and one of José’s biggest successes this season has come from deploying Ander Herrera in a destroyer role against Chelsea. While actually at Chelsea, Mourinho won his last title using Nemanja Matic, similarly, as a destroyer. This is why Mourinho often excels in the short-term: if you don’t have the ideal players at your disposal, partnering a destroyer with a passer in midfield is an easy option for quick results.

This is also why destroyers are so often associated with smaller sides. It doesn’t take Johan Cruyff to find two midfielders and tell one of them to “get stuck in”. Genius is hard to come by, but talent can be coached and honed, and perhaps that goes some way to explaining why the purists watch destroyers begrudgingly. They’re not pretty, the passing is often poor, but if a destroyer gets a job done, they’re hard to play against and they provide more attacking freedom to those ahead of them. It’s GSCE-level PE, but it’s effective to a degree in the right environment.

Perhaps though, the problem is that often we see defensive-minded midfielders as either Casemiros or Alonsos. You can either react, or read: it’s a 50/50 choice. We often see midfielders as interceptors or tacklers, geniuses or workhorses, when actually, the spectrum within each type of midfielder can be a little less black and white.  You see, “Destroyer” is a basic term. Roles in football are often qualitative, but actually, a destroyer can be quantitative too.

Take N’Golo Kanté. Kanté is a world class tackler of the ball. His interceptions are impressive too. His passing is mediocre when compared to some of the world’s best. Only taking these attributes into account, Kanté can be used by Antonio Conte to shield his back four. But as anyone who’s watched the Frenchman can testify, this is not the case: Kanté is not just a destroyer, but a box-to-box midfielder.

It’s the same for Arturo Vidal at Bayern, a player who has partnered Xabi Alonso for two years now. Vidal is a combative tackler, but it’s his tireless engine that makes him perfect for complementing a regista. Or take the aforementioned – and perhaps unfairly maligned – Casemiro. There have been instances for Los Blancos where the Brazilian has drifted beyond Toni Kroos to press higher, leaving Kroos to man the number 6 role temporarily.

Winning the ball isn’t good enough on its own for a top team: it’s what you do with it that really matters. Just as a creative box-to-box midfielder like Thiago can make a traditional number 10 redundant, a defensive box-to-box midfielder like Vidal, can make a traditional destroyer redundant too.

The destroyer role is the easiest to learn in a midfield, but arguably the hardest to remind your manager is relevant, should they have better resources at their disposal. It’s by its very nature a limiting, and limited, role. The best destroyers in the world are ones that have more to their game than just chasing and two-footing opponents though.

As Xabi Alonso winds down an illustrious career this month, hopefully it’ll become more apparent in his absence: his genius is only highlighted by the number of midfielders who can’t do what he does. Destroyers might never be considered geniuses, in the eyes of purists, idealists or even German philosophers. But they still hold a key role in the game, providing they can inject something else into it.

About this author

Mark White

Journalist, Photoshop artist, Arsenal fan