If you know me, you probably know how much I love Aaron Ramsey. The Welsh midfield maestro is one of my favourite players and I’ll always make a case for him to be in Arsenal’s starting 11. But I have a bigger obsession in football and that is midfields. There’s so much variety in players in midfield and there’s never two players alike: for example Bayern’s Thiago is a different player to Barcelona’s Andre Gomes yet both are technically classed as attacking midfielders (AM for short) or just standard central midfielders (CMs).
There’s a specific type of central midfielder though – the old fashioned “box to box” (B2B) – that conjures images of a prime Schweinsteiger or Iniesta. Football has for sure has evolved since the days of those sublime players and especially that role. But first let’s think about the main qualities of the “old fashioned” B2B midfielders:
- High work rate with good movement and tactical knowledge
- Be able to make late runs into the box with that movement
- Be able to support the defensive midfielder with high defensive work rate and positioning
Is there any need for a box-to-box midfielder in the modern game, with football evolving and midfields becoming more compact than ever?
The closest example in the modern game with these main qualities is probably Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson. Technically isn’t the best midfielder in the league (just have to look at most of Twitter whenever Henderson tries to make a 20 yard pass) but his runs into both boxes are actually decent and has very good work rate. His problem is that in the modern game the B2B midfielder has to do a lot more. For me, the best B2B midfielder in world football is Arturo Vidal. The Chilean midfield engine is probably the most underrated midfielder in world football and is arguably the most rounded midfielder. He can not only attack but also defend and is brilliant at pressing midfielders while having pretty impressive passing stats.
Though a completely different player when deployed on the right for Arsenal, Aaron Ramsey is a player alike in terms of playing style and in terms of his influence on a team when in the middle (albeit a little more unproven in comparison to Vidal). Both of these midfielders inspire the players around them to play with high intensity and work rate. This is why Ramsey is very underrated in the Premier League and why many were impressed by his escapades in the Euros; when played in central midfield with Flamini last season he was averaging 84% passing accuracy and around 86 passes per game with high amount of distance covered, created a few chances while also helping out defensively.
So let’s give the main qualities of Vidal and Ramsey:
- Superb, almost marathon runner work rate
- Ability to create chances and also start moves with tackles
- Good, competent passing
- Good attacking prowess with adequate defensive contribution in your own penalty area
- Able to press opponents tirelessly
Players like Vidal and Ramsey are trendsetters for more than just their questionable hairstyles. But what about Pogba? Where does he come into this? Well Pogba is a totally different player to these two as people probably have guessed. He doesn’t seem to know what type of midfielder he wants to be and seems to want to be a hybrid of all midfielders. Every time I watch Pogba play his game doesn’t seem refined; his dribbling is messy and his passing is his best quality. In the Euros he didn’t play for 90 mins in one set position and seemed to have played every single one that he can do; against Iceland he played as their defensive midfielder. What does his future hold? Mourinho has to make him a specific midfielder and I think being a B2B in the mould of Yaya Toure would be the better option. If you look at the main qualities above, although Pogba can run around and tackle his tactical knowledge of being a B2B is questionable. He can’t press well and his positioning in his own penalty area isn’t the best. So when people tell me he’s a B2B midfielder I’m usually pretty confused as for me, Pogba could be a terrific deep lying playmaker especially when played next to Fellaini to get the best out of that terrific passing and long ball ability while allowing him to creep to just outside the box and take shots.
So what is the future for teams? How will B2Bs fit into teams in the future? Well this is an interesting topic as I know a good few people who believe B2B midfielders like Ramsey or Vidal probably can’t play in a midfield two due to their attacking exploits, and although this can be true, both Ramsey and Vidal have played (pretty well in fact) in midfield twos for club. Vidal/Alonso, the midfield 2 against Dortmund worked very well counter pressing Weigl/Gündoğan so this whole notion that you can’t play an energetic B2B in big games is almost a myth now. What about Arsenal and Ramsey? United and Pogba? Well it’s clear what Jose’s idea for his team shape is. He wants a the creativity to come from out wide (someone who’ll cut into the midfield to create), a B2B and defensive midfielder as his overall team shape, for balance. Could Wenger do the same with Ramsey and Xhaka? Employ Wilshere/Oxlade-Chamberlain/New signing(?) on the right/left as the wide playmaker to help out in midfield?
So many questions, but for me the box to box midfielder is arguably one of the trickiest positions to play in. Vidal is by far the best in this category and seeing what his effect is on Bayern and Chile shows the evolution of this position. Pep bought him with the knowledge that he’ll need a pressing expert in order to get the best out of an ageing Alonso. If you want any more proof of this evolution just have a look at Wales in the Euros and Ramsey’s effect on games in comparison to Andy King. King just couldn’t press, win the ball, start an attack and assist Bale while relieving pressure on the defenders like Ramsey could.