“If there isn’t a sequence of 15 previous passes, a good transition between attack and defence is impossible,” Pep Guardiola once claimed. “Impossible,” he repeated, just for those at the back, as if he were he were once again leading a team talk in the Nou Camp dressing room at half time, re-emphasising the crux of his philosophy to his players.
Think of football like a story. Any story you’ve read, watched or heard. The way Guardiola plays out from the keeper is like a storyteller padding out the scene, and Pep’s (probably) false nine putting the ball in the back of the net is the euphoric happy ending; the interesting stuff, whether it’s a daring plot, or Xavi and Iniesta’s tiki taka, is usually in the middle. The intricacies, the excitement, the bits to analyse later. The world divides things into three, whether it’s in literature, religion, art, culture, science, the French national flag, states of mass, the Hangover movies or Jay Z’s Blueprints 1, 2 and 3 (and yes, it still counts if the third one is trash). A football field, likewise, has a defence, midfield and attack: and while the final phase might steal the headlines, the midfield is riper to dissect.
Pep Guardiola should know. A footballer that Ronald Koeman described as “The most gifted deep-lying playmaker I’ve ever seen,” it was Pep that opened so many millennial eyes to the wonders of the regista and positional play when he first returned to the Nou Camp as manager. A geometric ballet of a football team, and one of the greatest sides club football had ever laid eyes on, Barcelona danced through their opponents in neat triangles, led by a rotating trident of attackers. Guardiola delivered a treble in his first season at the helm: three really was the magic number for the Catalan.
As the man himself would approve, and partly thanks to his influence, so many midfields in world football these days also adhere to being split into three. It’s almost the given template of how to structure a side.
Midfielders in Europe measured by goals/key passes (X axis), tackles/interceptions (Y axis) and possession score (dot size). pic.twitter.com/Yayw8LZUQH
— First 11 (@FlRST11) March 15, 2017
The above graph shows a smattering of some of the world’s midfielders, and Lionel Messi just for comparison, who is seemingly moving deeper down the pitch as he ages. As you can see, generally the better a midfielder is at defending, the further to the left he appears. The better a midfielder is at attacking, the further to the right he appears.
Data can be misleading, and it’s important to consider other factors when it comes to this graph – such as the player themselves – but it does give an indication to a few things.
Firstly, players with a larger dot further to the left of the graph – such as Weigl, Xhaka, Matic, even Pep himself would’ve been in this company – are good in possession, and more adept at tackling and intercepting. This is traditionally a number 6: a deep-lying playmaker role, or regista. Whether you believe there to be a difference or not between the two terms – a regista dictates more than he defends according to some – this is the midfielder tasked primarily with building play from the back and covering the defence. The regista reads the game, sees everything ahead and is intuitive to what’s happening behind. He’s confident passing through the lines, but doesn’t cover too much pitch, as the centre of the grass is his territory for intercepting. He’s arguably the most intelligent member of any given side, perhaps the most aware, probably the best positionally, and providing you’re not long-balling from the keeper right through to the striker, he’s the one who begins attacks. Or starts your story, to go back to that childish metaphor.
On the far right of the graph, is another position easy enough to recognise. The attacking midfielder – at least, the most attacking midfielder in your midfield – is not burdened with so much defensive responsibility, obviously. This is a playmaker, a number 10, or simply a third CM; Özil and De Bruyne are both creative sparks for their respective sides, and good examples here of players with healthy stats for goals and key passes, as the graph indicates. There’s plenty in common between the number 10 and the number 6; they both see the entirety of the game around them, and a number 10 should be positionally sound. Players like Cazorla and particularly Kroos have made the transition deeper, thanks to their eye for the perfect forward pass, but number 10s expend more energy, drift a lot more horizontally, and tend to pack a better shot. (Obviously, as they play higher up the pitch.)
The third kind of player we’re looking for is a little harder to pinpoint on our graph. Traditionally this is a number 8, often thought of as a box-to-box midfielder – or B2B if you’re lazy/engaged in a 140-character-limited argument about the benefits of Aaron Ramsey – which means that this kind of player needs both defensive and offensive ability. The immediate conclusion of course, is that Iniesta, Gündoğan, Verratti and Pogba are strong number 8s; this does however fail to take into account players like Kanté and Matuidi, who cover as much ground as a box-to-box midfielder, without necessarily having the passing ability or being as comfortable in possession. It also neglects to suggest that the number 10in your side could be a player with box-to-box traits: think Thiago at Bayern, and his amazing defensive stats.
The number 8 is the “engine”, the “workhorse”, and the guy most likely to win yer da’s heart. He’s the link from the 6 to the 10 – as suggested by his number – but shouldn’t need to dictate play, nor be the main source of assists in the side.
“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 his effect 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 the evolution [of the role in recent years], just have a look at Wales in the Euros and Ramsey’s effect on games in comparison to Andy King.”
Chris Kinsman, @CentralRamsey
So, the blueprint for a strong midfield has one of each of these components.
Bayern Munich are a good example of this, and a 4-3-3 shows that. Xabi Alonso is a traditional regista, in that he dictates play, controls possession well, and intercepts a fair amount in front of the midfield. Arturo Vidal is also defensive-minded, but as we saw from the graph above, either scores or makes a key pass at least once a game; what the graph doesn’t show either is the level of the Chilean’s work-rate and the amount of the pitch he covers, which is alluded to in Chris’s quote above. That leaves Thiago, another player capable of playing the number 8 role, as he has a superb interception/tackling rate, but in this instance, he’s the most attack-minded of the three.
This is a tight midfield: the graph above confirms it, as you can see how close Vidal and Thiago are. They’re set up as a 4-3-3 for this example, simply because of this, but often operate in other formations. Though all three midfielders have clear and defined roles for Bayern, there is an overlap of skills and sharing of duties at times, as there should be in any good side. Let’s look a little further down the football pyramid.
This is the side that Bournemouth lost 2-0 at home to Manchester City with, and as you can see, Jack Wilshere is a far more defined number 10 in this role. Andrew Surman and Harry Arter play the deep-lying playmaker and box-to-box midfielder roles in this example respectively, with less defensive emphasis on Wilshere. Bournemouth choose to employ a traditional regista in Surman almost every game, but should they wish to employ a destroyer/ball-winning midfielder in that position – think a Daniele De Rossi type – Arter would have more of a passing role.
The three midfield roles are almost like the three states of mass. If you boil water, by effect, you create steam; likewise, if place a midfielder in the deepest midfield role with little passing ability, you will need to make up for it in other places.
Bearing this in mind, building a side with attributes from all three sides then becomes more of a balancing act. It’s obviously possible to have a stabilised side without those three midfield roles: just look at Leicester in 2015/16, who won the league playing 4-4-2. In that instance, Drinkwater acted as the deep-lying playmaker, spreading the ball forward for the Foxes, and Kanté was a clear box-to-box midfielder with his omnipresence across the pitch. In defensive phases though, forward Okazaki tucked into the midfield, arguably to a greater effect than many playmakers that season.
At the Emirates the season before, Arsenal ended the season strongly employing a Cazorla/Coquelin pivot behind Özil. Coquelin, who tended to be positionally disciplined back then, operated as a ball-winning midfielder, with more passing emphasis given to Cazorla (remember the De Rossi/Arter example of earlier). With reduced mobility in that midfield, Aaron Ramsey – the right-winger in that set-up – would play more centrally in his favoured box-to-box role, with Héctor Bellerín overlapping from right-back to give the side width. This then gave more balance to the midfield, with the team asymmetrical, but with regista, box-to-box and creative attributes across the middle of the pitch.
There are some players that just slot perfectly into certain midfield roles, and others that need to find their niche. Paul Pogba for example, has been subjected to a lot of criticism this season, despite not being able to dictate play and often having no one to help dictate in his team. It’s the same with Granit Xhaka, forced to being played alongside Coquelin – a player who hasn’t performed playing box-to-box – or the entire France midfield that started Euro 2016 (Kanté, Pogba, Matuidi), that desperately needed a controller (look at the possession scores in the graph).
Ultimately, the formula of using a true 6, 8 and 10 in your team simply sets defined roles for your players, simplifies the set-up and keeps the collective stronger; the three rely on each other too, like rock, paper, scissors. The regista needs the box to box for defensive help and the playmaker to find with passes when he breaks the lines. The box to box needs to collect the ball from the regista, and assist the playmaker. The playmaker needs the ball quickly from both.
Pep Guardiola claims he’s not a perfectionist. He says he doesn’t care about beautiful football. Just “numbers”. There’s beauty in mathematics, for sure, but there’s a science in a midfield formula that works.