Football is always evolving. It twists and turns, repeats and refines, its progression neither cyclical nor linear. Old traits that seemed forgotten, old ways of playing, crop up again, new contexts giving them new life.
Roles divide and sub-divide, occasionally reunifying in startling way. Certain playing styles will remain seemingly inviolate for years, and then suddenly undergo change. From the point of view of tactical evolution, this has been the year of the holding midfielder.
At first the development from three-band into four-band formations – in England from a 4-4-2 default to a 4-2-3-1 default – led to the obvious splitting of the midfield role.
The complete or box-to-box midfielders of the 80s found themselves consigned to a narrower role as midfield was divided into holders and creators. Over time, though, those roles have themselves become more specialised, in part because of the box-to-box players chafing against the restrictions imposed upon them.
The first development was that the two holding players in a 4-2-3-1 began to fall into one of two schools: the destroyer and the creator, the classic example of which was perhaps Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso at Liverpool. As Mascherano clattered about making tackles and collecting bookings, his role almost entirely of regaining possession and distributing it simply, Xabi Alonso, although capable of making tackles, focused on keeping the ball moving, occasionally raking long passes out to the flanks to change the angle of attack like an old-style regista.
Both types of player have always existed, of course – Nobby Stiles, Herbert Wimmer or Marco Tardelli being early examples of the Mascherano type, long before Claude Makelele gave the position a name; while Gérson, Glenn Hoddle or Sunday Oliseh could be seen as early incarnations of the Alonso type.
But as four-band systems have evolved to the point that the term midfielder seems hopelessly vague, so the taxonomy of the holders has expanded. Manchester City, this season, provide a fascinating example. Last season they had in Gareth Barry a destroyer-type and while Javi García could play in that role this season, Manuel Pellegrini has tended to pair Fernandinho with Yaya Touré.
Although both can certainly make tackles, and both are capable of regaining the ball, both spent most of last season playing as the more creative player alongside a destroyer. Fernandinho is a fine long passer, but he is not an Alonso or an Andrea Pirlo type; he is not a regista. Rather he likes to make forward surges, just as Touré does, and, as he showed against Arsenal on Saturday, is more than capable of scoring goals when chances present themselves. Whether the similarity with Touré is an advantage in giving City an extraordinary variety of possible angles of attack or a weakness in that it can leave the back four unprotected is arguable – although there are signs that the relationship between the two is developing – but the wider point is that neither fits comfortably into the template of either regista or destroyer.
This is a third way, neither entirely destructive nor creative, and more prone to advancing form a deep position than either a Mascherano or an Alonso type. The third way is to be a carrier or surger, a player capable of making late runs or carrying the ball at his feet. Bastian Schweinsteiger perhaps fits into the same category. Sami Khedira is a destroyer with carrying tendencies. Luka Modric is a carrier with a hint of regista.
There is significance too in that when Javi García has been used it has largely been as a central defender – even if that has been forced on Pellegrini by injury. He may not have excelled in the role, but the use of a destroyer-type in a central defensive role is becoming increasingly common, from Mascherano at Barcelona to Gary Medel with Chile. In fact, it could be argued that the use of a holding midfielder in defence is characteristically bielsista – Marcello Bielsa pioneered the practice with his use of Juan Manuel Llop at Newell’s Old Boys and was still doing it with Javi Martínez – emphatically a regista rather than destroyer – at Athletic Bilbao.
That seems indicative of the broadest of all trends, which is initially counterintuitive. As positions become more specialised, as we divide the holder into destroyer, regista and carrier, and all points in between, so the importance of formations has diminished. Terms like 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 are useful as a rough guide, but only that: the higher the level, the more teams are agglomerations of bundles of attributes; the key is balance rather than fitting to some abstract designation, even if that shape can be useful in the defensive phase.
Specialisation, paradoxically, enables universality as players are defined less by their positions than by what they can do. How new that is is debatable: Colin Todd, to take just one example, played for Brian Clough’s Derby County both in midfield and in the back four, but that sort of versatility fell increasingly out of fashion in the 80s and 90s as squads grew in size and the increase in the number of substitutes made it less important for players to be able to play in multiple positions.
It’s almost 20 years since Carlos Alberto Parreira prophesied the future of football as 4-6 – four defenders providing a platform for six creative players who would constantly interchange. The past year or so has seen the resurgence of the out-and-out centre-forward – Robert Lewandowski, Falcao, Gonzalo Higuaín, Asamoah Gyan, Olivier Giroud – but even then a number of those who play as nines have also played or have the capacity to play either wide or as 10s – Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani, Luis Suárez, Robin van Persie, Mario Mandzukic, Sergio Agüero, Diego Costa: the trend still seems to be towards universality though specialism.
The question, then, is whether, given how modern full-backs play often as wide midfielders, Parreira’s 4-6 vision of the future has been overtaken by a 3-7, either as three centre-backs or two centre-backs with a destroyer just in front of them. That is another discussion, but what is true is that to speak of a holding role is merely to describe a player’s position on the pitch and not how he interprets it.