Glamourless links

All the major football powers, with the exception of England, have superbly endowed defensive midfielders, and most of them are quite experienced at being the link between their country's and club's attack and defence, writes N. U. Abilash.

Sometimes, in moments of utter humiliation, profound enlightenment comes calling. Argentina's manager Jose Pekerman, after his side was mutilated 4-1 by a coruscating Brazilian display in the 2005 FIFA Confederations Cup final in Frankfurt, deconstructed the popular perception of Brazilian football. "They don't dominate you," said Pekerman. "It's not like what people think. They are a counter-attacking team. Every time you lose the ball three quarters of the way down the pitch, they start a move that will kill you. It ends up in a goal because they switch from defence to attack with incredible speed."

Pekerman's opposing number, Brazil's Carlos Alberto Parreira, who managed his country to victory in the 1994 World Cup using two defensive midfielders in Dunga and Mauro Silva, complemented the Argentinian's views. "Emerson was as much the star of the final as Adriano, Ronaldinho, Kaka and Cicinho," said Parreira, about his `holding' or defensive midfielder, who won numerous balls with his tackling skills and imaginatively started the counterattacks for his glamourous teammates to capitalise on. "If Emerson and our other defensive midfielders play as well in Germany next year, we will win easily."

Parreira will not be the only manager in Germany emphasising the key role of defensive midfielders, who operate just in front of the centre-backs giving them defensive cover and liberating the creative central midfielders to perform attacking roles. All the major football powers, with the exception of England, have superbly endowed defensive midfielders, and most of them such as France's Claude Makelele and Patrick Vieira, Spain's Xavi Hernandez, Netherlands' Philip Cocu, Portugal's Costinha and Italy's Andrea Pirlo, are quite experienced at being the link between their country's and club's attack and defence. Argentina has the brilliant youngster Javier Mascherano in the position and Inter Milan's Esteban Cambiasso will give him support if Pekerman, wise after the Confederations Cup final, decides to deploy two defensive midfielders.

In 2004, Parreira convened a conference of football managers and coaches in Brazil, the first time such an event was held in the land of `the beautiful game'. The major subject of discussion during the three-day event was the precise point at which a close game is decided. The participants in the conference turned on its head the popular view that the balance of an even contest hinges on set-pieces. Instead, they endorsed the theory that the sudden moment of change in ball possession is more relevant a factor in influencing modern football games than set-pieces.

In modern football, with players being more physically endowed and quicker than ever before and therefore covering a lot of ground, attacking space has become virtually non-existent.

When a defensive midfielder wins the ball, breaking down the rival's attack, space is available to his team's attacking midfielders and strikers for a fleeting moment before the defence regroups. It was agreed that in the modern game such moments of transitions are as rare as the appearance of the sun in the land of Andy Roxburgh, the former Scotland manager and delegate at the conference, and that a team that capitalises on any such occasion is bound to influence the course of the match.

The discussions so much influenced Parreira that he tweaked his formation from a 4-3-1-2 to a 4-2-4 soon. The one attacking midfielder in the earlier formation was promoted as an outright attacker, and another one was added, the intention being to capitalise on the team's ability to play quick end-to-end football better than the others.

The two defensive midfielders in the earlier formation were left untouched. Brazil used the formation during its victorious Confederations Cup campaign and the World Cup qualifiers that followed, and Parreira has said he will be using four attackers in Brazil's pipe-opener in Germany. This automatically means the deployment of two defensive midfielders, one of them obviously being Emerson, who has enabled Kaka and Ronaldinho to partner Ronaldo and Adriano in attack. Top European teams also acknowledge the role of the defensive midfielder in freeing the creative midfielder or the playmaker from defensive duties and increasing their speed. Costinha does `the dirty work' for Deco in Portugal; Philip Cocu brings out the attacking instincts of Mark van Bommel and Edgar Davids for the Netherlands; Xavi Hernandez, who is back in the Barcelona squad after sitting out for five months because of a serious knee injury, and Liverpool's Xabi Alonso are expected to divert Arsenal's Francesc Fabregas and Liverpool's Luis Garcia away from defensive duties in Spain.

As for France, they have two amazing holding midfielders in Chelsea's Claude Makelele and Emerson's partner in the Juventus midfield, the former Arsenal captain Patrick Vieira. The peerless duo will certainly ensure that an ageing Zinedine Zidane does not get bogged down too much with tackling and enable the two-time scorer of the 1998 final to feed the quicksilver Thierry Henry and the predatorial David Trezeguet. The generous Zidane would, of course, be the first one to recognise the efforts of Didier Deschamps in the World Cup win of 1998; Deschamps, the defensive midfielder in France's historic home win, won tackles and kept Zidane's supply lines buzzing.

If it is the best of times for France, it has to be the worst of times for England. Sven-Goran Eriksson tried out Tottenham's defender Ledley King in the `friendly' against Argentina last November as the defensive midfielder and the ploy worked. With his tackling skills and quick passing, King ensured that Frank Lampard and Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard performed attacking roles in the centre, linking up with the outstanding Wayne Rooney and the opportunistic Michael Owen. However, King is struggling to be fit for the tournament, and Eriksson does not seem inclined to apply `the Rooney' yardstick to King; naming the Spurs defender in the squad even if he is fit to play only in the last stages of the tournament.

Ironically, Eriksson turned to King after the otherwise barren position of defensive midfielder had developed colour and glamour when captain David Beckham was deployed in the position for two World Cup qualifiers last year; against Wales and the disastrous outing at Belfast against nearly India-like Northern Ireland. Beckham, though endowed with superb long ball skills from his occupational locale as a right midfielder, tackled awfully most of the times, and reportedly Eriksson was threatened by a walkout by Lampard, Gerrard and Rooney if the skipper was not returned to the right where he is normally at his workaholic best.

If Mascherano, currently playing in the Brazilian league for Corinthians and Sir Alex Ferguson's favourite candidate to occupy the slot vacated by Roy Keane, is tipped to be the `find of the World Cup' in the defensive midfielder's role, he will face stiff competition from Italy's Andrea Pirlo for the title of `the best defensive midfielder' on show. A dead-ball specialist, the lithe Pirlo lacks the physical attributes that are ideal for the defensive midfielder.

But, as he demonstrated for Milan in the first half of the Champions League final last year, he has reasonably good tackling skills to back up his speedy and imaginative passing which can split the field. Pirlo's Italian teammate Gennaro Gattuso and Kaka have repeatedly capitalised on the space opened up by his imagination.

Quite clearly, nobody would like to be in Sven-Goran Eriksson's shoes at the moment.