The modern central midfielder: why the Premier League is struggling in Europe
The glamour, energy, and tactical fluidity of the 2015 Champions League Final made painfully clear the current failings of the English game; there is no doubt that our European representation has diminished dramatically in recent years, despite our super-rich elite gorging, each summer, on a flurry of superstars clambering for Premier League riches.
(Don't believe it? See the official UEFA co-efficients where England have slipped behind Germany.) But there is one particular role that has, until now, been overlooked by a succession of managers blind to the tactical and technical shift across world football. As the fluidity of the tactical system increases, and as traditional boundaries dictated by formation grids become increasingly redundant, it is the elite-level central midfielder that has undergone the greatest transformation.
The creeping osmosis of Pep's tiki-taka tactics has certainly played its part, but the evolution away from specialised roles is, in truth, more a reflection of an increasingly refined player production line than tactical fashion. As the rapid influx of cash in the ’90s began mechanising the sport in preparation for ultimate profitability, gleaming state-of-the-art youth facilities – drilling kids from as young as five – has inevitably begun to churn out Football Player 2.0: an immaculate athlete, an all-rounder, and a frightening machine of technical excellence programmed more robustly than its predecessors to provide the engine in central midfield.
These footballers – the likes of Mateo Kovacic, Marco Verratti, Geoffrey Kondogbia – possess technical precision as a minimum requirement, and build upon this with a remarkably detailed array of skills traditionally reserved for wingers and defenders.
This is because, as the tactical landscape has progressed towards furious pressing, football has been sucked inwards; central areas are increasingly congested and regista passers are drowned out.
The modern all-round midfielder is an agile dribbler who shifts and slaloms away from trouble, is a composed distributor who links the lines, and is an intelligent presser and tackler, flitting across the pitch performing multiple roles. Note how often these players complete take-ons (stars) and tackles (crosses), while making passes across the length and breadth of the pitch.