A game of football is punctuated by moments of spectacular nature. The overhead kick, the unbelievable save, the superhuman burst of pace are all instances that take the breath away. However these headline hogging events are simply a small part of a grand narrative. In terms of overall importance to the outcome, the role of the defensive midfielder is sadly ignored at times. Marvyn Paul addresses this by heaping praise on Atleti captain, Gabi.
If one was asked who Atletico Madrid’s key performers were last year, the same names tend to get mentioned. Though the biggest strength of this side is its cohesion as a unit, popular consensus tends to lean towards Courtois, Godin, Koke and Diego Costa as the ones relied on to pull off the spectacular moments that brought valuable points. It is no arguing that the club and these individuals outdid themselves; El Atleti had little to no to expectation of toppling the duopoly of Real Madrid and Barcelona. However, the hard-running and frantic style fostered by Simeone’s title-winning team is typified by their unsung hero and captain who leads by example – Gabi.
Great attacking players can best fulfill their duties if they can be confident that the defensive aspects of the game are covered. Building a side on a solid bedrock is key in providing the freedom that star players up front need in order to express themselves, with Gabi providing the perfect foil to the talents of Arda, Villa, Koke, and two Diegos Ribas and Costa. The duo of Gabi and Tiago were tasked with closing down the opposition midfield players and screening the defence from onrushing attackers. While title-winning sides are expected to have more control over the game that most other teams in the league, the way Atletico go about their style relies on directness on the ball and a feverish pressing game when without possession, forcing mistakes and not allowing opponents to rest and dictate proceedings. A guaranteed starter when fit, Gabi’s qualities are evident when compared to other midfield ball-winners around Europe.
Due to the rarity of top sides using defined ball-winners, the comparison pool is limited. Among the leading Premier League sides, none of the ‘true’ combative midfielders like Joe Allen, John Obi Mikel, Mathieu Flamini and Sandro played over 2400 minutes for their clubs last season for a variety of reasons, so it would be unfair to make comparisons based on unequal data. Deep-lying midfielders like Xabi Alonso, Busquets, Steven Gerrard and Andrea Pirlo occupy more refined roles that rely on recycling and dictating play, rather than primarily pressing opponents to win back possession, therefore leading to their exclusion in this particular comparison. Fernandinho, Marouane Fellaini, Javi Martinez and Schweinsteiger were deployed in a variety of roles, so they cannot be added to the mix either. The players compared are ones who I believe were relied on in order to serve as a barrier in front of the defence, stopping attacks before they enter the key attacking areas of the field. The players below are the ones who I believe are the best in Europe when considering the under-appreciated role of a defensive midfielder. If I have made any glaring omissions, please let me know! Gareth Barry was strongly considered but he unfortunately didn’t make the final cut.
The players who did eventually make it to my comparison might come as a surprise to most. There could be a bit of a shoulder shrug when considering a few of the names, but all this does is add further momentum to the suggestion that defensive ball-winners are hardly considered in the bracket of elite players. The footballers in question are Thiago Motta, Victor Sanchez, Morgan Schneiderlin and Luiz Gustavo of PSG, Espanyol, Southampton and Wolfsburg respectively.
Up first is a comparison of their primary contribution as a defensive force: closing down creative opponents and breaking up play.
The numbers show that all five are proficient in the tackle, but Victor Sanchez is ahead of the others in terms of getting involved in the combative side of the game. A high number of tackles won and lost, coupled with the most interceptions per 90 from the players compared show high-work rate, with a hint of overzealous involvement in terms of physicality. This sort of energy was key behind him registering more tackles than any other player in Europe’s top 5 leagues. Thiago Motta, on the other hand, seems to pick his battles more carefully and less frequently than all the others compared, but his impressive rate of successful duels, especially considering PSG’s current dominance of Ligue 1, indicates that he carries out his duties in an exemplary manner. Schneiderlin and Gustavo also show that they carry out their jobs admirably, with Southampton becoming the neutral’s favourite in England last season, while Wolfsburg narrowly missed out on Champions League qualification. Before I analyse Gabi’s contributions, comparison of the “discipline & concentration” side of these players’ games needs to be made.
Being among the best ball-winners in Europe, it comes as no surprise that these players didn’t make a lot of errors. I could have listed the errors that led to goals, but it is the propensity for making mistakes that I am taking into account here. Yellow cards can be awarded for a host of factors, including (but not limited to) mistimed tackles, time-wasting, arguing with officials and simulating, but these players are more likely than most to rack up their bookings with tactical fouls. As shown beautifully by the game against Real Madrid, Gabi was willing to take one for the team and break Los Blancos’ rhythm time and again. It is this combative and selfless streak that makes these players so important to the side.
After having retrieved the ball, the typical ball-winning midfielder has a set of options. They can go the simple route with a horizontal or backward pass, the desired outcome of this being to eventually deliver the ball to a creative player in a position to influence the game. They could also try to the risky yet potentially incisive long ball forward to gain yards vertically. Transitions are part and parcel of football, but the use of these ‘limbo seconds’ where the opposition are neither occupying defensive nor attacking shapes changes according to manager preference. Books have been written on the topic so I will not attempt to address that point here. Once the ball is out of the defensive third and attackers are in play is finally when Gabi comes into his own. Atletico’s 4-man midfield uses two central holding players, while the chance creation tends to happen on the wings. The style implemented by Simeone requires all the midfielders to put in a defensive shift, but all have a responsibility of sorts to move the ball up-field. While having less of the ball than their cross-town rivals, Atletico still managed to have a certain level of control over proceedings by forcing their opponents wide by crowding out the centre. This narrow positioning deprives their opponents of space, and it was Gabi and Tiago’s long balls out wide once possession was regained that enabled Koke to express himself and eventually Turan to land the killer blow. We can also see that Gabi does enjoy having the ball at his feet, with only Thiago Motta really showing greater figures for the possession statistics below. Still, all of Gabi’s stats are impressive, if not outstanding.
It is this all-round high quality that makes Gabi so important to his side. Remember, this is the captain of a title-winning team, and in just missing two games last season this all-action play is what makes him so vital. Yes, he is a ball-winner, but Atletico Madrid need his attacking contributions as well in order to be an effective unit. While they employ a defensive style of play, el Atleti are a fluid team with every player in the XI expected to contribute to multiple phases of the game. Everyone defends, and then the best-placed players attack when possession is regained. If Gabi happens to be in an advantageous position, he will venture forward, and his 8 assists in the league is testament to that. Having also managed three goals, including one against Real Madrid, he shone last season. Most rational football fans would be skeptical of the Spaniard leading his team even further forward this season, but seeing as Gabi and his Atletico team mates didn’t get the memo last year, outdoing those feats is probably the only thing on their minds.
All the data and images for statistical comparisons courtesy Squawka.com
Written by Marvyn Paul
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