Is the specialist defensive midfielder a dying breed in England?


It’s quite evident that the English game lacks solid defensive minded midfielders but have some of them in the lower ranked teams been overlooked? Abhijit Bharali takes an in-depth look at some of the current defensive midfielders in England to provide us with a better judgement.

Cattermole 2015


When Southampton boss Ronald Koeman started with center-half Toby Alderweireld as a second pivot alongside Morgan Schneiderlin in a center-heavy 4-2-3-1 against Tottenham, he must’ve felt the sheer absurdity of letting go former Chelsea man Jack Cork to Swansea City in January.

Cork is essentially a defensive central midfielder, far less of the archetypal English mold but more of the fleet-footed passer from the back. Koeman prefers two holding midfielders to one; this is basically an approach to mitigate Southampton’s limitations of personnel.

Should they play with two center forwards, which they currently don’t have and which will mean making lesser use of an in-form Graziano Pelle up front, it would usually imply sacrificing a midfield body. Against Spurs in that 2-2 draw though, Koeman was forced to use Alderweireld in the suspended Victor Wanyama’s absence. He could’ve easily called upon Cork had he not been sold. Cork at Swansea is the long-term like-for-like replacement for the ageing Leon Britton. Like Britton, Cork’s role in a midfield triumvirate at Swansea is recycling the ball quickly and intelligently.  Their presence in the final third is negligible, but both can be fairly efficient with their distribution. With compatriots Jonjo Shelvey and Britton, Cork often forms one-third of a decent-looking English axis at the base of Swansea’s midfield.

England’s last competitive international fixture against Lithuania featured only four specialist central midfielders in the 23-man-squad— Jordan Henderson, Michael Carrick, Fabian Delph and Ryan Mason. Of the quartet, Carrick remains the only holder; the rest more or less are gradually growing into their roles as midfield shuttlers or box-to-box midfielders at their respective clubs. Carrick aside, the trio of Henderson, Delph and Mason boasts an average age of 24 which makes them firm bets to run England’s engine room for years to come.

Now the question is, how has Roy Hodgson managed to miss the likes of Cork who clearly has had an edge over Mason in recent months? Revolutionary football statistics source WhoScored.com rates Cork’s performance since arriving at Swansea at 7.17, which is higher than Mason’s 6.84 for Spurs. Although Mason isn’t quite the England regular a la Henderson, his familiarity in a box-to-box role alongside Nabil Bentaleb in Tottenham’s double pivot makes him a choice by logic. While on the other hand, Cork rarely drives from midfield and his suitability to the role of the deepest of the three central midfielders in Swansea’s 4-3-1-2 makes him a luxury rather than a necessity in Carrick’s presence.

England’s now-template 4-3-3 setup lacks width and is victim to ill-advised personnel selections (Theo Walcott as a forward against Italy!). It seems like a rushed fix to a system handicapped by lack of tactical improvisations and propensity to play with systems to accommodate the best players rather than the other way round. Only four Englishmen make the EA Sports Player Performance Index for the top 20 midfielders in the Premier League 2014/15. And as a matter of fact, all the four (Sterling, Downing, Henderson, Puncheon) are either wingers, second strikers or, in Henderson’s case, a box-to-box player. Of the top 20 Premier League midfielders, only Nemanja Matic is an orthodox holding midfielder while Yaya Toure and Santi Cazorla have had spells in the base of midfield but feature mainly due to their contributions in the attacking third.

The 3 band, narrow 4-3-3 setup that England generally employ.

The 3 band, narrow 4-3-3 setup that England generally employ.

Is the specialist holding midfielder a dying breed in England? Has the national game been affected by not being flexible enough to the tactical evolution within the game? England manager Roy Hodgson largely prefers the narrow 4-3-3; this comes as little surprise because Wayne Rooney is so important a part in it. Michael Carrick has been highly preferred as the deepest of the three midfielders in band II, although against Italy in their last friendly international, England experimented with Phil Jones as the lone holder. What is baffling here is the sheer lack of options in Carrick’s absence.

Jones is a center-half by trade, although his composed ball playing often marks him out as a square peg to fill the round hole of a position that is the holding midfield. There isn’t really a lack of options, though. Joey Barton, Mark Noble, Lee Cattermole and Dean Marney might not be the fanciest of names on the national roster, but they certainly have done well for their respective clubs to warrant a national call-up ahead of the likes of Gareth Barry and James Milner. Or Carrick even.

In the current league season, the trio of Carrick, Milner and Barry averages 1.33 interceptions per 90 minutes, 1.86 successful tackles per 90 minutes and 0.83 key passes per 90 minutes. Of course, the larger picture is that Milner operates further up the pitch as a wide midfielder while both Carrick and Barry provide the midfield base for Manchester United and Everton respectively which skews the averages somewhat. Moreover Barry’s lack of decisive involvement poses quite a few questions about his suitability in his role as unlike Carrick, he
often has a partner (McCarthy/Besic) operating alongside him.

Interestingly enough, Joey Barton, who retired from international duties last year, has been the standout English defensive midfielder in the current Premier League season. Barton’s cultured approach might be too little for QPR to stave relegation away, but he is what an English regista (or playmaker) should be defined as. Strong in the tackle, Barton averages 2.9 successful tackles per 90 minutes, which makes for a remarkable 69% success rate while his final third passing, too, has been exemplary by English standards. The Liverpudlian averages 2.1 key passes per game, which is significantly higher than the combined average of the aforementioned England regulars.

Excellent though his stats may be, but drawing parallels with Barton’s counterparts from across Europe in the top five leagues tells a rather sorry story for the English game. Young German sensation Johannes Geis, who plays at Mainz, averages 2.3 key passes per game of which 61% are long balls which marks him out as the most impressive deep-lying playmaker across Europe. While Atletico Madrid’s Gabi’s average of 3.5 successful tackles per game comes as little surprise given the tactical state of Diego Simeone’s physical yet intelligent midfield, but the high tackling efficiency of 71% shows how good the Atleti captain is.

Tactical rejigs at big English clubs too could have a knock-on effect on the present state of the base of England’s midfield. Manchester City have the battering rams of Yaya Toure, Fernandinho and Fernando alternating in the half-back roles in City’s 4-2-3-1 setup which seems a far cry now from last season’s striker partnerships.

Consequently James Milner, who had his most prolific year playing centrally for Aston Villa in the 2009/10 season, has more or less been used as a spare choice in wide positions or, at most, in big games due to his workmanlike attributes. Similarly Arsenal fare better without Jack Wilshere in the side than with as Francis Coquelin has emerged impressively this season. Coquelin’s improvement will only mean an advanced role for Wilshere at Arsenal or perhaps a fixed spot on the bench beckons. Jonathan Wilson discussed the possibilities of Wilshere in a deep role for England and saw many positives, but a stalling club career could hardly have worsened matters any more.

Liverpool’s system which depends on width; halfspaces are strategically stronger areas to attack with its 360-degree reach.

Liverpool’s system which depends on width; halfspaces are
strategically stronger areas to attack with its 360-degree reach.

Of clubs that have an English identity in their back of midfield and those that matter to Hodgson and The FA, Liverpool sporadically field the retired Steven Gerrard in a deep-lying role with Henderson shuttling alongside him. Liverpool’s 4-midfield setup has only two central midfielders while the other two are wing-backs. Brendan Rodgers’ side emphasizes on vertical football, which often bypasses the control zone of the back of midfield. Among others, Aston Villa are worth a shout with their young trio of English midfielders. Tom Cleverley and Ashley Westwood can both play as a specialist defensive midfielder, but both are quite different in their styles. Cleverley is more of Cork’s
ilk; he recycles the ball well and often puts in a good tackle whereas Westwood is of the European kind; he prefers the early ball into the forward zones and does it with good regularity.

Aston Villa usually aren’t an attacking side. Midfielders in advanced positions have defensive responsibilities.

Aston Villa usually aren’t an attacking side. Midfielders in advanced
positions have defensive responsibilities.

That Cork’s move to Wales has been a step in the right direction in his career has been analyzed with the help of some brilliant statistics from WhoScored.com. Cork averages 2.3 tackles per 90 minutes while he makes a league high 2.8 interceptions per game, comparable to Barton but better than the likes of Carrick, Cleverley, Westwood et al. Cork on the bench at Southampton was a wasted talent; he has now found safe haven as a regular in Swansea whites with his consistent performances.

Another undervalued English holding midfielder is Lee Cattermole. Cattermole falls in the old-school destroyer category, but his rare good season has culminated in a downturn of fortunes for Sunderland. Cattermole’s stats are better than most; he remains one of the better performing English central midfielders in the current season. His 4.7 attempted tackles per game has had its own share of failed attempts leading to his 12 yellow cards, but a 57% tackle success rate at basement club Sunderland is very decent while his fairly higher-than-average 2.2 interceptions per game makes him a steady albeit highly unfancied alternative. Sunderland currently lie 18th on the league table, but not much blame can be apportioned to Cattermole for that.

English football’s deaf ears to their needs has rendered the art of a holding midfielder irrelevant. In recent years, the Manchester Uniteds and Chelseas have often relied upon imports for the very un-English of jobs on the pitch. The problem probably lies in the mere fact that national squads often favor players from the traditional big four clubs and more recently, from Manchester City and Tottenham. This isn’t at all against logic as players at the big clubs are likely to be more accustomed to big game pressures as they continually compete for top honors every season, which is akin to the pressures at international level.

This leaves the likes of Cork and Cattermole at smaller clubs hopeless and suffering by the English game’s continued aversion for tactical maneuvers or by doing all the right things at a wrong club. Koeman’s doubts over Cork’s suitability in the back of midfield leaves the impression that English players do not make natural holding midfielders and bigger clubs rarely take a chance on a local lad when they could import specialists from France or Spain. Seen through the bigger lenses, this sheds some light on the general distaste towards the role of a specialist holding midfielder and the English players in that role.

Now well into his 30s, Joey Barton enjoyed only 18 minutes as an England international. Attitude problems aside, Barton has been a fine footballer all his career, sidelined from England duties in favor of under performing stars at big clubs mainly because he never played for a “priority club”. Barton, statistically at least, towers over his national peers. Could England have achieved more had Barton been given more chances? The Cattermoles and Corks are into their mid-twenties, and an England call-up has ever eluded them. Age is on their side, but the persistent inability of the English system to identify the significance of a specialist defensive midfielder should see a stockpile of Joey Bartons in the near future.


Written by Abhijit Bharali

Abhijit Bharali

Abhijit Bharali

Abhijit Bharali is a freelance football writer who specializes in analytical writing. A first generation Liverpool fan, and an engineering undergrad. You can find some of his other work here: https://thenutcrackfootball.wordpress.com/
Abhijit Bharali