You won't find a defensive midfielder on FBref
Fans love to scour football's premier database in hopes of finding their next great signing, but numbers like tackles and interceptions aren't actually what makes a good defensive midfielder
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For the past four years any Manchester United fan could tell you that the club needed a defensive midfielder. It’s the one thing the entire fan base is in complete agreement on. Who that midfielder should be is an entirely different question.
Plenty of people have their ideas. Some suggest trying a defender like Victor Lindelof in the position with logic somewhere along the lines of well he’s a defender so he can defend and he’s ok with the ball at his feet so why not without taking into account all the other things a midfielder needs to be able to do. Other more outrageous suggestions include putting Aaron Wan-Bissaka there because he excels at the defensive parts of the game, namely tackling.
Most subscribe to the belief that United need to sign someone, the question simply being, who should they sign? These days, everyone who is looking to find that answer wanders over to FBref and looks at midfielders who rank high in defensive metrics such as tackles and interceptions.
The problem here is those are the wrong things to look at.
To understand what you need from a defensive midfielder you need to take a step back and remember what defending actually is. Defending - at its core - is simply ‘preventing your opponent from scoring.’ That’s it. It’s not about winning the ball back, blocking shots, or making saves. If your opponent overhits a cross that goes out for a goal kick, you defended successfully1. That’s what makes quantifying defending so difficult, how do you measure something that doesn’t happen?
The most basic pillar of defending is simply, don’t let your opponent do what your opponent wants to do. Attackers want to get to the middle, they want to get by you and they want to get the ball closest to the goal. Don’t let them to do that, force them wide, keep them in front of you. If you do that you’re going to force them to do things they don’t want to do, pull up, pass the ball, whip in a cross etc. The more you make them do those things the more the chances of an errant pass, a poor touch, or a bad cross increase leading to your team taking over possession.
That’s why when it comes to defending, 90 percent of the game is just simply being there. If you’re simply in position it’s already going to be much more difficult for the attacker to do what he wants to do. Simply being in position can force an attacker to rush things, or take a shot with his weak foot, or attempt to shoot around you to avoid a blocked shot, lowering his chances of shooting on target.
When fans think of defensive midfielders, they think of players getting a lot of tackles or making a lot of interceptions. Those are active defensive actions and players that have high volumes in those areas are not who you’d look at as a sitting midfielder.
Ander Herrera and Fred both rack up high volumes of pressures, tackles, and interceptions. You wouldn’t ask either of them to sit deep, that’s not who they are and takes away from their strengths.
Both players are at their best when they step up and engage attackers to actively try and win the ball back. They gamble a lot, they engage in a lot of duels. When it works, it’s great, you get the ball back and can launch a quick attack. When it doesn’t work, you need coverage. That’s what makes both players far better when playing in a three then a midfield two, but even in a two Fred is much better with the defensive Nemanja Matic behind him. When Fred engages in a duel and loses, Matic is behind him to delay the attacker long enough for everyone to get back in position.
Out of possession the main job of your defensive - or holding - midfielder is protect and prevent. Protect the back four, prevent counter attacks or prevent attackers from getting free runs at your defenders.
The main tactics you employ to achieve those jobs? Stay in position and delay delay delay. Don’t let the attacker do what he wants to do, delay him, and keep delaying him until your teammates are able to get back into position.
The following is a great example of this. It’s Luke Shaw - a fullback - but as it’s off a United corner he’s essentially playing midfield, nevertheless the concept is the same.
United take an unsuccessful corner and Arsenal move the ball to pacy Nicolas Pepe who has a free run at the very few defenders United have back. Shaw simply gets in front of Pepe, he doesn’t engage him - in fact he gets turned around a few times and looks stupid - but what he’s actually doing is delaying Pepe while forcing him wider and wider into less dangerous areas. The act of delaying him gives United time to get man back, and buys time for Dan James to come over and trap him.
With an extra man for help, and after guiding him to the touchline, Shaw is able to now step in and make an attempt on the ball, which he nicks off Pepe’s leg for a United throw.
Snuffing out a counter attack doesn’t always mean winning the ball back right at the start. In fact, a deep midfielder making an aggressive play to snuff a counter can easily make things worse if not successful as you leave your defense unprotected.
Another way to snuff out a counter is to simply not let your opponent start it.
Manchester United have three players back (Lindelof, Maguire, Matic) when Sheffield United win the ball here. As soon as they win it two players immediately make forward runs to launch a counter. The counter never happens simply because Pogba holds his ground and cuts off the passing lane - he doesn’t allow the attacker to do what he wants to do.
The attacker then needs to go with plan B, move the ball out wide, a slow rolling pass. By the time it reaches its destination, United already have four men back and have regained their shape. Now they can start pressuring the opposition and just as quickly, they have the ball back.
Ask a United fan to find a defensive midfield target and they’ll likely go to Fbref and come back with a list of players in the top percentile for tackles and interceptions. They’ll probably also want someone with some pace. However, if you told a United fan you could put any player they wanted through an age time machine to make them younger and sign them, they’ll either say they’d like to sign a 5-6 years younger version Nemanja Matic or a 15 years younger version of Michael Carrick.
There’s no problem with either of those answers, both are fantastic defensive midfielders right in the mold of what United need. However, neither of them are players who made a high number of tackles or interceptions. Neither of them were ever known for having any pace.
What both players did was simply, stay home. They didn’t gamble to get interceptions, their interceptions came from their superb ability to read the game. Another reason that their interception totals are lower is simply because fewer passes are made in their vicinity because, why would you pass to players if they’re not open? How do you judge passes that aren’t made simply because the defender is in the right spot2?
From 2019-21, when Nemanja Matic played Manchester United allowed fewer successful passes and carries into the penalty area. There was however an uptick in crosses attempted. That could be the result of the styles of play of the opponents or more likely, that due to having players staying position there weren’t as many gaps for teams to try and pass through the middle, they had to shuffle the ball out wide and launch inefficient crosses.
Pace doesn’t matter when you know you don’t have to get all way out to the ball, you just need to get in the way of where the attacker wants the ball to go.
Tackles, interceptions, pace. All of these traits are completely overrated when it comes to being a defensive midfielders. Think of all the best defensive midfielders/deep lying playmakers, how many of them were pacy players? Almost none. Many times players only become deep midfielders in the twilight of their careers as their legs start going.
Holding midfield is the ultimate work smarter not harder position. Your job is to sit, protect, and distribute the ball. Defensive midfielders will rank high in ball recoveries, but those recoveries come from the work of the players ahead of them.
When your forward line and midfielders are pressing and haggling opponents, eventually they’ll make a bad pass, or receive a pass with a heavy touch. That’s when the midfielder who’s been sitting in his position away from all the action swoops in to gather up the ball. If the initial pressure doesn’t work then your holding midfielder is there to step in and delay the attacker long enough for his teammates to recover and get back.
The best defensive midfielders are defensive in that when they play, they prevent goals. They don’t do that with interceptions and tackles. They do it by staying in position, protecting their back line, and delaying attacks3 until their teammates can recover and get back into shape. Not exactly the most measurable traits.
What they also bring to the table is ability on the ball, calmness in possession, and ability to pass the ball forward quickly. That’s what makes the best defensive midfielders so valuable, their ability to dictate play from deep. Things like that can be found on FBref but we also need to make sure that when deep midfielders are progressing the ball, they’re being productive with it. There’s also the tendency that when we find young players who have this passing ability we end up pushing them further up the pitch so they could use those skills in a more attacking role.
Volume isn’t what you should be focusing on when looking for that perfect holding midfielders. The best defensive midfielder will get the job done when called upon, but excellent positioning will limit how many times he’s even called upon. Combine those abilities with the necessary on ball skills for distribution and starting attacks and you’ve got yourself a great midfielder.
But considering the different roles every team asks different players to play, it’s not going to be easy to find that ideal player on FBref.
This isn’t to be confused with pressing. Pressing is a particular strategy employed while defending. The goal of pressing is to win the ball back as quick as possible, that’s one way of preventing your opponent from scoring but at its basic core defending is just about not letting your opponent score.
Here’s a great cross-sport comparison to illustrate this point. In 2009 Darrelle Revis was the best cornerback in the NFL. In 2010 he wanted to be paid like it and had a long dramatic contract holdout that lasted throughout the preseason. Revis finished the season with zero interceptions causing a lot of people to question that contract. How could you be the best corner if you didn’t get a single interception?
Revis however went the other way. He wore that zero like a badge of honor as he explained ‘how could I get interceptions if team’s don’t throw my way?’ Sure enough, despite Revis guarding the other team’s best receiver teams teams simply threw at him significantly less. He never let his man get open, therefore no one ever threw to them.
Even though we didn’t talk about it don’t forget the biggest tool of them all - a well timed tactical foul