The Evolution of the Defensive Midfield Role

Gattuso was a modern defensive midfield great
Gattuso was a modern defensive midfield great | Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

It's fascinating to look at how football has changed throughout the years.

There have been so many changes year in, year out, such as in the athletic capabilities of the players, or the tactical focus of the game, and particularly in how the demands of different positions have changed.

And when you look at the changes made to the defensive midfield role - it's where the evolution of the sport becomes most apparent.

Kanté has been heralded by many as the perfect modern defensive midfielder | MOLLY DARLINGTON/Getty Images

While the role itself didn't initially even exist, there were elements of the position in the tasks of the centre-half, who was asked to win the ball back from deep positions and quickly hand it off to his attack-minded teammates. Famously, Herbert Chapman had Herbie Roberts play the centre-half part for Arsenal - but he was predominantly chosen to stop opposing teams from playing a direct aerial-based game, which seems vastly different to its role today.

Arguably, the first true defensive midfielder was the Italian Luis Monti, who played just in front of his defence in Vittorio Pozzo's 1934 World Cup-winning side. His role was to mark out the opposition's best attacker, while also being counted upon to start an attack from deep.

And while few would play in the same position, the Italians continued to advocate for a ball-winning player, shown by the increasing use of a sweeper, or libero-type player. Here, a central defender was often given free rein to hunt for the ball, without having to man-mark a particular player. It was particularly shown by Armando Picchi's role in the 1960s Grande Inter side, that was managed by catenaccio mastermind Helenio Herrera.

Yet the libero was never part of the midfield, and remained a role confined to the backline - so most sweepers were never considered to be a defensive midfielder, even if their jobs were similar to the modern-day version.

Other midfielders became known for their defensive work too as the 20th century went on, such as Dunga, Lothar Matthäus and Frank Rijkaard - but all were also given license to push into the offensive third, which suggests that they could not also be truly considered to be pure defensive midfielders.

It was a similar tale during the early stages of the Premier League. While players like Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira were admired for their defensive abilities, they were often asked to do more than just win the ball and protect their defenders. Playing as part of a central midfield duo, they were relied upon to cover tremendous amounts of ground in a box-to-box role - and therefore were not true defensive midfielders in the sense that their back-half duties were their main function.

But the arrival of Claude Makélélé in 2003 would change all of this. Under José Mourinho's instruction, the Frenchman would carve out a role for himself as the sole midfield protector who was free to win the ball and quickly distribute it to the likes of Frank Lampard, without being required to push upfield himself.

Jermaine Jenas battles with Claude Makelele
The 'Makélélé' role was coined after the Frenchman's displays at Chelsea | Ben Radford/Getty Images

Sure, the former Real Madrid player was clearly not the fastest, strongest or most technical player in the league. Yet what made him effective for the Blues was his positioning and his intelligence to know where he could break up an opponent's attack. Suddenly, other English clubs were looking to find their own player for the 'Makélélé role'.

And outside of England, other players became more prominent for playing with similar responsibilities. The likes of Gennaro Gattuso, Mark van Bommel and Emerson all thrived in their ball-winning defensive roles, and by the time of the 2006 World Cup, most major teams seemed to have their own Makélélé - either as a defensive pivot in a 4-5-1 formation, or within their central midfield pairing in the still-popular 4-4-2 system.

So why did they become so sought-after by teams all around the world? Certainly for their ball-winning ability, which became even more crucial for managers who played possession-style football, and also for those who wanted to counter-attack their opponents quickly through forcing a turnover.

Indeed, coaches and managers were so insistent on finding a place for a 'destroyer' in the team, to the extent that it led to a striker often being sacrificed as a result. Thus began the increasing use of five-man midfields, where clubs prioritised having a defensive midfielder in order to take control of a game. The need for control led to some coaches even choosing to play with two defensive midfielders - something that would have been unheard of decades ago.

Javier Alejandro Mascherano
Mascherano was a rare 'destroyer' in Spain | Power Sport Images/Getty Images

Even countries like Spain, who prided themselves on producing players who were excellent in possession, began to see the worth of having a purely defensive player in their midfield, with the likes of Javier Mascherano and Alex Song earning big moves to Barcelona for their abilities to recover the ball for their more technically-gifted teammates.

But when surveying the football landscape now, it appears that the role of the defensive midfielder has expanded further. Now, deep-lying playmakers are expected to be capable defensively, and are favoured more so than the 'destroyer', particularly in Spain, for being able to play out from the back as well as doing the dirty work.

Indeed, the modern defensive midfielder is often expected to do more than just tackle and intercept possession. They're asked to surge forward with the ball upon taking it off their opponent, and also to use their passing range to create chances for their attackers - something that Gattuso and co. weren't known for a decade ago.

The role of the defensive midfielder has changed. In the past it was just about protecting the back four, but now you are asked to do everything: score goals, make assists and defend.

Patrick Vieira

And while in the Premier League you'll still see a 'destroyer' picked by the best teams, they aren't as essential as they once were. In an era where mobility and the requirement of being a 'two-way player' are now prioritised, few players are now selected to just do the defensive work - they need to be a jack-of-all-trades to succeed at the highest level.

Joshua Kimmich
Kimmich is one of the very best in the world | Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

It's certainly an intriguing time to see where the role goes from here. You've got the likes of Casemiro and Fabinho, who feel like a throwback to the era of pure defensive midfielders - but then there's also N'Golo Kanté and Joshua Kimmich, who are evolving the position further into being more than just the 'Makélélé role'.

The 'destroyer' isn't going away by all means - it's becoming more of a well-rounded football weapon.