The Extinction of the Box-to-Box Midfielder

“Players lose you games, not tactics. There’s so much crap talked about tactics by people who barely know how to win at dominoes.” Brian Clough’s managerial achievements are well-known, but that makes them no less remarkable. In winning two league titles, four League Cups and two European Cups with provincial clubs Derby County and Nottingham Forest – who both languished in English football’s second tier when the former Middlesbrough and Sunderland striker was appointed – Clough achieved an unprecedented feat which will, albeit primarily because of the reliance on money in the modern game, never be repeated.

However, such a statement is palpably untrue: there are countless examples of matches and tournaments being won by teams who, despite inferior technical quality, have showcased superior execution or employment of a given strategy or formation, perhaps most notably in the case of Greece at Euro 2004.

Delve a little deeper, though, and it is clear that, whilst Clough’s assertion is ludicrous at face value, his interpretation of the word ‘tactics’ is crucial to our understanding. Clough construed the term as the measures taken to nullify opponents, and thus associated it with the reactive football he denounced, the then Derby boss reviling the comprehensive dossiers compiled by his great adversary Don Revie on the strengths and weaknesses of every challenger and how he expected his Leeds United side to adapt their approach accordingly. Clough was more proactive, immutably concerned with how his players could hurt their rivals.

However, to suggest he sent his charges out with no tactical instruction is absurd: having employed two out-and-out wingers in Forest’s promotion campaign of 1976/77, Clough realised that the style would leave the Reds far too open at the highest level, and instead decided to utilize Martin O’Neill on the right, a more conservative option than his positional predecessor Terry Curran. More broadly, Clough’s prior conversion of John Robertson from central midfielder to left-winger paid dividends: the Scotsman scored the winning goal in the 1980 European Cup Final, and was Forest’s exceptional performer throughout Clough’s most fruitful spell in management.

The recent success of Barcelona and Spain, whose methods owe much to the thoughts and work of Marcelo Bielsa, the current Athletic Bilbao boss, dictates that this is the era of possession. High-profile triumphs such as Spain’s three consecutive tournament victories inevitably induce attempted facsimiles and, although this is rarely possible, it is accurate to proclaim that tactics and formations tend to come in trends. Therefore, as well as providing a structural mechanism to compete and gain an advantage, tactical fashions can explain evolutions in the game and developments in the characteristics of its competitors. The prevalence of 4-4-2 in the 1990s, for instance, gave birth to the attacking full-back: when two 4-4-2 teams came up against each other – as they regularly did due to the widespread deployment of the system – each position had a clear opponent, and full-backs were increasingly relied upon to vary the attacks.

Similarly, as Darren Bent has found to his cost at Aston Villa, it is seldom enough for a striker to be a mere ‘goalscorer’ anymore, with forwards expected to defend from the front and improved defensive organisation and fitness increasing the difficulty of traditional poachers profiting from merely playing on the shoulder and being played in on goal with a hopeful punt upfield. In more recent times, the advent and subsequent universal adoption of 4-2-3-1, a subtle tweak from previous configurations, has led to the near extinction of one of English football’s most treasured participants: the box-to-box midfielder.

For years, the box-to-box midfielder typified the English game: strength, speed, power, the ability to win a tackle at one end of the pitch before storming up to the other to have a shot at goal. It is no coincidence that this type of midfielder has thrived in this country more than elsewhere, where athleticism has often been valued over pure technique and tactical aptitude; Lothar Mättheus, Jean Tigana and Torsten Frings were all excellent players, but they would perhaps have been even more greatly appreciated if they had plied their trade in England, where Roy Keane, Patrick Vieira and Bryan Robson, amongst others, embodied the classically British style of play.

The general progression from 4-4-2 to 4-2-3-1 began on the continent with the new millennium, yet, somewhat characteristically, England were late to the party. There has traditionally been a suspicion of the use of just a single striker on these shores, yet the surge in clubs using 4-2-3-1 has shown that five in midfield is not inherently negative and, like any other formation, it is the application of it that decides its relative positivity. As many outfits began to move away from 4-4-2 in preference of an additional man in the middle, those teams that stuck with just two central midfielders became dangerously outnumbered, and were forced to effectively cede control of the ball. As Arsène Wenger increasingly began to favour a variation of 4-2-3-1 in the mid-2000s, Sir Alex Ferguson would notably alter his Manchester United line-up to numerically match the Gunners in midfield, where the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Mathieu Flamini and Tomáš Rosický frequently awarded Arsenal possessional domination.

The main consequence of the advancement towards 4-2-3-1 has been the proliferation of specialists. There has always been a conscious intention to strike a balance in midfield – witness the distinct tasks performed by central midfielders in some of the most eminent sides of the last decade, even before the dissemination of 4-2-3-1, from Zinedine Zidane and Claude Makélelé at Real Madrid to Deco and Pedro Mendes at Porto – but this has intensified in the past five years.

Ideally, many managers prefer one of their holding players to be a destroyer in the Makélelé-mold and the other to be more of a regista or deep-lying playmaker, a masterclass of which was provided by Andrea Pirlo at Euro 2012; direct wingers can then be deployed ahead of them with a powerful central striker positioned in front of a scheming trequartista, or inverted forwards on the wings and a pacey frontman, with an emphasis on full-backs frequently overlapping and providing the attacking incision. Regardless of such subtle modifications, football has indubitably moved towards an age of the specialist, accepted not just by coaches as a necessary means to accomplishment, but by players themselves who, as Theo Walcott has demonstrated via his contractual deferment, often insist on a specific role within the team. This has, in effect, rendered the box-to-box midfielder obsolete.

Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, talismanic figures for Chelsea and Liverpool, were routinely unable to play together for England, where Sven-Göran Eriksson and Steve McClaren repeatedly failed to realise that two box-to-box players could seldom play together in a 4-4-2. Attempting to shoehorn the best individuals into a starting eleven neglects the fact that, in football, the whole is invariably greater than the sum of its parts; Eriksson largely ignored this and, after deciding that Michael Owen needed a strike partner to flourish, should have been brave enough to opt for either Lampard or Gerrard alongside a more disciplined player in the centre of the park. Owen Hargreaves performed this duty brilliantly at the 2006 World Cup, yet it is interesting to note that the Canadian-born midfielder’s starts came either as a direct replacement for the suspended Gerrard in a 4-4-2, or when injury ended Owen’s tournament and Wayne Rooney deputised as a lone striker. Eriksson, bowing to the bigger names, counterintuitively refused to break the duo up.

Indeed, Lampard and Gerrard excelled domestically when partnered with Makélelé or Dietmar Hamann, more defensive-minded players who allowed them to perform their box-to-box functions. It is noteworthy that 4-2-3-1 has since forced Lampard and Gerrard to almost become one or the other; the former is used primarily as a holding midfielder, although interestingly retains the license to join the attack on occasions, with one member of Chelsea’s triumvirate behind Fernando Torres expected to fill in as Ramires expertly demonstrated in December’s victory over Everton, whilst Gerrard also operates deeper on the field, with Liverpool continually benefiting from their captain’s terrific long-passing capabilities. Although this could be explained with reference to the pair’s rising age, the repositioning is almost certainly down to tactical considerations: Yaya Touré is in the prime of his career and has all of the qualities associated with a complete midfielder but plays regularly as a holder to correspond with Manchester City’s system, with Marouane Fellaini, Sami Khedira and Esteban Cambiasso’s more defined roles offering further evidence of the box-to-box man’s decline.

Despite appearing to be dead at the highest level of today’s game, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the box-to-box midfielder will be resurrected in the future. Although it is difficult to envisage contemporary coaches turning away from 4-2-3-1, systems will continue to evolve, and the success of a side playing a formation designed to counter 4-2-3-1 could see a replacement of what has become today’s default arrangement internationally. Notwithstanding its present disesteemed status, 4-4-2 was seen as the perfect setup after the European Cup victories of Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan in 1989 and 1990, whilst Argentina’s 1986 World Cup triumph inspired the spread of 3-5-2. The latter has enjoyed something of a renaissance in the last few years, first in Serie A with Napoli, Udinese and Juventus, and then in the Premier League with Wigan Athletic, Manchester City and Aston Villa, bringing with it the restoration of the wing-back, responsible for stretching the play when going forward and adding solidity defensively. The box-to-box midfielder, so often identified as the heartbeat and driving force of English sides, is clearly out of fashion. But just as skinny ties, platform heels and chino trousers have shown, it may not be gone forever.

Greg Lea


Leave a Reply