Obsession With Defensive Midfield Is Stagnating International Play

It is fast becoming the bane of all good football, the enemy of exciting, attacking play and the most infuriating tactical ploy that I have ever had the misfortune to encounter.

In a summer blessed with two major international tournaments, one of the most prominent tactical set ups seems to be that which involves two defensive, holding midfield players. At the Gold Cup, Bob Bradley and the United States paired together Jermain Jones and Michael Bradley in the center of midfield, while at the Copa America Sergio Batista sent his Argentina side out yesterday night with Esteban Cambiasso and Javier Mascherano sitting right in front of the back line.

Throughout their Gold Cup campaign, one recurring theme of the United States’ play was their slowness in possession, a detrimental quality which inhibited their ability to storm past inferior teams like Panama and Guadeloupe. When the conduit linking defense and attack is Jermain Jones, slowness is guaranteed, an exceptional holding midfielder, Jones is lacking in ability when it comes to passing and composure in possession. Yet, Bob Bradley kept on starting Jones and Bradley; even against opposition deprived of  midfield creativity, he still saw it fit to play two defensive midfield players.

With the start of the Copa America, a new player in the excess defensive midfield game has emerged- Argentina. Boasting a front three of Messi, Tevez and Lavezzi, Argentina are rarely a side associated with conservative play, yet their starting line-up yesterday was remarkably unambitious given the level of their opponents. Teams such as Bolivia at the Copa America, and Guadaloupe at the Gold Cup, are types that regional powerhouses like Argentina and the USA should sweep past with ease, however, both sides have struggled, mainly due to their obstinate usage of holding midfielders.

Against high class opposition, the use of multiple holding midfield players is an effective strategy; when facing a midfield rife with creative talent, additional sources of defensive mettle are needed to combat the opponent’s attack. But why field such a conservative midfield line-up against minnows like Guadeloupe, Bolivia and Panama? Teams of their ilk will usually bunker down and wait for the opposition to break through, when a more attacking player is fielded, penetration of a deep lying back four becomes more feasible.

Argentina in particular are guilty in that regard. While the US can be excused partially as they lack a really classy treqartista type player, Argentina seem intent on keeping the one that they have rooted to the bench. Moreover, if Argentina’s stated desire is to get the best out of Messi by playing in the style of Barcelona, then maybe they should take a closer look at how Barcelona do play. In a fluid 4-3-3 formation, Barca field only one holding midfielder in Serigo Busquets, who sits behind two attacking midfield players- the well renowned Xavi and Iniesta.

Javier Pastore, if started ahead of Mascherano or Cambiasso, might have been able to provide a bit of ingenuity from midfield, a classy touch that could have helped goals permeate through the staunch Bolivian rear guard. A Pastore-Banega combination in attacking midfield, with Mashcherano sitting just behind, would be much more reminiscent of Messi’s Catalan owners, and would therefore come closer to providing the desired effect.

While the United States have already seen their international campaign end in failure, Argentina still have time to right themselves; their next match is on July 6th against Colombia, hopefully then we will see their midfield bathed in attacking splendor.

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