Talking Tactics: True holding midfielder re-emerges in MLS

Conventional wisdom once demanded a good club needed a midfield destroyer, someone to bounce about over a broad range with menace and bite and one simple goal in life: to create mayhem and turnovers in the midfield while eliminating rhythm for the other guys’ attack.

Some MLS clubs still have a character befitting this description, a spritely type who has yet to meet an attack he wouldn’t like to kick, hammer and choke into submission.

But there is another way, a slightly less physical and chaotic MO, to patrol areas in front of a back four. More teams are now assigning a true, central holding presence. His job is still about breaking up attacks and screening the back line, but his methods are more reliant on positioning and eliminating dangerous space, while less reliant on tireless tackling and kicking shins.

The old-school destroyers still exist in MLS. A good example has been on the job for three years in Seattle, where Osvaldo Alonso remains young enough, mobile enough and hungry enough to crash about over a greater range.

Real Salt Lake’s Kyle Beckerman does much the same from the diamond-midfield formation at Rio Tinto. Shalrie Joseph once used his big stride to patrol this way for New England, although he has sometimes occupied more advanced roles in the Revolution midfield this season.

But some teams want a little more “holding” from their holding midfielders. What managers ask from this revised role is a highly disciplined determination to occupy and police the central areas in front of the back four, the most vulnerable space from which so many goals emanate. The old adage about “touching every blade of grass” just doesn’t apply to these guys, which is exactly what managers want.

A big part of the ongoing Chivas USA resurrection is the work Simon Elliott is performing in such a role at the Home Depot Center. FC Dallas’ Daniel Hernandez has been doing the same for two-plus years now. Teemu Tainio has been in such a recessed posture for much of the year at Red Bull Arena. And veteran German midfielder Torsten Frings started in that spot for Toronto FC before being redeployed in the defense.

You might notice a trend there: Every one of those players is north of 30. Elliott is renowned for his exceptional fitness but nothing can alter that fact that he’s 37, and with advancing age comes fading quickness. Hernandez recently turned 35. Frings will cross into the 35-and-older group later this year. Tainio is the “baby” at 31.

Clearly all these guys can still perform, but their range and speed may be limited. So managers arrange a system that plays to their strengths, which is snuffing out danger strategically, tackling in the right spots and the occasional need for well-chosen tactical fouling. They aren’t “two-way” midfielders by any stretch.

The basic rule: The more these fellows can remain central, the better. They want to defend over short distances, looking to intercept and tackle as attackers enter those danger zones, biding their time and waiting for trouble to find them instead of advancing out to look for trouble. When they are drawn out, it’s critical that someone steps into the vulnerable space.

In a 4-1-4-1 or a 4-3-3, the “weak side” central midfielder (that is, the player opposite the side with the ball) must recognize the need to step in. In a diamond, it’s the outside midfielder on the opposite side who must rush into the gap.

This way, a midfield defensive presence is always available there. That prevents a center back from being pulled out to challenge shooters or ball handers in those areas, which helps to maintain the important integrity of the back line.

None of this means, by the way, that systems deploying a “fifth defender” are just for old guys. At the recently completed FIFA U-20 World Cup, Brazil and Portugal each deployed a deep-lying holding presence who was content to stay at home.

For Brazil, Grêmio midfielder Fernando patrolled ably in the champs’ 4-3-3, remaining reliably connected to his back line. For Portugal, Danilo was similarly disciplined in the Europeans' 4-1-4-1 look. (Property of Italy’s Parma, Danilo is currently on loan at Greece’s Aris, and is one to keep an eye on for the future.)

Another key to the position is the offensive responsibilities, which are fairly limited. They are linking men and not much more. Rarely will Tainio, Elliott or Hernandez move forward to shoot or cross the way, say, David Beckham will for the LA Galaxy, even though he is nominally a defensive midfielder.

A 4-4-2 system with a straight-line midfield demands far more two-way action. Think about the way Pablo Mastroeni and Jeff Larentowicz perform for Colorado: One holds while the other advances on offense. On defense, they play a little more side-by-side, which means one player can drift out wide to assist the defending in those areas. Same for a 4-2-3-1, where one member of the defensive midfield pairing must slide out toward the touchline in defensive support while his partner holds the central space.

But players such as Elliott, Hernandez and the like don’t want to be drawn away. The fact is, bad things happen when they do stray too far from the security of their post. For instance, last weekend when Seattle and Dallas met with second place in the West at stake, Hernandez got caught out past his own halfway line at one point.

Seattle’s Mauro Rosales, usually set up to the right but playing more centrally Saturday as the Sounders tilted the field in a tactical adjustment, pushed one ball speedily by Hernandez. The home team captain needed to foul and was lucky to escape a yellow card. Hernandez just doesn’t have the foot speed to contain faster attackers in the open field.

That’s why he strategically limits his chances at being caught out there. It’s a role that works — for him, for his team and for a few others.