The Art Of The Holding Midfielder



Brains, brawn, pace, instinctual vision, robust in the tackle, tireless. These are the characteristics that a holding midfielder of the highest calibre must possess within his armoury. Until the intervention of Chelsea and France legend Claude Makelele, the anchor-in-midfield role was vastly under-utilised. It is not essential that the holding midfielder should be big in stature, but rather boast a ceaseless work-rate, something which is deprecated and in some cases ridiculed by a select number of spectators.

As the beautiful game has matured over its many years, positions and roles have also had a revolution of sorts, with new formations coinciding with managers implementing cutting-edge tactics and uncovering multiple ways to break down the opposition in ways never seen before. Tiki-Taka is new way forward for clubs aspiring to play what is often referred to as the most ‘aesthetically appeasing’ mode of football. In Pep Guardiola’s former Barcelona side, now belonging to his successor Vilanova, Tiki-Taka seemed to work a treat. If it weren’t for the ability and immeasurable skill of one man, the Catalan side would not be standing as tall as they are today.

Sergio Busquets, contrary to popular belief, makes the Barcelona side tick game-in game-out, due to his perpetual work-rate and his finely timed tackles, along with his near-perfect passing. As a prime example of a holding midfielder, he does everything that such a player should do. He makes his away about the pitch incessantly, never stopping for a momentary breath, as a lapse in concentration or work-ethic could prove fatal to his side’s system. Retrieving the ball and giving to his counterparts, Xavi and co. is what he does best, yet he is rarely scapegoated as the real lynchpin for his side that he actually is. All the credit goes to Messi et al due to the fact that Busquets, or a similarly inclined player, is a HOLDING midfielder. Little to none in terms of marauding, devil-may-care embarkations up to the oppositions box upon retrieving the ball. He works tirelessly to regain possession for his side, and in turn lays it off to his accomplices to do the rest of the work.

We are going to now delve a into the statistics of a holding midfielder, and in doing so we will use the Premier League’s three best outlets performing in this role currently. So in no particular order, we have players from Manchester City, City’s better-half Manchester United, and the hot-and-cold side Liverpool. Statistics are taken from each side’s most recent match, so without further ado…


1. Lucas Leiva


One of the best in the business

It is no accident that the former Gremio man has captained his home nation Brazil in his so far illustrious career. After winning Liverpool’s player of the season award in 2010, it was evident that the dog days were over for the 26-year old. After being booed off the pitch in a grim draw against Fulham in 2008, Rafa Benitez leapt to his defence stating “People just don’t know how good Lucas is”. How right Rafa was. Satirized for the first 2 seasons of his career on Merseyside, fans constantly were growing restless with the seemingly inept Brazilian. But over time, he managed to convince the Kopites that he was adept at retaining a place in such a prestigious side, putting in monumental shifts each week, much to the delight of the Scousers. After injuries riddled the Brazilian’s last 12 months, he has finally overcome his problems, and has begun to return to the form which made him such an unsung hero in the Premier League. Relative speed, unrivaled work-ethic, and touch tackling make Lucas one of the Premier League’s most dominant anchors. These statistics are taken from Lucas’ performance against Norwich.

63/67 successful passes = 94%      45 passes forward, 14 backwards     8 passes played square

Although managing no shots on goal, he got one assist for Luis Suarez’ goal and created 2 chances overall.

3/4 tackles won = 75%            He also made 5 interceptions

It is clear to see that the Brazilian thrives in the passing sector of his game, just as any player should under Brendan Rodgers. He only had to make 4 tackles, as Norwich were particularly poor, managing only 32% possession, meaning Lucas hardly needed to make many tackles.


2. Michael Carrick


A vastly under-rated player in a cruising Manchester United side this season, Michael Carrick is one of the Premier League’s best distributors of the ball. Long passes are his forte, and his vision is almost on par with the best passers in the league. The Englishman is

Holding Midfielders can also be brilliant Passers

Holding Midfielders can also be brilliant Passers

not strong in the tackle per se, but rather a genius when moving the ball. Strength is not one of Carrick’s best attributes, but his range of passing more than makes up for his minor faults. Now 31, the midfielder is in the twilight of his career, and is on the verge of adding to his ever-growing trophy cabinet after a hugely fruitful Premier League campaign thus far. In United’s 1-1 draw versus Tottenham, Carrick wasn’t at his best, nor was he expected to be as he had to deal with Gareth Bale, Moussa Dembele and more. Here are the statistics.

39/46 passes completed = 85%                  He created 0 chances

10 passes backwards                                     27 played forward

9 passes squared


5/6 tackles won = 83%                                     4 interceptions


While this might not have been Carrick’s most dominant performance in a United shirt, he proved the fact that a holding midfielder is key in winning back possession from the opposition, regaining possession 4 times, just 1 short of Lucas’ 5 times. No chances were created by Carrick, although this is unusual for the passing maestro.


3. Yaya Toure


Yaya Toure is often deployed in an attacking role is Mancini decides to do so, and he performs aptly there, just as he does when playing between the midfield and the defence. The Ivorian is different to the other two defensive-minded players above, as Toure regularly runs riot against opposition when the time is right, but he still manages to drop back to his holding role as quick as he possibly can.

A more attacking option

A more attacking option

Some would argue that he is not such a holding midfielder, but he is just more unorthodox than the other two players he is being compared with. His physical presence is something that he uses to a great extent, often muscling players off the ball with great ease, as his stature is too much to handle for some opposition. The former Barcelona man used to sit in the shadow of Sergio Busquets at Barca, so this shows just how good Busquets really is in his position. Yaya sometimes leaves too much space occupied after making one of his trademark barrelling runs, and this can cause his team a great deal of damage at the worst of times, with virtually no one to protect the back four. His last game was in a convincing 3-0 win at the Etihad Stadium against Stoke, where he was deployed in his more defensive role, shielding his defence. Toure helped Man City to a much-needed win before he would depart for the African Cup Of Nations. Here are the big man’s stats from that day.


92/101 passes completed = 91          3 chances created


23 passes backwards                                 54 forward                 24 passes squared


0 tackles           2 interceptions


One could draw the conclusion that Toure, although he bears a monstrous physical presence, he doesn’t use it to channel his defensive qualities, but rather his attacking ones. He created 3 chances, the most of any of the mentioned players and also 54 passes were played forward from the Ivorian. It is prevalent that Toure is more concerned about his role in the attacking department for his team rather than the defensive one, although he did have Gareth Barry covering for him when going forward from his defensive-midfield position.

All in all, it is rather difficult to compare these three players and to define who is best, as they all excel in a different part of the anchoring-midfield game. Lucas is top in his tackling, Carrick is the most adept passer, while Toure is the most adventurous of the lot. This role suits all of these players because they each interpret it in their own way, and this makes for highly intriguing viewing.


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