Denilson and The Defensive Midfield Role – by “LRV”
Quite a lot of football fans in Britain seem only able to notice and applaud Defensive Midfielders when they bully or break legs. Understanding of their role and the part which others need to play to enhance it, counts for nothing as far as they are concerned.
I think that the people who condemn Denilson do so because they compare him with an Alonso (a la ‘long and diagonal passes’). To such people, Melo would have been, without doubt, the better option if we had been able to get him. But alas, he prefers to play in a league where he is certain that he will be appreciated more.
Others, who like Denilson, look at such masters of the position as Gilberto, who even the Brazilians call “the invisible wall”, or Makalele, who was sourly missed by Real Madrid when he left them. These two masters of the DM position never really concerned themselves too much with long and diagonal balls unless it was absolutely necessary. Rather, they tried to get the basics done neatly and largely without being noticed too much. If you want to notice what they actually do, you have to pay a far greater attention to them.
But what do they do?
They sit and rove in-front of the back four.
They rely on a keen sense of positional play; rather-more than too much out-of-position running, wasting too much energy that needs to be preserved (the one man I know who got away with that was Flamini).
They are avid readers of the game, with the affordance of break-up-play (which they acquire because of 2. above).
They tend to stick more to the basic principle of collect and pass on (mostly short inter passing skill required for this to work). The short passes may either be sideways, adjacent or diagonal & cross-field.
They must not dwell on the ball, but must be time-perfect. That means that they must know with a touch of perfection, when to venture forward to assist if the need arises; and when to maintain their position even if it seems obvious to everyone else that they should speculate forward, so as not to open a backdoor entrance for the opposition to oppress the defense.
Finally, they must be good ball players (not just blockers); with acute close control ability; good headers of the ball; the ability to go past people if necessary; and the technical ability to complete at least 90% of passes.
Of course you can add to the above the usual English belief in Passion and Grit (the enforcer). Most European and other world footballers have proved that you need SAF = Skill, Agility and Flair – to do the job properly, not grit; but what do I know?
So was the team’s midfield frailty of last season down to Denilson’s, or even Song’s, DM failure?
Not particularly; bearing in mind that, apart from the main striker, there are four other midfielders who were supposed to also be part of that team. Defending is a team job.
Good defensive play always begins from the front. Front players must do their very best not to lose the ball (Adebayor did not do a good job of that last season). When they do, the Left-Mid must track back to help the Left-Back; the Right-Mid must track back to help the Right-Back; the Second-Striker or the Attack-Mid must alternately track centrally. The Defensive-Mid will then be more able to read the various track-backs and make interceptions, blocks any attempted shootings or tackle anyone that gets past accordingly, before they get to the Centre-Back pair. These pair can then do the same or clear any dangerous strays that get past the DM.
Front players tracking back may or may not make a tackle; it is not a strict requirement. They may not even win the tackles if they do. However, their efforts may harry the opposing player to make a mistake or make a hurried pass, giving the ball away or becoming unsettled so that the DM can then tackle them successfully.
Failure to track-back, will put unnecessary pressure on the DM, CB pair and the Full-Backs. It doesn’t help if the DM is constantly dragged left and right to provide cover. That will inevitably leave gaps in the other area. The DM can only cover one area at a time; others must cover the rest.
Any team attempting to play total football, or its variant – “wengerball”, must have skillful players who are comfortable interchanging, playing and defending as stated above. The DM must also have attacking capability should he need, on occasions, to temporarily swap positions with the Attacking-Mid. Our Midfield lapses last season, was a result of the whole midfield failing to play as described consistently.
If you judge Denilson against the points above, he showed in the matches he played for us last season that he so far has 87 – 90% already. Remember that he is still developing. I lick my lips at the prospect of what that boy will become in another year or so. Should Arsenal throw that prospect away? I think not. Diarra is one loss too many in my opinion (a typical Arsenal player that boy is).
It doesn’t surprise me, though, that some Arsenal fans want rid of Denilson. They threw the same accusation at, and used the same arguments against, Gilberto until he wasn’t in the team for a run of games. That was when they truly came to understand the role he played. The departure of Gilberto did not do Denilson any good; he would have learned from the master.
What Song lacks, (an acute sense of positional play), Denilson has in abundance. Similarly, what Denilson lacks (which he is still acquiring), physical strength, Song has in abundance already. There you go. Make up your own mind.
I am sorry if I do not balance my arguments properly. It is because as a layman, I do not know too much about football other than that I played football, in previously one of the most inconsequential part of the world, in the seventies and early eighties before it went global.
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