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Is the era of the tough tackling midfielder dead?

Donnacha Curtin ponders if there will ever be room in football for an old-school centre midfielder again.

Recently, a documentary aired on ITV about the rivalry between former Arsenal and Manchester United captains Patrick Viera and Roy Keane, highlighted here:

What was notable about these two giants of English football was the intensity at which they played. Tough tackling, no nonsense midfielders who treated each game, particularly those against each other, as a battle. Combined, they clocked up over 20 red cards in their careers, but the time they spent on the pitch was made of committed challenges, barking orders, and ‘occasionally’ being involved in punch ups. That era of the Premier League is often cited as its high-point, with the influence of high wages correlating with many declaring the soul of the game has since diminished. With the influx of foreign stars, and the dramatic increase in diving in the game, it has now become so easy to get booked, that it is fair to say the likes of Keane and Viera would struggle to stay on the pitch for long if they were still playing.

It has always been embedded in the English football mentality for players to be ‘committed’ in their tackles; grafters who may not be technically capable to beat the best, but who ‘put in a good shift’ and try to stop the opposition from playing their game. However since that era, the dynamics of the league have changed with most teams now playing ‘fancy’ passing football, adopting methods from the Spanish who have been very successful for the last number of years. With that has come a sterner approach from the football authorities, with the rules constantly changing to protect players. Whilst player safety is obviously of high importance, the speed at which the game is played makes mistimed tackles all the more likely. Players often fall to the floor, rolling around in ‘agony’, as if they have been picked off by a sniper in the upper stands, from the slightest of touches. Therefore the combative midfield general is now seen as a liability rather than a necessity. This is why they are a rarity in this age.

Looking at the top league sides today, the closest these teams have to a midfield general is Manchester City’s Yaya Toure, but even he, despite his size and strength, is more of a box to box player. Once upon a time, almost every team in the league had a player like this, usually the captain, but in today’s football this type of player is no longer used by many. While I have noted that these players would struggle to stay on the pitch, take Sunderland’s Lee Cattermole as an example, a major change has occurred in the line ups of teams recently. The tough tackling midfield anchor has been replaced by two, deep lying ‘defensive midfielders’ who shield the back four, whilst bringing the ball out from the back. Be it Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini for Arsenal, Ramires and John Obi Mikel for Chelsea, or Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverly for Manchester United, none of those players would be considered by supporters as “beasts” who demolish the opposition attacks, and consistently order their teams around. As you might gather, this type of player was the leader of the side, the one player who you would look to for reassurance and the type the opposition would look at in dread.

The leader of the team was usually a local player, who grew up with the club, and was often made captain quite early in their careers. Tony Adams, Matthew Le Tissier or Terry Butcher are perfect examples of this. Today’s teams are, for the most part, lacking a leader, never mind the fact that the few remaining ‘local’ captains such as John Terry or Steven Gerrard are well into their thirties. Has the soul of the English league gone? Without wanting to sound pessimistic, or definitive in my answer, of which no one can truly know, it is fair to say it has. The English game is changing, adopting the philosophies of the Spanish teams who in turn adopted they style of the Dutch teams of the 1980s. With this change has come a change in the player. Just as the days of a traditional winger seem to be numbered, the days of a Keane or a Viera seem equally distant. In ten years’ time, who knows? Maybe the glory days of the Premier league will return, or maybe all teams will be playing Barcelona style tika-tika passing. It may be that the tough tackling midfielder will be long forgotten, put aside with the long ball tactics associated with sides such as Stoke city or Jack Charlton’s Ireland. One thing is for sure though, it is almost certain that we will never witness a rivalry of warriors like Keane and Viera, battling for the right as Premier League champion ever again.

Pundit Arena, Donnacha Curtin.

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Author: The PA Team

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