You have heard that whoever wins the midfield battle in football wins the match. This is why coaches are tweaking their midfield play and players so as to have an edge over an opponent. There was even a shift from the rugged defensive midfielder of yore to a deep lying playmaker all in the name of beating the opponent in the midfield. The great generation at Barcelona led by Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta developed with the tiki-taka idea of making every a midfielder. They ruled Spain and the world cup.
It is easy to point out that the mojo or deficiency is in the midfield, but what exactly makes the difference at the centre circle? Apart from defensive and holding play, the other midfielders are supposed to be passers and play makers. Naturally a player will be good at two of them where one is a primary and the other a secondary strength. I am yet to see a player who is very good in the three.
Patrick Viera the kingpin of Arsenal’s invisibles was a good holding midfielder with defensive sub-skills. Physical play was a very important part of his game. He once said that he knew that the first contact in the tackle is very important. This is the moment when he imposed himself to win games. According to him, being strong in the first tackle says, ‘I’m here and I’m going to try and make it difficult for you’. Intimidation is part of the game.
I have watched many matches and I have come to the conclusion that the team that boxes the opponent out of 50-50 balls has an upper hand in the match. This is because it is as much a mental battle as it is a physical one. A battle must be won in the mind before it is won physically. The team that can beat opponents to these half chances has a higher chance of scoring and winning a match.
If you have ever played football you will realize that the worst thing you can do is to go into a tackle half-heartedly. There is a high chance of injury in such a scenario. When you commit fully to go into a challenge, nine times out of 10 you’ll come away with the ball. FC Barcelona lacked Sergio Busquets in Turin when they faced Juventus in the first leg of Champions League semi-final last season. Javier Mascherano a defensive midfielder turned centre half was played in front of defense and Barca lost the match 3-0. Busquets who is good at winning tackles was available in the second leg and the match ended in a goalless draw.
Brazil’s and Real Madrid’s destroyer in chief Casemiro said that his manager Zidane has never advised him to control his tackling even when he has a yellow card. If you are wondering where in the midfield Real Madrid won matches to win the Champions League for a second season running then you have it in Casemiro and overlapping left back and fellow Brazillian Marcelo. It is the power of taking chances on and winning 50-50 balls. Zidane as a former midfielder knows that so well and has the guts to risk his player being sent off as long as he can win a match.
FC Barcelona revolutionized football with possession play. The mindset was that if you can keep the opponent off the ball for long then you can stamp your authority. It worked because of the kind of players who Pep Guardiola acknowledged were a special lot. The new crop is not good at it hence when Busquets is not available, the gap is felt. At the finals of Confederation Cup between Germany and Chile, Germany won with a solitary goal yet they only managed a paltry 34% possession. If you look properly, the magic lies in the mental battle for 50-50 balls. Whoever wins the half chance wins the match.