There cannot be a more loved type of player in the English psyche than the box-to-box midfielders who characterise the game with their pace, power, grit, dynamism and determination.
Jose Mourinho summarised nicely the definition of this role speaking in an interview this year when he moved to Real Madrid
“In football we have attacking midfielders and we have defensive midfielders but there are very few what they call in England box-to-box midfielders. It is very difficult to find the complete midfielder who is defensively strong and who can also attack and arrive in the box and score goals.”
Bryan Robson and Graeme Souness both had the tackling skills and the drive to be great exponents of this art in the eighties. More recently Patrick Viera and Roy Keane had fearsome reputations for being everywhere on this pitch and how could the most mercurial of modern English talent be forgotten, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard. These were the two players that Mourinho was referring to when asked about midfielders in his interview.
The somewhat ironic part of what Mourinho said was because he, to some extent, has been instrumental in the diminished role that box-to-box position has in the modern English game.
With only two central midfielders the complete midfielder was an integral part of the 4-4-2 formation. The introduction of the modern 4-3-3/4-5-1 formation (there are of course many variations of this but they amount to just about the same thing), of which Mourinho was an early proponent with his Chelsea team, changed the English game in a number of ways as it brought a new specialism to its positions and required a better tactical awareness from the players.
The 4-3-3/4-5-1 established the holding midfielder (and now sometimes two – or in Manchester City’s case three – of them) whose sole responsibility is to shield the defence and break up play. This allowed more freedom but also placed more responsibility on the other midfielders to attack. Players could now not afford to try to cover the whole field as by by not playing within a role, they could often be caught out of position and the team was either then caught with not enough men going forward or not enough in their own half defending.
The effect has been that players are now played in positions where they are seen to be able to have most impact on a game. Midfielders with good positional sense and tackling skills will play in front of the defence and those who can score goals and play killer final balls will be played higher up the field.
Frank Lampard explained this thinking that goes with modern football in an interview at Chelsea “football has become a bit more tactical and organised, it is about becoming harder to beat … If the manager wants to get the best out of wingers or players who like to play with a lot of freedom and think they need two others in there to do the hard work and stay back”. He, of course, is one who has benefited enormously due to this. Being freed of most defensive duties has allowed Lampard to notch up increased amounts of goals. By specialising he has been turned into a player who Chelsea’s attacks can be built around.
There are still examples of box-to-box roles for midfielders. Scott Parker is still West Ham’s top scorer this year, despite being better known for his battling abilities further back and Michael Essien, although given a set job in the Chelsea midfield continues to bring huge levels of energy and vigour to the game. There are very few though. It is, however, not that box-to-box type players have disappeared though, most are now just given more defined roles, which improve the teams tactic ability and effectiveness.