Appreciating the role of the central-midfielder

Roy Keane: “Brian Clough’s advice to me before most games was: ‘You get the ball, you pass it to another player in a red shirt.’ That’s really all I’ve tried to do at Forest and United – pass and move – and I’ve made a career out of it.”

It sounds easy, doesn’t it? Receive the ball, pass it to a team mate. However, world class sportsmen – be it Ronnie O’Sullivan, Roger Federer or Rory McIlroy – have a knack of making the difficult look incredibly simple. For amateurs like me, this is infuriating and amazing in equal measure.

I have never played football at a high level (the intra-mural league at Stirling University is about as good as it gets), but with my quick pace, eye for goal and flashy white football boots, I always felt naturally suited to an attacking role.

Greyfriar's Bobby Charlton FC shirt

Then, a few months ago, I moved to Edinburgh and started playing in an 11-a-side Saturday team, Greyfriar’s Bobby Charlton FC. Before my debut, I was asked what positions I could play. Keen to impress, I mentioned that I had played as a striker, but was willing to play anywhere. When I was told I was to play in central midfield (mostly because no one else on the team enjoyed playing there), I realised I had very little idea of what was expected of me.

At 5 foot 9 inches, it’s fair to say that aerial challenges in the centre of the pitch are not my forte. Now, though, I was supposed to battle for goal kicks against players often well over 6 foot tall. I also quickly discovered a positional uncertainty – should I sit in the ‘hole’ in front of the defence (at the risk of looking lazy) or charge up the pitch to help out the attack (at the risk of looking like I was afraid of getting ‘stuck in’ at the back)? Apparently, a good central midfielder is expected to do both. For me, the biggest challenge was that I was now playing a completely 360 degrees role – the action was taking place all around me and when receiving the ball, I had numerous options in virtually every direction.

After running around like a headless chicken for 90 minutes in a 4-3 debut win, I was absolutely shattered and realised I had to study the central midfield role if I was to have any chance of making a good impression on my new team mates.

Perhaps the best tip I ever read as an impressionable Match-magazine-reading youth was from the sometimes wasteful Andy Cole, who – somewhat ironically – said the worst thing a footballer can do during a game is concede possession of the ball. Since then, I have been fairly risk averse on the football pitch. If there’s a simple pass on, more often than not, that’s the pass I’ll make.

Along with every other football fan, good ol’ Andy Cole must then appreciate the talent of Barcelona midfielder Xavi, mostly because of his incredible ability to keep the ball (his pass completion rate this season is a phenomenal 93%). Likewise, Paul Scholes’ return to the Manchester United team has been hailed as one of the main reasons they now sit above Manchester City in the Premier League table. Why? Because he rarely concedes possession.

Barcelona's Xavi: an expert passer of the ball (image courtesy of Fotopedia)

As a striker, if I scored in a game, I felt like I had done my job. I didn’t beat myself up if I played poorly and scored, because, as the cliche states, a striker’s job is to put the ball in the back of the net. Now, though, as a midfielder, measuring my performance is much more subjective. How many times did I lose the ball? How much running did I put in to help team mates in attack and defence? Did I contribute to the goals our team scored? Could I have done more to prevent any goals we conceded?

Alan Smith playing in midfield for Newcastle United (image courtesy of 'thetelf')

It’s quite rare for a professional footballer to change their established playing position halfway through their career. One high profile example is when Sir Alex Ferguson groomed striker Alan Smith as a successor to veteran central-midfielder Roy Keane. While the success of this decision can be debated, one of the best managers in the world saw something in the tenacious striker for him to persuade the player to leave his comfort zone and attempt to establish himself in a completely different role. In his last season at Manchester United, Smith was used both up front and in midfield, but when he moved to Newcastle United, it was as a central midfielder, where he continues to play for MK Dons today.

So, it can be done. And, as in Alan Smith’s case, if I am called upon to play up front, I’ll be only too happy to oblige.

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