What is a defensive midfielder in soccer?
A defensive midfielder, also called a holding midfielder, is a soccer position that should appear in any team, regardless of the formation used. One player will take up the role of defensive midfielder (DM). This player is a central midfielder who will generally operate in a deeper, more defensive position, than the other, more attack-minded central midfielders or wingers.
What is the role of a defensive midfielder?
The role of the defensive midfielder is one which requires a good dose of positional discipline. The primary role is to prevent opposition attacks through the middle of the pitch and win possession from opposition players in the midfield area. Their positioning as the deepest-lying midfielder on the team provides cover for other midfielders and wide players to attack. Defensive midfielders will mostly engage with opposition attacking midfielders and deep lying strikers (in the number 10 role).
At the top level in the modern game, the defensive midfielder will also be responsible for initiating attacking moves, providing the link between defense and attack, usually taking the ball off the central defenders or goalkeeper.
Central midfield areas are often crowded, which means holding midfielders must be able to receive the ball in tight areas without losing possession. Technical requirements include good close control, the ability to use their body to protect the ball from opposition players and a good range of passing.
Defensive responsibilities of a defensive midfielder
There are two main defensive roles of the DM:
- Preventing or slowing down opposition attacking moves through the middle of the pitch
- Winning possession of the ball from the opposition.
As a general rule, defensive midfielders should only operate between the width of the penalty area, only breaking this rule in desperate circumstances (such as when defending a counterattack whilst outnumbered).
Players have varying styles. Some have a very physical, combative style, making lots of tackles and winning second/lose balls; while others carry out the role through clever positioning and reading of the game, preventing forward passes or intercepting them without any physical contact.
In the case of the latter, simply filling a forward passing channel and forcing a sideways pass is an effective way of controlling what the opposition does with the ball.
Quite often players who operate as DMs in successful teams are overshadowed by their goal-scoring counterparts, however they are very much appreciated by their teammates and coaches.
The best defensive midfielders can read the game well and see danger early, enabling them to spot when to take up certain positions, mark players, make tackles or gather lose balls. For this, a good understanding of the opposition players’ strengths and attacking patterns is useful.
Attacking responsibilities of a defensive midfielder
As mentioned, modern defensive midfielders are no longer one-dimensional defensive players. They are required to play a part in their team’s attacking moves. It’s quite rare that a DM will score or even assist a goal; however, they will often be involved in the earlier build-up play, feeding wingers, strikers or more advanced midfielders.
When their team have possession of the ball in defense, defensive midfielders will find pockets of space in deep midfield areas to receive the ball.
Their first thought should then be to play a forward pass whenever possible, therefore they should always have a ‘picture’ in their head when receiving passes. They should also try to receive the ball on the half turn so they can play forwards quickly (where possible). If the opposition is well organised and forward passes are not possible, simply keeping possession is important.
Below are some of the passing options a DM typically has throughout a game. They have been listed in a rough order of attacking impact:
1. Playing the ball in behind the defensive line
If there is an opportunity to play a long ball over the top of the defensive line or through channels for strikers or wingers to run on to, they should attempt this pass as it can directly set up a scoring opportunity. For this type of pass to be effective, there needs to be plenty of space in behind the defense and well-timed movement from the attacking players.
2. Forward passes into strikers’ or attacking midfielders’ feet
This type of pass if often called ‘breaking the lines’, as the ball usually cuts through the opposition ‘midfield line’, therefore taking their midfielders out of the game. This type of pass requires good vision and accurate passing, usually through tight channels.
3. Passes into wide areas (or switching play)
This can be into attacking full backs or wingers and can often initiate an attack from wide areas. This type of pass is usually long ranging and therefore requires an ability to strike the ball with good technique over 30–40 yards.
4. Sideways or backwards passes
Where some of the above more offensive passes are not an option, it is important that the defensive midfielders (or any player) keeps possession of the ball – so passing sideways or backwards to a defender shouldn’t be discouraged. If a team is patient in possession against well-organised opposition, simply moving the ball around the team at a good tempo will eventually create holes in the oppositions shape through moving their players around the pitch. When this happens, more offensive passing options will eventually materialize.
What formations include defensive midfielders?
Defensive midfielders are employed in all formations. In a 4-4-2, one of the two central midfielders will generally be tasked with taking up more defensive duties. In a three-man midfield, one player will operate in deeper midfield areas than the other two. In a 4-2-3-1, there may be two DM players that sit behind three more attacking players but there will be license for one of them to push forward when safe to do so (one DM will stay deep if the other pushes up field).
How is a defensive midfielder different from an attacking midfielder?
Quite simply, the difference is that, in attacking phases of play, the DM will maintain a deeper position behind the ball so not to leave big unoccupied spaces in the middle of the pitch for opponents to attack through if they win the ball. This positioning gives attacking midfielders the license to play further up the pitch and join in attacking moves, linking up with strikers and wingers.
When the team is out of possession and well organised, both the defensive and attacking midfielders will fulfill the same role: marking or pressing opposition midfielders, tackling and taking up sound defensive positions in front of their central defenders.
Best defensive midfielders in soccer
Every great attacking midfielder needs a defensively sound partner in the middle of the pitch, someone who will mop up behind them when attacks break down. Quite simply, they give attacking players the freedom to do what they do best – attack! Compiling a list of the best in the game isn’t easy but the best defensive midfielders usually stand out more in great attacking teams, so inevitably the players we’ve shortlisted have played in some formidable attacking outfits.
- Roy Keane: he carried with him a fearsome reputation as a tough tackling no nonsense midfield enforcer. Forming part of the highly successful Manchester United side of the 90’s and early 2000’s, Keane was regarded as one of the best in his position of his generation. Aside from his combative, high energy and often aggressive defensive work, Keane was an adept passer of the ball and often popped up with a handful of goals, particularly in his early career.
- Sergio Busquets: dubbed ‘the octopus of badi’ due to him seemingly having a solution for every problem he encounters on the pitch, Busquets is the defensive linchpin of an incredibly successful Barcelona side. He’s often lauded for his footballing intelligence by fellow players and coaches and has an innate ability to be in the right place in the right time whilst making everything look effortless. He’s a great example of a DM who doesn’t rely on physicality but reading of the game. When he wins the ball, he mostly plays very short simple passes to a more gifted attacking talent but he also has great footwork for a tall player and often finds a way to manoeuvre his way out of tight areas.
- Ngolo Kante: perhaps the best way to describe Kante’s game is that he constantly ‘puts out fires’. A real nuisance to opponents, Kante is relentless in his pursuit of the ball and is aided by an incredible engine, covering a huge amount of ground in games. He’s only small in physical stature but has a low center of gravity that allows him to get close to players to steal the ball. Kante is also a useful passer of the ball and can join in attacking moves further up the pitch when the opportunity is there.
- Claude Makelele: the defensive midfield position is regularly referred to as the ‘Makelele position’. This tells you just about all you need to know about the importance he played in each of the teams he represented. A highly decorated player, Makelele formed the base of several successful and talented midfields in his career. Like Kante, he was humble in stature and had a similar ability to dispossess much taller players with relative ease. He played a simple but highly effective game that was based on tackling and simple passing.
- Fernandinho: A modern day combative defensive midfielder with a well-rounded armory of attributes. Fernandinho is known for breaking up attacking plays by tackling, harrying and snuffing out opposition moves and is a great example of a player who see’s danger early, nullifying threats. Fernandinho also has a great range of passing and often initiates attacking moves with his intelligent use of the ball.
How has the defensive midfielder role changed?
Changes to rules in recent years designed to reduce the risk of injury have meant the game has become a little less physical. Slide tackles, or in fact any tackle where studs are showing, are now a thing of the past. As such, defensive midfielders are required to adopt a more refined way of tackling that requires greater timing and precision.
Tactics have evolved too which have seen many top teams become more fluid positionally. This particularly applies to the midfield area where players now regularly rotate, and interchange positions as oppose to staying in one rigid position for the entire match. Nowadays, at the top level at least it’s no longer sufficient for a defensive midfielder to just tackle and assert their physicality in the central area of the pitch, they have to be competent passers and have the ability to carry the ball forward and join in attacking moves.
What skills & qualities should a defensive midfielder have?
Many of the main attributes of the modern defensive midfielder have been covered already but here is a list of the basic requirements:
- Tactical awareness and discipline: when their team is on the attack and fellow midfielders are pushed forward it’s important that DMs take up a slightly deeper role to help prevent counter attacks through the middle of the pitch.
- Tackling and intercepting passes: winning possession of the ball in the central midfield area is perhaps still the biggest requirement of the role. As mentioned already there are numerous ways of doing this including tackling, winning second or ‘lose’ balls or intercepting passes.
- Ability to receive the ball in tight areas: this requires a certain level of technical proficiency, particularly close control and the use of the body to protect the ball under pressure.
- Spatial awareness: midfield areas are often crowded and DMs always have players around them so it’s vital that they constantly have an accurate picture in their head of what is around them each time they receive the ball.
- Passing: a broad range of passing accompanied by good vision help DMs to participate in attacking plays, keep possession and initiate attacks.
How to play defensive midfield in soccer: top tips
- Try to develop an ability to read the game so you can quickly spot opposition attacks unfolding and then take up positions to thwart them or win the ball.
- Always be aware of the positions of your other midfield counterparts and those of the opposition in relation to the ball. This will help you take up the best positions to protect your team.
- When out of possession be aware of opposition strikers. Part of your role is to stop supply to them so sit just in front of them to block passing channels but close enough to your midfield opponents so that you can engage with them if they get the ball. Encouraging your central defenders to communicate with you will help you keep track strikers’ movements if the ball is in front of you (because the strikers will be behind you most of the time).
- Get in the habit of checking your shoulders every couple of seconds. All the top midfield players do this and it helps them to maintain a constant picture in their head. This means they know what to do with the ball when they receive it much quicker e.g. dribble forwards, switch play or pass back one touch etc. This will also reduce the chance of conceding possession as you will always know if you have time or not.
- Be in constant communication with other players. Organizing your teammates into a solid and compact defensive shape will help the team defend. When the team is out of possession pull wide players into more narrow positions, encourage strikers to take up defensive positions and tell the team when to press and when to maintain a compact defensive shape. All of this will help make your life easier!
Tips for coaching a defensive midfielder in soccer
As discussed, there is a lot to the role of a defensive midfielder and lots of messages to get across to your players. However, it’s best to keep things as simple as possible and to not over complicate the game. Here are a few of our tips:
- Encourage them to constantly look over their shoulders (every 1–2 seconds) and scan the field so they always have that awareness of what is behind them.
- Allow them to play with a degree of controlled aggression which can add a healthy degree of tenacity to their game.
- Show them what positions to take up when their team is on the attack to cover other players.
- Encourage them to always be a passing option for full backs and central defenders.
- Promote forward passes wherever possible.
- For those who aren’t as comfortable on the ball encourage simple short passes as oppose to longer, more risky long ones – especially in their own half of the pitch.
Errors a defensive midfielder could make
- Getting into advanced attacking positions. This is fine if there is another midfielder covering you though!
- Getting dragged out into wide positions, leaving space in the center of the pitch
- Giving the ball away in their own half
Soccer drills for a defensive midfielder
- Soccer passing and receiving drill
- Soccer Long passing drill
- Blocking the lines
- Full pitch sessions that focus on positioning
- Soccer defending drill: 1 v 1