Of all the roles in football, the concept of the holding midfielder may have caused the most debate over the Premier League’s first 25 seasons.
Traditionally, English football eschewed the holding midfielder entirely, in favour of two box-to-box players who dovetailed in defensive and attacking duties. Then the holding player became an accepted concept, with David Batty in the mid-1990s and Claude Makelele in the mid-2000s underlining the importance of that role in different ways. Next, deep-lying playmakers were briefly popular.
Now, there’s a broader range of styles, and Chelsea’s meeting with Liverpool on Friday night will offer a particularly interesting contrast in this respect.
Chelsea’s major summer purchase was bringing in N’Golo Kante from champions Leicester for around £30 million. Although Kante is arguably more than a simple holding player, underlined by his sporadic bursts into attack last season, he’s unquestionably a ball-winner more than anything else.
Last season he recorded league-leading statistics in both tackling and intercepting and, judging by his start at Stamford Bridge, could be in line to replicate this season. Under the leadership of Antonio Conte, himself a reliable, unfussy central midfielder, Kante should improve his all-round game.
From the outset the France international has played a more defensive role, sitting solidly in front of the defence at the base of a midfield trio. Chelsea fans, accustomed to Makelele’s solid positioning, took to him instantly.
Then there’s the Jurgen Klopp method, which doesn’t really involve a holding midfielder whatsoever. His approach at the start of this campaign has been using Jordan Henderson as Liverpool’s deepest player in that zone, albeit more as part of a double pivot with Georginio Wijnaldum rather than a sole defensive midfielder.
So far, it hasn’t worked particularly well. Liverpool are yet to keep a clean sheet, and while the lack of a proper left-back (James Milner being preferred to Alberto Moreno, with Joe Gomez injured) and a succession of unfamiliar centre-back partnerships are the primary reasons for that, it’s obvious Liverpool haven’t shielded their backline particularly effectively either.
It’s still peculiar to see Henderson wearing Liverpool’s captain’s armband — it has been decades since the club had such an unconvincing footballer as their designated leader. Henderson has potential, but it feels wrong to still be discussing “potential” over half-a-decade into his Liverpool career. The 26-year-old is essentially a jack-of-all-trades who has performed all three midfield roles (at the top of the trio, as a box-to-box man, now the deepest) but hasn’t nailed down his precise position.
His best performances for Liverpool have arguably been when deployed in an advanced role, given freedom to push forward into attack, to press high up, and to use his energy in a positive sense. He’s not a particularly clever footballer, however, and the deepest midfield role requires intelligence in a positional sense and guile on the ball. It’s not clear what sort of midfielder he is, let alone what sort of holding midfielder he is.
Klopp has the option of bringing back Emre Can into his side for Friday’s trip to Stamford Bridge, theoretically offering more of a defensive presence. But even Can isn’t really a defensive midfielder: indeed, no-one really understands quite what he is either. The German has been deployed almost everywhere for club and country over the past three years: full-back, centre-back, defensive midfield and in a box-to-box role.
Can is most notable for his energy rather than his positional discipline. Perhaps the same could be said of Kante, and it would be foolish to bet against the Liverpool man becoming a reliable option in a similar role. He certainly appears more suited to that deep position than Henderson.
The deepest midfielder, of course, sets the tone for his team’s footballing style more than anyone else on the pitch. Possession sides use playmakers there; defensive sides use pure scrappers.
This Friday, though, the contrast is about something different. It’s not really possession vs. counter-attack, or attack vs. defence. It’s more about structure vs. dynamism.
Conte has created a team notable for its rigid centre. Kante sits deep, which in other sides would give freedom for Nemanja Matic and Oscar to push forward into attack, but for Conte’s Chelsea they retain conservative positions, spreading slightly towards the flanks.
This creates a solid, three-man block across the pitch ahead of centre-backs John Terry and Gary Cahill, while the full-backs, Cesar Azpilicueta and Branislav Ivanovic, have freedom to push forward. This is overwhelmingly a solid midfield shape designed to guard against counter-attacking.
Liverpool are very different. Klopp’s approach to stopping counter-attacks is to counter-press, and therefore his players swarm around the opponents close to the ball when possession is lost. It means an entirely different type of midfield, packed with players who are mobile, energetic, and naturally push forward to close down, rather than retreating into a deeper block.
Liverpool’s approach has been impressive at stages throughout Klopp’s reign, often helping to regain possession quickly and launch a quick attack. But if the press is broken, their defence can be exposed.
This is just one small example of why the Premier League is so tactically fascinating this season. It’s not simply that it is home to so many of Europe’s top coaches, but the fact they bring a variety of approaches from different countries and are attempting to solve problems in entirely different ways.
It’s a slight simplification, but Conte is preaching the structured, highly rigid defensive shape common throughout Italy, while Klopp has imported his brand of gegenpressing which is fairly widespread across his native Germany.
There’s more to Friday’s tactical battle than just the midfields, of course, but it feels inevitable Kante will be crucial to stopping Liverpool’s passing moves through the centre of the pitch and putting Chelsea in control. That will only increase the feeling that Klopp, while creating a promising attacking side, badly lacks an equivalent.