Defensive midfield seems to have become the sexiest position in football. Claude Makelele made a strong case for its importance back in the noughties. First, he left Real Madrid, contributing to a three year title drought at the Bernabeu, and second, he joined Chelsea and heralded the start of a gloriously successful era at Stamford Bridge.
But I’m blaming this new found love of the DM on Ngolo Kante and his otherworldly ability to be in two places at the same time. Didn’t he get on the end of one his own passes the other day? It’s rare enough to find a player that’s won back-to-back Premier League titles at different clubs, let alone one that’s been arguably the key factor in each of those successes. That it’s a player in a defensive role is even more improbable but there is no question that the pint-sized reigning Player of the Year is well worth his weight in gold.
Kante or not, the value of a defensive midfield shield is clear enough – as Real Madrid found to their cost. It’s no coincidence that their current squad, back to back European champions under Zinedine Zidane, includes the Brazilian Casemiro in that important role. Yet, to hear talk about the DM these days, it’s easy to think of it as some magical role that will solve all defensive problems for any team. Have a leaky defense? Slap a competent DM in front of them and – voila! – problem solved.
Expectations of DMs have taken on messianic proportions and with that have come an unfair share of the blame when things go wrong. Watch any team concede a goal and fingers soon start pointing at the DM. Why wasn’t he there to protect the back four? Where was the pressure on the passer? Why didn’t he track the run of that opposing midfielder? Why didn’t he cover for the overlapping full back? It can be a thankless job at times.
It reached ridiculous lengths for me the other week after Tottenham’s 4-1 spanking of Liverpool at Wembley. Dejan Lovren misjudged the flight of Hugo Lloris quick throw and let Harry Kane through to set up Spurs second goal, yet some “pundit” on social media insisted the DM (Jordan Henderson, in this case) should have been covering Lovren – that is, covering the space behind his center back – even though Liverpool had been on the attack seconds before.
How on earth could he do that from a starting position ahead of the defense within the few seconds it took Lloris’ throw to reach Lovren and Kane out on the wing, I wondered? Didn’t matter to this “pundit” – Henderson should have anticipated that Lovren would miss and, I suppose, somehow teleported himself into position. Somehow, Lovren’s alarming faux pas had become Henderson’s cross to bear.
The whole notion of DMs protecting the defense is great: break up play, win back possession, block passing lanes, pressure opposing midfielders, track runners. When you have one with the anticipation, tenacity, energy and decision-making of Chelsea’s little tyro, it can indeed improve a team’s defending and help bridge the gap to success.
But, important as that is, it’s no proxy for good defending. At some point, defenders have to – you know – defend. That’s why they’re in the team. It’s why they line up at the back – to cover for the midfielders, not the other way round. For all of Kante’s influence, the back three of Carlos Azpilicueta, David Luiz and Gary Cahill also contributed a fair bit to Chelsea’s resolute defense last season. As had Don Simpson, Wes Morgan, Robert Huth, and Christian Fuchs to Leicester’s the season before.
Defenses need protecting, but – regardless of Kante’s evidence to the contrary – DMs are only human.They need protecting too.