Blurring the lines between defenders and midfielders

Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images

Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images

A recent tactical trend is to field midfielders at centre-back, an approach favoured by Barcelona’s Pep Guardiola and Tito Vilanova, who have refused to buy a “traditional” central defender despite needing back-up for Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique. Instead, they’ve converted Javier Mascherano, Alex Song and Sergio Busquets into defenders, with varying levels of regularity and success. 

There’s been a convergence in the two positions as football has become more technical, and more focused upon ball retention. Top-level centre-backs are now required to be ball-players, and they need to be quicker and more mobile across the ground. Using a high defensive line requires outright pace, while attackers’ emphasis upon clever passing and integrated movement means defenders are battling on the ground more than fighting in the air. Meanwhile, certain types of central midfielders have become more defensive, or at least play deeper — the popularity of the 4-2-3-1 means two ‘shielding’ players, protecting the back four and denying opponents space between the lines. 

Yet while plenty of central midfielders have been used at the back (Javi Martinez, Michael Carrick and Daniele De Rossi have done so in 2012, while Esteban Cambiasso was superb at the heart of Inter’s three-man defence in the 2-1 weekend win over Napoli) it’s been rare to see regular central defenders used as central midfielders.

David Luiz might be the exception. Rafael Benitez used him in the centre of midfield for the final 20 minutes of Chelsea’s 6-1 win over Nordsjaelland — although the contest was effectively over, and Chelsea were set to be eliminated from the Champions League. “I was in a different position against Nordsjaelland, the manager pushing me upfield a bit,” Luiz said. “We were winning 5-1 so I could be box to box, helping out the team.”

In truth, it was no great surprise to see him played there — Roberto Di Matteo and Eddie Newton had discussed playing him in midfield, but never quite got around to it. Ever since Luiz arrived in England, nearly two years ago, many have suggested he’s not suited to playing centre-back — at least not in the Premier League. His defensive positioning was often suspect (in Andre Villas-Boas’ early days at Chelsea, the Portuguese coach spent most of the game whistling and pointing, beckoning Luiz into position), and he’s not great in the air. 

In truth, much of the criticism has been unreasonable. Luiz’s positioning has improved considerably and he’s become a much stronger player, visibly bigger and more intimidating. Some think he would make a decent full-back, but anyone who watched him struggle at left-back during Porto’s 5-0 thrashing of his Benfica side in 2010/11 will disagree — all five Porto goals came from Luiz’s wing, and the experiment was never repeated.

Luiz can be a decent back-up midfielder, so Chelsea might not need to purchase another in January, but he’s yet to prove himself against quality opposition in that role, and his development at centre-back shouldn’t be ignored. Benitez was encouraged by the Brazilian’s performance Thursday, and says it’s an “option for the future” — but Luiz in midfield is likely to be a Plan B, rather than Chelsea’s first-choice. 

Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He runs zonalmarking.net

Read the entire article here on Soccernet.

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