De Jong's barren MLS stint helps debunk the holding-midfielder myth

By Paul Gardner

LONDON -- Holding midfielder. Defensive midfielder. Are they the same animal? I'm not sure. And frankly, I don't care. Because I have a long-standing mistrust of English soccer terminology. As well as serious suspicions about the value of tactical talk.

I have always had that terminology mistrust, and for once always really means always. It started way back when I began my boyhood interest in the sport. When I quickly twigged that the "centre-half" was not a half back at all, and that the team formation that the newspapers printed to denote team lineups (all the teams) -- 2-3-5 -- was nonsense because it called for two fullbacks and no team I ever saw played with two backs ... there were always three.

That was in the 1940s. But while the game has undergone all manner of changes since then, little has changed in the slapdash world of English terminology. The English still prattle on about the center-half when they mean center-back, and they have added a steady stream of unhelpful and sometimes misleading terms to their collection.

We have been hearing a lot lately about holding midfielders because of the Nigel de Jong saga. De Jong was, it would seem, such a player. But there is, it would also seem, confusion. We have Bruce Arena's word for that. He has let us know that "We don’t have an educated public to understand what he does ..."

Surely, vague terminology has something to do with this deplorable ignorance among American fans. I've no doubt that Arena would include me among the uneducated masses, as I was, I believe, the first to publicly deplore De Jong's signing, feeling that I know only too well what NDJ does.

A week or two back I happened upon an on-line article about NDJ (by Brian Von Wolfe on which contained this: "the position of defensive midfielder is often times a misunderstood one. A thankless job ... The defensive midfielder lives and breathes in an intangible zone."

Thankless? NDJ was getting a season's pay of $500,000 at the Galaxy. At his new club, Turkey's Galatasary, his salary is a reported $2.79 million. What kind of thankless is that?

Another reason for my disliking the terms holding and/or defensive midfielder when they started to crop up in the English media was that they emphasized the defensive side of the game. They were yet another sign that the people who dealt in tactics -- i.e. the coaches -- were busy perfecting the destructive part of the game.

We can go back to the 1950s: did the famous Hungarians have a holding midfielder? Did Pele and the wonderful 1970 Brazilians? Currently, do Spain? Or Barcelona? They do not, which must raise the thought that whatever the required talents of the holding mid might be, the really great teams don't need them. Nor do the adventurous, attacking teams.

The article I have already quoted, listed these talents as "making connecting passes, covering space and . . . putting in tackles" and providing "defensive cover for marauding full backs and creative midfielders."

Sounds about right, but again terminology gets in the way. There is an English term -- only too accurate, this one -- that does not appear in that list: ball-winner.

Now that term, much closer to the raw physical reality of how the English view the holding mid, did appear in another on-line article, this one by ESPN's Michael Cox.

Cox was writing before last Friday's game between Chelsea and Liverpool. His story was headlined: "Liverpool's lack of a holding midfielder may be exposed by N'Golo Kante."

Kante being Chelsea's new acquisition, a holding mid from Leicester City, widely held to be the key man in last season's mega-surprise Premier League winners.

So the heading contains a pretty strong hint that Cox believes in the holding midfielder. Cards on the table: Cox's approach, analyzing and valuing soccer through its tactics, is not one that appeals to me.

But Cox makes his case. That Kante is "unquestionably a ball-winner more than anything else," playing a primarily defensive role for Chelsea. In the game against Liverpool, it is "inevitable that Kante will be crucial to stopping Liverpool's passing moves through the centre of the pitch and putting Chelsea in control."

For Liverpool, Coach Jurgen Klopp's tactics don't "really involve a holding midfielder whatsoever," says Cox. Instead, "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."

Cox does not hide his feeling that Chelsea is getting it right and Liverpool is not: Kante will control midfield, and "that will only increase the feeling that Klopp, while creating a promising attacking side, badly lacks an equivalent [to Kante]".

But predicting how soccer games will go is hardly a science. In brief: Chelsea 1 Liverpool 2. With Liverpool in total control in the first half, leading 2-0 at the half. I watched the game, paying close attention to Kante. I saw a headless chicken, a lot of running, but very little to show for it.

Some press comments:

• Telegraph: Nemanja Matic and N'Golo Kante didn't do enough to protect the Chelsea defence and simply couldn't cope with the movement of those in red.

• Guardian: Chelsea ... were left dizzied by the rapidity of the attacks. Even N’Golo Kanté could not cope at times.

• Mirror: Kante struggled against Liverpool. Maybe he just can’t do it all by himself.

• ESPN: Phil Lythell gave Kante a 5 rating, saying he "had little impact. Struggled to have an influence at any point in the game."

So -- a top unbeaten team, with a highly rated holding midfielder, was over run ... in midfield.

If that isn't enough to spread doubts about the current apotheosis of the holding mid, then it's hard to imagine what will dent the faith of the worshippers.

There is another batch of powerful evidence that undermines the myth of midfield holding. This time specific to de Jong. We have Arena's statement indicting the great unwashed as not knowing enough to understand NDJ. He was, says Arena, "an important member of our team."

But was he? The details that follow are from the MLS web site. During de Jong's stay with the Galaxy, between March 1 and August 27, the team played 31 games. De Jong played in 20 of those games. The record in those 20 games -- with De Jong - was 5W 5L 10T. A winning percentage of 25%.

Without De Jong, the Galaxy played 11 games -- with a 7W 1L 3T record. A winning percentage of 63%.

Those figures are crystal clear. The Galaxy did better -- a lot better -- when De Jong was not playing. During NDJ's five-game suspension, the Galaxy were unbeaten and scored 16 goals. When De Jong returned the team won only one of the next seven games, and that was against a semi-pro team in an Open Cup game. A game in which De Jong did not play.

Oh yes, I'm pleased to see these holding/defensive midfielders, these negative destroyers, brought down a peg or two. But I do, honestly, wish that one day the English will be able to come up with a term that reflects the positive, creative side of the game.

25 comments about " De Jong's barren MLS stint helps debunk the holding-midfielder myth".
  1. Scott Johnson, September 19, 2016 at 1:58 p.m.

    I think "ball-winner" is the most important role of the #6; many D-Mids these days function as sweepers as well, but playing in front of the line instead of behind it. The Italian term for sweeper, libero, is a more accurate description; and American football nomenclature provides us with a term that is also accurate: free safety. De Jong, when he wasn't breaking legs, excelled at the specific task of challenging the ball and taking it away from opposing players. Whereas the backs behind him are fundamentally charged with defending the flanks and the box; his role is indeed to win the ball and start the offense. (And yes, his fearsome reputation probably helps him in this regard--opposing 8s and 10s have an additional thing to worry about when trying to take the ball past Nigel..)

  2. Fire Paul Gardner Now, September 19, 2016 at 2:34 p.m.

    Not sure how De Jong's MLS stint debunks anything since that isn't explained in this article. Just more of the same from PG - complaining about everything. Now that includes people who discuss tactics. Just once, I'd like to read a PG article that discussed something about soccer that he actually likes. At this point, it just seems that PG is a soccer writer who absolutely hates everything about soccer. Rather unfortunate for him - and SA readers.

  3. Gonzalo Munevar, September 19, 2016 at 2:59 p.m.

    Great article by Paul Gardner. And no, he does not hate soccer at all. Indeed, what he hates are those things that destroy the beautiful game.

  4. Allan Lindh, September 19, 2016 at 3:41 p.m.

    Great article, and being a Gentleman, Mr. Gardner didn't even mention the broken legs and destroyed careers. While there is much to admire in Bruce Arena's career, his hire of Kobalenko and de Jong were dreadful mistakes, and his nonsensical mealy-mouthed justifications suggest his mind has gone potty in his old age. Clearly SA readers have a more sophisticated understanding of the Beautiful Game than the overpaid coach of the Galaxy.

  5. Joe Linzner, September 19, 2016 at 3:42 p.m.

    Actually, Mr. Gardner has a point! Formation and tactics are very over rated. as are supposed duties. One player alone is always over-matched.

  6. Hugh McCracken, September 19, 2016 at 4:08 p.m.

    Hmm--Stopper from the 90s? A front sweeper, playing more freely laterally. I thought Liberos played behind the back line? My Stopper covered all the channels in front of a back four, although one person to do that is asking a lot these days, and of course they went forward.
    I am not sure how old number 5s is relevant. When I played, they did play with the back two when defending, but ours went forward with the halves when attacking--thus the term half-back. Besides, I doubt if any players exactly fit these loose definitions. Misshapen puzzles of players being knit together in rough formations will always be how we describe the snapshot in time when we try to capture the action of a moment in the game. Like coaches shouting help--it is rarely useful if it is about what just happened. Maybe all Paul Gardiner is doing is stirring a temporal tea-pot (Oh--No a coffee pot:-).

  7. Scott Johnson replied, September 19, 2016 at 4:41 p.m.

    Lots of formations employ TWO "holding mids" or "defensive mids" or what have you.... at any rate, I tend to agree (with PG) that soccer terminology is sometimes confusing, especially when gets more precise than GK/defender/mid/forward. Other than the keeper, none of the positions is well-defined; instead we get fuzzy definitions which are partially correct but imprecise and wrong at the boundaries.

  8. Daniel Clifton, September 19, 2016 at 4:20 p.m.

    Don't the numbers speak as to how unsuccessful the Galaxy experiment with De Jong was. They obviously played better when he was on the bench. I think PG usually makes it pretty clear what he likes about soccer. He mentioned in this article Spain, Barcelona, 1950's Hungary, and 1970's Brazil, all who play or played without a player known as a holding midfielder. PG makes it clear he prefers an aggressive attacking approach to soccer and used as an example the recent game between Liverpool and Chelsea where the holding midfielderless Liverpool overran the midfield over Chelsea who employed a holding midfielder. I think PG makes an interesting point.

  9. Joey Tremone replied, September 20, 2016 at 11:41 a.m.

    The Spain bit's wrong, though. Arguably Busquets is a holding midfielder, but Xabi Alonso certainly is. The thing is, not all holding midfielders are one-dimensional leg breakers.

  10. beautiful game, September 19, 2016 at 7:09 p.m.

    Fellow soccer bloggers...keeping the the game simple and executing is what Paul and some of you mean. I'm amazed at the number of MLS players that want to do more than they can; and I blame the coaches for the same players making the same mistakes over and over again. Players who do the KISS method are more successful.

  11. Nicholas Adams, September 19, 2016 at 7:37 p.m.

    I wonder Mr Gardner is that chip heavy on your shoulder?
    I suspect your 'mistrust' as you call it is really due to you not having a clue what you're talking about?

  12. R2 Dad, September 19, 2016 at 8:58 p.m.

    Th D-mid has uses, but context is everything, and for that reason I like to frame basketball as a similar but parallel game we simple-minded Americans understand a bit better. The D-mid is like a defensive specialist in basketball, who protects the perimeter or rim. These basketball specialists can feature in an ACC-style half-court game but can just as easily get eaten up in a transition game against a run-and-gun Warriors team (or old-school Lakers). It's not a perfect comparison but basketball is the most similar sport to soccer. I didn't watch Liverpool's first half dominance so don't know if their transition game bypassed the d-mids but it sure sounds like it. Anyway, Bruce Arena should give Americans more credit for understanding the tactics and strategies used---it's not rocket surgery.

  13. Kent James, September 19, 2016 at 10:04 p.m.

    PG is right, but he's also ignorant (possibly willfully so). He's right that you can play without a defensive CM, and that tactics are not everything. Good players can overcome (their coach's) bad tactics, but good tactics can help a team outplay their opponents (even if their opponents have better players), so while not the be all and the end all, they can be important (and one of the few places where coaching can make a difference). He is ignorant (in a literal sense) by ignoring the value of defense. Not every team has a ball-winner, but good ball-winners are pretty useful, because they win the ball back so those dazzling offensive players PG likes (yeah, I like them too), can get the ball back. And good defensive center mids can read the game well, and cover more than their share of the defensive responsibilities, once again, allowing those offensive players more freedom of movement (to be offensive). And finally, a good DCM will, after winning the ball, start the counter with an incisive offensive pass. So while it is possible for teams to play without such a player, having a good one allows a team to be more offensive without exposing themselves to being beaten on the counter. That being said, some DCM are just hacks, and deserve the vitriol PG lays on them (De Jong being an example...)

  14. Brian McLindsay, September 20, 2016 at 2:21 a.m.

    Well here goes, my son that plays for a club coached by all English coaches has cleaned up your questions a little. When we play a 4-4-2 diamond or 4-1-3-2 (look it up PG), the deepest playing midfielder is called the holding midfielder. He has two priority jobs, first is to not allowing attacking player(s) to get a direct run at the center backs and second is to stop or breakdown any fast counter attack. Next, the #6 is to take up any position which opens up in the defensive ranks because one of the back line players have moved forward on PG's much desired offensive attack. If however any of the other midfielders or forwards have the ball, the #6 is to be in position for an outlet pass (most often a passback but not always). On passbacks the Holding-Mid's job is to put the ball at the feet of PG's only important player or also known as an Attacking-Mid or Forward (but also to an over lapping run by one of PG's pesky defenders). By the way, the #6 needs to accomplish most of his passes(with a 90% pass completion rate for the best of them)using primarily diagonal passes to improve team/ball possession.

    The best of the breed will likely have the highest soccer IQ on the team along with the best checked ego to go with it.

    Again according to our clubs coaches, the Holding midfielder is usually a term used when you have two primarily defensive minded midfielders and the set is called out as a 4-2-something-something.

    PG, you like lots of scores and lots of offense only, so think about this, some time ago the sets were called an inverted Xmas tree or a 1-2-3-4. That worked for a while when you had one or two top athletes on the field that could outrun and out dribble everyone else. But just like now, you ended up with more and more parity as new players were developed with high(er) physical and technical skills and the days of Pele running the length of the field without a pass has ended. That is also the reason Messi is such a standout today, he still has that type of run(but almost never for even half the pitch today). But heck it sure would be much better game if we had no defensive minded players at all and simply outlawed tackles completely and let everyone have clean a run at the keeper...oh yea that would be some REAL fun!

    I suggest you read a good book called Pep Confidential, then come back here and grumble about defensive play.

  15. Hugh McCracken replied, September 20, 2016 at 9:45 a.m.

    As in YaYA Toure?

  16. Brian McLindsay, September 20, 2016 at 2:48 a.m.

    Sorry for the error, This: Again according to our clubs coaches, the Holding midfielder is usually a term used when you have two primarily defensive minded midfielders and the set is called out as a 4-2-something-something. Should Read: Again according to our clubs coaches, the DEFENSIVE midfielder is usually a term used when you have two primarily defensive minded midfielders and the set is called out as a 4-2-something-something.

  17. Wooden Ships, September 20, 2016 at 8 a.m.

    In deciding how to use midfielders, or tactical formation ( being mindful to not over think the game), it is almost always a question of a players penchant for attacking or defending. It's one or the other that they are adept at, the players nature. Which brings to mind the insistence of having Bradley as our attacking mid under JK's tenure.

  18. Hugh McCracken replied, September 20, 2016 at 9:46 a.m.

    Penchants are trained.

  19. Wooden Ships replied, September 20, 2016 at 11:45 a.m.

    Word salad to some extent, however, penchants are innate, training hones.

  20. Joe Linzner, September 20, 2016 at 11:55 a.m.

    I disagree with any tactic that places that much responsibility on a single player. A swarming team defense ala Say bayern and dortmund is designed to allay single player responsibility and makes it a team responsibility. It does take exceptional athletes with hearts and lungs conditioned for endurance at maximum effort. One reason JK demands conditioning. For me the WW or 3-2-3-2 formation is optimal as morphing from defense to offense and back again is a natural progression! I do not believe in a stay at home player either on defense nor offense.

  21. beautiful game, September 20, 2016 at 10:04 p.m.

    J.L., I agree; it's the team, not the single player...the best players shine more from the team concept and the team is able to achieve much more success.

  22. Brian McLindsay replied, September 21, 2016 at 3:20 p.m.

    The Holding Midfielder is a highly team oriented player. He almost never gets an opportunity to take a shot at the goal. He is the link between the defensive positions/players and the offensive position/players that ensures the team has more capacity than to simply lump the ball forward into 50/50 plays and through his personal workload and mannerisms sets the tempo for the team. Yes the Holding midfielder is the consummate team player and you will find it difficult to identify any top league teams who don't have a very good player in that position. The right player is difficult to find, as it requires a number of characteristics all on one player. Think Servo Busquets, And

  23. Brian McLindsay replied, September 21, 2016 at 3:24 p.m.

    Andrea Pirlo and to a lesser extent in my opinion YaYa Toure.

    Yes also to many teams breaking up all those jobs, because they have little choice if they can't find that unique player to fill the role.

  24. Bob Ashpole, September 23, 2016 at 5:06 p.m.

    Players are more important than any system. Game plans are more important than systems too. So I get cross-eyed when people start talking about "formations" long before the talk turns to "positions." The system is just a tool to help the players combine effectively. I agree with Mr. Gardner that labels are not to be relied upon in lieu of observation and analysis. A large majority of the soccer world do not discuss the game in the English language and don't care about the English numbering system or what they call their positions.

  25. Scot Sutherland, September 23, 2016 at 9:36 p.m.

    PG. Shame on you for using misleading stats. Chance creation much higher, possession higher and the Galaxy were much more attack minded when NDJ played. Missing Zardes and Keane had a greater effect. However, I agree wholeheartedly with your main point. Roles and functions matter more than positions. Midfielders must collectively, win balls, link the defense to the offense, transition from offense to defense and vice versa, create numbers advantages, use space, control tempo, disrupt the opponent and create chances. In a great midfield the roles are interchangeable. My best teams basically organized all of that themselves if I was able to put the right relationships together. From a formation perspective it was sometimes rather odd. We beat the top of the table team in our high school league playing without a left midfielder. They never attacked down that flank so we simply did not defend it and played with an extra attacker. The players worked that out themselves.

Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications