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 worldsoccertalk.com) 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.