The teams containing the most dominant all-action midfielders will find the greatest success at the World Cup in Brazil in 2014.
The era of possession-based tiki-taka football is coming to an end, as evidenced by Barcelona's hiding at the hands of Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi-finals and Spain's capitulation to Brazil in the final of the Confederations Cup.
No longer is it enough to load a team with players who can pass exceptionally well. The most effective midfields will be packed with powerful footballers who can do many things very well.
The supreme midfielder in modern football has physical presence and can run non-stop for ninety minutes, but also has excellent close control and an educated passing game.
Jonathan Wilson, discussing the tactical trends of 2012/13 in The Guardian, points out that bigger is usually better:
But just because small players can do something, it does not mean that that same thing isn't better done with big players, if they are capable of the same levels of technical expertise. Bayern perhaps haven't hit quite the same levels of filigree passing as Barça at their peak, but they are not far off, and what was striking in the Champions League semi-final was how tired—how weak—Barcelona looked.
Wilson goes on to argue that creative midfielders who operate from deep continue to play an important role in the functionality of the major teams, using Andrea Pirlo, Sergio Busquets and Darren Fletcher as examples.
Even those players, as brilliant as they are at what they do, are rendered ineffective if they're not accompanied by a lung-buster or two.
When Italy won the World Cup in 2006, Pirlo was protected by Gennaro Gattuso and he had the creative talents of Francesco Totti ahead of him.
In Cesare Prandelli's current Italy side, Pirlo is flanked by two prime examples of the modern universal midfielder in Daniele De Rossi and Claudio Marchisio.
Both are rugged in the tackle, bursting with energy and comfortable on the ball.
Germany are one of the early favorites for the title in Brazil, and can count on the immense powers of Bastian Schweinsteiger, the quintessential polyfunctional player, in the middle of the pitch, as well as Sami Khedira and a handful of other midfielders who tick all the box-to-boxes.
Paulinho is another who fits the mold, and was one of the stars for Brazil as they romped to the Confederations Cup title recently. His dynamic displays in the center of the pitch were supplemented by the hard work of Luiz Gustavo.
Another contender for the crown, Argentina, may suffer for their lack of physicality in the middle of the pitch. A likely midfield trio of Angel Di Maria, Javier Mascherano and Fernando Gago has the class to out-maneuver most opponents, but match them against a powerful side and they may find themselves overwhelmed.
If Belgium can get their team harmony right, they have massive potential. Massive in the quite literal sense, as they can count on a number of enormous physical specimens who, importantly, are also highly adept with the ball at their feet.
Moussa Dembele, Marouane Fellaini, Radja Nainggolan and friends could pose a genuine threat at the World Cup if they can fulfill their promise.
It is not enough, though, to just load a starting 11 with a multifunctional players. As with tiki-taka, or catenaccio, or any other tactical philosophy, a common understanding is required.
Crucially, midfields containing two, or even three, box-to-box players must operate symbiotically. If the components are not functioning on the same wavelength, fully aware of the movements of others at all times, the whole system can descend into a rabble.
MSLSoccer.com analyst Matt Doyle elaborates this point as he explains the importance of the box-to-box player in contemporary football.
If you're going to use two box-to-box midfielders... the key is for the pair to develop mutual understanding and chemistry.
If one goes forward, the other has to do the dirty work of the d-mid, especially if there's a bad turnover somewhere else in midfield.
Just as important, maybe even more so if you want to be a good possession team, is that one of the pair always has to make himself available as an outlet, both in attack and in possession
England, for example, have had two of the finest all-round midfielders of the last decade in Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, but have rarely managed to get them to gel as a unit.
The all-action midfielder will have an influential role to play at Brazil 2014, and the teams who not only possess one or more such players, but utilize them effectively, will be at a distinct advantage when it comes to advancing deep into the tournament.
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