Football Theory: The Midfield Floater
In an age reminiscent of "Total Football," today's game is being increasingly filled with more versatile and athletic players who may not always excel at one position, but fill in a variety of positions that can keep opposition teams off balance.
Some current evidence for world-class players that fill in a variety of niches are Sergio Ramos and Ronaldo of Real Madrid.
While Ramos typically plays as a wing-back, his aggression makes him a virtual winger that tears opposing defenses to pieces while being able to slide to the center of the defense and be a hard man of sorts for Real Madrid.
Ronaldo's claim to fame is his tremendous goal-scoring ability as a "I'm a winger not forward" position. In a vein similar to Luis Figo, he floats all over the field whether from isolations on the wing, to deadly runs up the middle like a regular striker, and finally with his back against the goal "posting-up" and "off the dribble" moves like a centre-forward.
However, the position that I will be addressing today is the "floating midfielder".
For the purposes of this article I will be addressing the use of a central midfielder that is "floated" not only out on the wings, but in a variety of roles like deep-lying playmaker and defensive stopper when they are usually used more as attacking midfielders.
Finally, I will address perhaps the implications for the future of team formations with the inclusion of these "floaters" and how the dynamics of the game will adjust.
Rightfully so considering my article picture will be Deco. Deco's claim to fame is his playmaking for Porto that saw them lift the European Cup in 2004 and his subsequent move to Barcelona where he would join with Ronaldinho to "make rain fall" as Scolari once put it.
At Barcelona, Deco was often played deeper than his usual playmaking role and given much more defensive responsibilities and held to center side roles. Instead of being stifled he flourished, once again winning the UEFA Best Midfielder Award and capturing another Champions League winner's medal.
The question is why was this transition not only easy, but extraordinarily effective. It is by delving into this that makes the idea of a floater so attractive.
The skills of any midfielder will include a high combination of work rate and ball control, decent shooting and tackling, and a high aptitude to make through balls which include vision and intuition skills.
Considering that all these skills are what you want in almost any footballer, is it any wonder that the floater would be effective anywhere?
Wingers typically have a higher degree of pace and offensive skills, but depending on the team do not have a high degree of defensive responsibilities.
By moving a central player out to the wing like the way Cesc is moved to the wing for Spain's 4-4-2 with one true winger, you get some one that opposing defenses do not match up with as well.
Both Deco and Cesc can make plays from anywhere on the field with their passing skills which force defenses to slide towards them, opening up holes in other parts of the field.
Another central midfielder turned winger with good results is Wesley Sneijder.
Sneijder's performance at Euro 2008 was nothing short of scintillating, but at Madrid he found himself displaced at times and sent to the opposite wing of Robben.
While this was not his natural place, it provided great dividends for Real Madrid as it allowed Robben and Higuain isolations that kept their title ambitions afloat for a crucial part of the season.
Another position that the usual central midfielder is moved to is rear-wards to the Makelele role.
In this position the defensive responsibilities are equal to the passing responsibilities of the player with sure tackling and tenacity more important than dribbling and shooting.
However, it is that instinct to look for the shot or the killer pass that makes them so effective in this role. They understand the movements and anticipation, their shooter's vision translates into good defensive angles and playmaking deep passes.
One need look no further than Chelsea yesterday with Deco again moving to this holding role.
He provided the same spark that he did when he first joined Chelsea but from a withdrawn position, something that could bode well for the future as his stamina would not be so challenged, but where his playmaking will still turn the tide of the game.
The final floating position that I will discuss is the role of defensive ace. This is not really a set position so much as a responsibility reserved for the strongest midfielder on the team, in this example I will use Michael Essien who is known for playing all around the pitch.
Essien plays best when he is allowed to roam the field from a central midfield position, but can play as the holding midfielder and is in that position for his national team.
Against teams like Barcelona and Liverpool however he is often floated around the field to not only shackle the passing and dribbling of the likes of Gerrard and Messi, but to force them to at times track back.
The defensive ace must be able to pressure their mark on both sides of the pitch forcing either them or another defender to pull away from the main attackers.
Against Liverpool Gerrard's abilities were stifled while Chelsea won 3-1.
Against Barcelona Essien's efforts helped to hold them to one goal in two games in an unfortunate aways goal loss.
This defensive ace role is vitally important when facing superior attacking opposition because it throws off both the opposing team's offensive plan, but also force their defense to move up and take some of the passing burden away from the locked down player.
The concept of the "Total" or "Complete" footballer is nothing new. It is their tactical usage that constantly undergoing changes and innovations.
The "floater" could either be a big-name aberration, or it could turn into a genuine paradigm for teams that sacrifice a little structure for more versatility. What is known however, the use of them will make for some very interesting and exciting matches in the years to come.
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