The evolution of the defensive midfielder

Perhaps the most overlooked position on the field in modern soccer today is the central defensive midfielder (or CDM, for all my FIFA aficionados out there). Most modern systems recognize the value in having a central holding player, less dedicated to bombing forward to make runs into the box than to sit in front of the defense and dictate play. This week, in what may become the first of a weekly series, I’d like to look into the evolution of the role played by the defensive midfielder, its complexities and misconceptions, and the evolution of the position, especially in the 21st century as it has taken hold as a mainstay in modern tactical setups. 

The CDM is responsible for a few key tasks. As we have established, they set up shop in front of the defense, typically a back four. With this comes the responsibility of dictating the pace of the game, as well as directing the attack with their ability to see the play from behind and pick out holes in the defense. This player typically averages 70-100 passes in a high possession professional side, as when the team becomes closed into a tight space on the sideline, the outlet is to drop the ball to the holding player, who switches the ball wide to the other side, or splits the defense’s lines into the striker. 

Defensively, the CDM is highly active. They are the final shield before the center backs, typically larger and slower players, are being run at by pacier midfielders and forwards from the opposing team. Their position as the further forward non-defender means they pick up a lot of slack in organizing the defensive lines through the midfielders and forwards, and must be willing to an immense amount of work defensively, pressing, heading, tackling, blocking shots, and more. 

Claude Makelele is a renowned central midfielder who redefined the defensive midfield role in the late ‘90s and early 2000s while at Real Madrid. Makelele was the glue that kept the famous Galacticos of Zidane, Figo, Ronaldo, and other big name stars. His job was simple: lock down the midfield defensively to cover for the more attack-minded superstars that surrounded him. 

While Zizou flocked forward, conducting the orchestra that was the famous early 2000s Real attack, Makelele sat in, won the ball, and made simple passes to keep possession for his team. It wasn’t glamorous, but it was necessary; so much so that when Real sold him to Chelsea in 2003 to make room for the incoming David Beckham, Zidane was quoted as saying “Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?” This underlined just how important the defensive midfielder is, even in teams of the greatest attackers around. The CDM is the lynchpin, the connection between defense and attack that all great teams require. Real President Florentino Perez complained that all Makelele did was pass the ball backward and sideways. But this sold short the complexity of the role to a great deal. Without Makelele’s tireless running and simple transitional passes to move the team from defense to attack, the team suffered. Despite Beckham’s mega-money arrival, their league and Champions League finishes remained identical, proving the extra firepower could never replace a true defensive work rate. 

 On the other side of the coin, we find Andrea Pirlo and the regista role. Playing in the same position, the regista is often referred to as the deep-lying playmaker. This player plays in the same area of the field as a more defensively-minded CDM, but has the primary role of orchestrating the attack from deeper on the field. Their skill set focuses on vision and a large range of passing, as they seek to see the entire game and pick the gaps in the defense while sustaining less of the defensive pressure that comes along with playing higher up the field. 

This role really grew into popularity with AC Milan and Juventus star Andrea Pirlo throughout the 2000s and 2010s. Pirlo was naturally an attacking midfielder, but his physical prowess lacked too much to allow him to operate at the highest level. He was too small, and not very athletic; however, Pirlo made up for this with immaculate vision and the ability to find passes most would never see. As a result, manager Nedo Sonetti made the decision to play Pirlo deeper while on loan at Brescia. The results were brilliant, as the deep-lying Pirlo broke lines with his wide range of passing, finding his superstar teammate Roberto Baggio in the gaps between defenders. 

He then moved on to AC Milan, and formed one of my personal favorite midfield partnerships of all time with Gennaro Gattuso. Given that the idea of the regista eliminates a majority of the defensive work put in by a typical CDM by sacrificing athleticism for skill in someone like Pirlo, there comes the need for a defensive destroyer like Gattuso. Known for his temper, willingness to fly into challenges to prevent goals, and insane work rate, Gattuso became the perfect protector for Pirlo. The pair won multiple Champions Leagues and the World Cup together with Milan and Italy, respectively. 

Both the Makelele and regista roles have continues into today, usually in some sort of combination. The 4-3-3 or some variation thereof has become one of the favorite tactical setups in world soccer today because it allows for this variability of roles. In the modern 4-3-3, teams use 3 central midfielders, namely a CDM, true center midfielder, and an attacking midfielder (CAM). Therefore, we find teams like Chelsea that have reintroduced the Milan model of pairing a more dogged partner, who plays a Makelele-like role, next to a regista. Chelsea won the Champions League in 2021 starting a midfield three of Mason Mount, N’golo Kante, and Jorginho. While Mount acted as a CAM, creating chances, Jorginho kept play ticking over and created chances from deep as the CDM, and his partner Kante did the majority of the defensive work while making mostly inconspicuous passes to ensure Jorginho had the time and energy to play his role as effectively as possible. 

We can also see modern day reincarnations of Makelele in the dominante Real Madrid side of the mid-2010s. Having learned from their mistakes, this side based its defense around Casemiro, a workhorse of a CDM that was never flashy, but always effective. He played in a midfield three with two uber-technical creators in the modern take on the Galacticos. Modric and Kroos created chance after chance for Bale, Benzema, and Ronaldo up top, while Casemiro ensured their exploits didn’t go unrewarded. And who was the manager who insisted Casemiro be the bedrock of his side? Zinedine Zidane, the very man who had understood Makelele before it was cool. 

To remind ourselves that the remnants of the 2000s are still very much taking hold is not to drive away the idea that the game is ever evolving. CDMs today may still resemble the legends of 20 years ago, but roles continuously change. The game has, quite frankly, gotten soft; Kante is by no means half the destroyer Gattuso was, at least not in the same sense. Pirlo was afforded the freedom he had to simply pass the ball around the pitch without much concern for defending very hard because Gattuso would have killed a man with his bare hands to keep a clean sheet. These days, half the fouls Gattuso committed would result in 10-match bans. So, we see registas today less able to fulfill that role. Jorginho produces twice the tackles and interceptions Pirlo did 10-15 years ago. Likewise, on the other end of the spectrum, modern systems more than ever require technical excellence in all respects of the game. Casemiro is a far more technical player than a workhorse like Makelele was; a stunning 25 yard volley against Napoli in the 2016-17 Champions League season comes to mind, something his predecessor could never have imagined pulling off. 

What this seems to indicate to me is that the two roles are converging. The CDM is slowly becoming a hybrid of the technical elegance of Pirlo and the undying defensive desire of Makelele or even Gattuso. Players who play here must be able to pick 40 yard passes as well as tackle like a center back, and run for 90 minutes week-in week-out. Have a look at Joshua Kimmich at Bayern Munich, for example. He personifies technical ability, wins the ball back over 5 times a match, and never looks fatigued; he is currently considered one of the favorites for best CDM on the planet. It should be an interesting decade to come as we watch to see who will set the next benchmark for the central defensive midfielder.