Anchor Man; Holding Midfielder; Destroyer; Half Back; Ball Winning Midfielder; Brick Shithouse; Volante de Marca, Trinco, Volante de Concención - there have been many different names and types of Defensive Midfielder applied over the past 100 years in the football universe, and although at times it hasn't suited every strategy, it is clear that some of the most successful teams in history have reaped the benefits of deploying a more defensive minded player in the middle of the park, not only providing cover at the back but also enabling and empowering more creative or attack-minded players to thrive with the resulting freedom and support that the role continues to offer at the highest levels of world football.
They aren't pretty; they don't score, they rarely get assists, your kid probably wouldn't ask for their name on the back of a shirt; but yet - when executed effectively, a top Defensive Midfielder or Anchor Man can completely change and influence a game, and can be the difference between success and failure, between victory and defeat, between one point and three, and in the case of a few notable icons of the role in recent history - almost the difference between life and death as was the case when Roy met Alf a few years back.
But what is it that makes this role so pivotal in the beautiful game? (both in real life and of course in the Football Manager world). In this article, we will delve in to some of the most influential and effective DMC's that have ever graced the turf and in turn analyse the attributes that are crucial in order to successfully utilise the Defensive Midfielder role in Football Manager. We will look at some of the top DMC’s and prospects within FM19 and how they compare to previous legends of the game, as well as conduct a few FM experiments to explore the various roles a DMC has to offer, and in turn formulate what we would call the "perfect" Defensive Midfielder. I write this not as an expert or someone who has mastered using a DMC (although I have always found it to be highly effective in the FM world), but as a big admirer and advocate of the role and the impact it can have when embarking on a new save adventure.
I have read a lot about the history of the Defensive Midfielder (some great reference articles and literature at the bottom of this post), and how it kicked off all the way back at the turn of the 20th century where it was evidently developed in Italian football and subsequently adopted by some of the stronger South American international teams for success on the global stage.
Without going in to too much history or detail, it is argued that the first real adaptation or implementation of a defensive midfielder or half back was put forward by Vittorio Pozzo who coached the Italy national team in the 1920's & 30’s. Largely influenced by his time studying in Manchester and the emergence of the "W-M" tactic implemented by the great Herbert Chapman of Arsenal legend, Pozzo's "Metodo" system is credited as being the first to really utilise a "Centromediano” or “Centrosostegno" (Centre Half Back), which placed an additional defensive player ahead of two more static full backs therefore giving his team more superiority in the middle of the park and allowing wide players to get forward when in possession or attacking with the ball.
This strategy was also utilised by the then most dominant International team of the era who won the first ever World Cup using this system - the Uruguay national team, who's defensive strength allowed them to win back to back Gold Medals in the 1924 and 1928 Olympic Games before taking home the first World Cup trophy in 1930 beating rivals Argentina in a 4-2 thriller played in front of 93,000 fans. An interesting piece of football trivia legend also occurred in this game, whereby a dispute over the match ball led to FIFA ruling that the Argentinians could choose their own ball for the first half (wherein they were 2-1 up at half time) before switching to the Uruguayan's ball for the second half where the Uruguayans proved too powerful winning the game 4-2 overall, and were presented with the World Cup trophy by a gentleman by the name of Jules Rimet. Let's just pause for a moment to appreciate the tools that these teams had at their disposal with which to ply their trade at the time:
How Football Manager sees a DMC
As mentioned earlier, Football Manager offers a number of options when deploying a Defensive Midfielder, breaking it down in to different roles depending on the strategy, tactic and individual player being utilised. Below is a summary of FM's view on the different types of DMC available (focusing on the more defensive roles rather than playmaking etc):
Notable DMC's 📰
The Defensive Midfielder role became more prominent in English football in later decades, primarily in the 1960's with the emergence of the "Destroyer" ball winning midfielder through the likes of Nobby Stiles and Billy Bremner who still to this day are renowned not only for their tough tackling "hard man" approach but also the value they each contributed to their title winning teams by nullifying the opposition's attacking threats and enabling more technical and creative players to advance higher up the field and dictate the game. Bremner was instrumental in Leeds' spell of dominance whereby he captained the side to the First Division, FA Cup, League Cup and final of the European Cup in 1975, and Leeds took full advantage of his aggression and tackling ability in deploying him in a more defensive role alongside Johnny Giles. Stiles on the other hand, was a more composed and tenacious ball winning midfielder which allowed more skilled players such as Bobby Charlton and George Best to take full advantage and avail of the attacking freedom they were given as a result of Stiles positioning between the defence and midfield - it was this defensive awareness and ability to take players out of the game that was crucial in England's World Cup win in 1966 where Stiles played in every match and most notably marked the famous Eusebio out of the game in the Semi-Final versus Portugal.
As football progressed and skill/technique became more prevalent and essential in the game, the DMC role also began evolve - not necessarily losing the "hard man" approach, but more so adding an enhanced level of footballing grace and prowess to the role whereby the Half Back or Ball Winning Midfielder evolved towards a more Defensive Midfielder / Ball Carrier type of player who was not only responsible for winning the ball and breaking down play, but also participating in and often initiating the subsequent counter attack that resulted from dispossessing the opposition. During the late 80's and early 90's and the re-emergence of a number of powerhouse clubs from mainland Europe, teams such as Ajax, A.C. Milan and Bayern Munich thrived on the implementation of a deep lying defensive / holding midfielder. Frank Rijkaard epitomised this role for both Ajax and Milan, whereby he was effectively converted from Centre Half to one of the best Defensive Midfielders of his generation wherein he won Euro 88 with Holland, three European Cups, 6 domestic league titles and amassed 73 international caps across two World Cups and two European Championships.
Similarly, Lothar Matthaus also frequently made this transition from Sweeper to Holding Midfielder for both club and country, and is regarded as one of the greatest defensive players of all time with two records to his name; ( i ) playing in the most World Cup Finals matches ever (25), and (ii) being the most capped German International of all time. His ability to move between the roles of Sweeper and Holding Midfielder were instrumental in Germany's 1990 World Cup victory and allowed him to continue playing at the highest level for almost 20 years. Even at 35 the guy was still a monster DM.
A relatively dry spell on the International stage for Brazil (having not won a World Cup since the iconic team of 1970) finally came to an end in World Cup 1994 in the USA, and it was here that Brazil displayed a resilient steel and spine to their squad that had been missing for many years - largely led by their Captain and Anchor Man Dunga, who alongside Mauro Silva served as the defensive backbone of the side which enabled them to neutralise their opponents attacking threat and in turn advance on their opponents through the likes of Romario and Bebeto. Dunga's leadership, composure, anticipation and tendency not to dive into tackles made him an extremely effective DMC for Brazil and earned him 91 caps for his country.
It was also around this time that a young tenacious Irish midfielder was making a name for himself at Manchester United after completing a then British record transfer fee of £3.75m from Nottingham Forest, and clearly stating his intent on competing with and ultimately replacing Bryan Robson and Paul Ince in the heart of the Red Devils midfield. Roy Keane was instantly recognizable for his aggression and fearlessness in the tackle - usually preferring to go to ground as opposed to Dunga's timed anticipated approach. This, combined with his ability to read the game and his quick pass & move approach, gave a new meaning and value to the role of a DMC for Man Utd and the Republic of Ireland for whom he earned 67 International caps and eventually captained for most of his international career (let’s not mention Saipan). While his temperament was (and still is) questionable at times, there is no denying that Keane's role as a combative Ball Winning Midfielder was instrumental during Man Utd's spell of dominance throughout the 1990's and early 2000's - again, in the same regard as Rijkaard and Matthaus, this allowed more creative players such as Scholes, Ince, Sharpe, Beckham and Giggs to play much further up the field as well as giving full backs Gary Neville and Denis Irwin the freedom to push on when attacking knowing that Keane would be there to support and cover on the break. He was immense in this role for more than 10 years for both club and country and is often hailed as one of the best defensive midfielders of all time – not bad for a small lad from Cork in the South of Ireland.
We mentioned how the evolved DMC moved away from that of Hard Man Destroyer / Half Back towards a more influential and rounded Deep Lying DM responsible for both winning back the ball as well as initiating repossession and subsequent counter attacking football, and few were better at this than French World Cup winning Captain Didier Deschamps who excelled in this role for both Juventus and France during a time in which both teams were dominating at both domestic and international level. While Eric Cantona mockingly referred to Deschamps as a "water carrier" for the team (i.e. there to provide the ball to more talented players), the reality was that Deschamps’ high work rate, vision, intelligence and leadership made him less like a water carrier and more like a quarter back for both club and country whereby he dictated the game and the pace of play with ease. He led his country to back-to-back victories at World Cup 1998 and Euro 2000, winning over 100 international caps and becoming only the second Captain since Franz Beckenbauer to lift the World Cup, European Championship and Champions League trophies.
It's interesting to note that the five legends mentioned above all went on to become Football Managers after retiring from playing the beautiful game, and experienced varying levels of managerial success at both domestic and international level. Rijkaard was instrumental in kicking off what would become two decades of Barcelona dominance, and guided the club to two La Liga titles and one Champions League between 2003 and 2008; Deschamps as we know has already led France to World Cup glory in 2018 after finishing as runners-up at Euro 2016 not to mention leading Marseille to their first League 1 title in 18 years prior to that. It is clear that not only is the Defensive Midfielder strong in the tackle and skilled at reading the game and breaking down the opposition - these players generally also possess excellent leadership qualities and are highly influential in the dressing room, which naturally is the catalyst for these players to progress in to management at the end of their careers. While perhaps not as highly regarded as some of their peers during their time as players, Defensive Midfielders such as Pep Guardiola, Diego Simeone, Antonio Conte and Ruud Gullit all went on to manage at the highest levels and this is a clear indication that leadership, communication and influence are also key attributes of an effective DMC.
Reading the Game
The turn of the 21st Century saw a continued utilisation and successful implementation of the Defensive Midfielder, whereby a number of teams reaped the reward of intelligent ball winning midfielders that possessed exceptional positioning and anticipation, and almost controlled games single handedly due to their ability to anticipate their opponents next move and ability to cover huge amounts of ground during the course of play. Widely regarded as the best Defensive Midfielder of the last 20 years, Claude Makélélé almost redefined the DMC role or was at least responsible for reigniting its importance and powerful impact when he joined the Roman Abramovic revolution at Chelsea following a £16m move from Real Madrid - so much so that it has since been branded "The Makélélé role", which is largely based on a DMC with a powerful engine who breaks down play through exceptional positioning, winning the ball and playing simple passes to then build up his own team’s return attack. Claudio Ranieri hailed Makélélé as the "battery" of the team, and similar to some of the players mentioned above - his strength and defensive reliability allowed creative players such as Frank Lampard, Joe Cole, Damien Duff and and Arjen Robben to shine during Chelsea's title winning season in 2004/2005.
Gennaro Gattuso was also an example of a hard-working intelligent player whose ability to read the game and strength in the tackle more than compensated for what he might have lacked in terms of touch and technique. Similar to the Makélélé <-> Lampard partnership, Gattuso's position as a tenacious Ball Winning Midfielder granted much creative freedom for his midfield partner Andrea Pirlo, and the duo were central to Milan's success during the early 2000's where they won two Champions League finals and two Serie A titles - a partnership which was also replicated at International level in 2006 as the pair guided Italy to their first World Cup win in 24 years.
Modern Day & Covering More Ground
It's safe to say that the majority of the players above were all masters of the DMC role, largely based on their ability to read the game, break down the opposition play and most importantly win the ball for their respective teams. Nowadays, with the increased speed and physicality of the game combined with the more modern and perhaps international influence on present day football, players who traditionally would have occupied the Defensive Midfield role are now expected to cover far more ground and perhaps are evolving to a more Box to Box midfielder approach as teams push higher and higher up the field. Patrick Vieira's style probably best reflects this - initially signed as a Defensive Midfielder thus allowing the likes of Petit, Platt, Ljungberg and Pires to get further forward, Vieira quickly showed that he was equally adept at getting forward as he was in winning the ball, and this made him a formidable opponent in heart of Arsenal's midfield. He was exceptional in the tackle and had the uncanny ability of sending a defence-splitting pass to create a goal immediately after winning the ball from the opposition - this made him an instrumental figure during Arsene Wenger's success at Arsenal, in particular their famous unbeaten title winning side in the 2003/2004 season.
In the years that followed Patrick Vieira's departure from the Premier League, the role and importance of the evolved Box to Box Defensive Midfielder continued to be illustrated in successes enjoyed by clubs overseas as well. Daniele De Rossi, already a World Cup winner with Italy in 2006, is a perfect example of a combative, hard working DMC who also contributes hugely to Roma's attacking and build up play, again almost playing the quarter back role and shuttling between boxes dictating the pace of the game. Xabi Alonso also embodied the defensive box to box midfielder position consistently at the top level, winning trophies in the English, Spanish and German leagues as well as being part of Spain's back to back World Cup and European Championship teams in 2010 and 2012. More recently, we have also seen Casemiro at Real Madrid undertake this role for club and country, perhaps not with the same defensive tenacity but equally functional and effective in terms of his propensity to contribute both defensively and in attack.
However, there is one player that stands above all in this regard who has continually executed the Box to Box Defensive Midfield role, and has arguably contributed the most success to his team as a DMC in recent years....that player is one-club-man Sergio Busquets, who has been the backbone of Barcelona's midfield for more than 10 years and has been one of the least credited driving forces behind their dominance in Spanish and European football over the past decade. Busquets' ability to read the game, his tactical intelligence and positional awareness, as well as his combined tackling and passing ability have made him quite simply one of the best midfielders of his generation, and it is easy to see why he is one of the most decorated footballers in the current game having won the World Cup, European Championship, 3 Champions Leagues and 7 La Liga titles with Barcelona (as well as multiple domestic and world club cups etc). Busquets is the perfect Box to Box DMC and is a clear representation of how the role has evolved as time and football have progressed simultaneously. All together now: what a player.
Back to the Future ⌚
So what is next for the future of the DMC role? It is arguable that we haven't seen a more influential Central Midfielder embrace the Premier League since the likes of Vieira and Keane (maybe Yaya Touré comes close?), and even now in 2019 a lot of the top clubs do not tend to deploy players regularly in defensive specific midfield roles, but rather demand more from these types of Box to Box midfielders who are expected to contribute to both defensive and attacking phases of play. Recently we have seen impressive results from Manchester City's use of Fernandinho in this role which has added a level of steel to their approach that perhaps they missed in previous years. However, the arrival of N'Golo Kanté at Leicester in 2016 served as a sharp reminder to many managers that the "Makélélé" role is still very much an effective weapon to have in their arsenal; Kanté was relatively unknown before his £5.6m move from Stade Malherbe Caen however Leicester scout Steve Walsh spotted something special in his ability, not least the fact that Kanté recovered the ball more times in the previous season than any other player had done in the whole of Europe. He made an instant impact at Leicester in his first season, and while players such as Vardy and Mahrez stole much of the headlines during their phenomenal title winning campaign, it was Kanté who was the driving force behind their success, playing in 37 games and finishing the season with the most tackles (175) and interceptions (157) in the entire league. This as we know led to a multi-million pound move to Chelsea where he would again win the Premier League as well as winning the Football Writers Player of the Year, and Leicester were never the same without him after his move to Stamford Bridge. Kanté is probably our best current example of the closest thing we can get to the perfect DMC; his tackling, positioning, anticipation, work rate, teamwork, aggression, stamina and determination all make him an exceptional asset to his team.
So...what's the point?
What have we learned? Do we know what makes the perfect DMC? Can any of this real life analysis actually be applied in FM? In order to make this transition from real life to Football Manager and to try and give context to what we have discussed above, we need to answer a few questions:
What are the main attributes to look for in a DMC?
How can I use this information effectively in FM?
What does the perfect "DMC" look like?
Who was the best?!
To answer these questions, I have conducted a "Moneyball" type analysis below whereby the strongest attributes shared across all of these great players (combined with the key attributes for each role as per FM) have been analysed, and it produces some really interesting and intriguing results which we will use to form the main conclusions from this study and answer the questions above.
The DMC Matrix🕶️
Q.1. What are the main attributes to look for in a DMC?
While FM advises of the key attributes for each specific role, we can also identify the strongest attributes based on our control group of DMC legends. If we look at the above data, it tells us that Teamwork (18), Work Rate (17), Anticipation (17) and Determination (17) are the highest scoring attributes within our player pool followed by Tackling (16), Positioning (16), Composure (16), Passing (16) and Stamina (16). This is a really interesting revelation in that traditionally I would have only searched for a DMC focusing on things like Tackling, Aggression, Positioning which aren't even among the top 4 attributes above.
Q.2.How can I use this information effectively and apply it in FM?
While we know that Football Manager offers us plenty of options in terms of searching by attributes and also searching for players by refining a search based on a similar player (i.e. the Find Similar Players option) - this obviously only applies to current players within the game, however if you are old fashioned like me and a fellow FM / IRL nostalgia enthusiast, using the above information we now have the option to refine our search based on a specific player from the past and try to replicate this within the FM universe.
For example - if I know I would love to have a Roy Keane type player in my ranks, based on the above I would focus on finding a player with strong Teamwork, Work Rate, Anticipation, Stamina, Aggression and Determination. However if I am looking for a more graceful player in the same mould as the likes of Didier Deschamps or Xabi Alonso, I would focus more on Positioning, Passing and Concentration as well as on Teamwork and Work Rate etc. Below are some examples of FM19 search results when I have used specific attributes to locate similar players to some of our DMC legends above – interesting results!
Q.3. What does the perfect "DMC" look like?
The easy answer to this question would be a DMC that has a rating of 20 across all attributes, however the reality is that an ideal DMC should echo what we have established above and possess really good mental, defensive, technical and physical attributes. To illustrate what the perfect DMC might look like, I have created a fictional DMC to reflect how this would appear in the FM universe (and of course he is Irish and plays for Newcastle ⚫⚪☘️):
Q.4. Who was the best?!
Now that is the question!! Of course there are many determining factors when we talk about who the best DMC was e.g. the role they played, team they were in, trophies won etc; however sticking to our Moneyball analysis and focusing solely on player attributes (as is the language of Football Manager) - the stand out DMCs from our pool of legends are powerful Sweeper/DMC Lothar Matthaus; fearless Irish talisman Roy Keane; Claude Makélélé - the man so good they named a role after him; hard as nails Italian World Cup Winner Gennaro Gattuso and former Arsenal and France enforcer Patrick Vieira. Gattuso is the one that surprises me a little, however his attributes in CM03/04 were outrageous and as a holding midfielder he was certainly up there based on his contribution for both Milan and Italy. If I was to give my own preference I would probably lean towards a Keane or Makélélé but again I am old fashioned and have a tendency to favour the hard-tackling BWM when scouting a DMC in my saves. Who would you choose?
The Experiment 🔬
I was curious about the different roles and how much of it matters in a game situation - i.e. if the player is good enough in FM, does it matter what specific role they play in? To compare the roles, I selected 4 players from FM19 whose natural positions are Defensive Midfielder, Ball Winning Midfielder, Anchor Man and Half Back respectively, and below is an analysis of their performance in each role in Champions League games where their team has won and they have played 90 mins per game:
At first glance this doesn't really tell us a whole lot but if we look closely we can make a few assumptions from the heatmap in particular looking at where tackles and interceptions have been made. We can see that Casemiro in the DM role spent a lot more time in the opponents half than any of the other three roles, making quite a few interceptions and tackles higher up the field. By contrast, Eric Dier in the BWM role didn't seem to actually complete any challenges until the ball was in his own half, despite the map showing he did spend time in his opponent's half. Danilo Pereira, playing the Half Back role, also completed most of his challenges in his own half but it looks like a good portion of these occurred while covering for his full backs - while we can see Javi Martinez in the Anchor Man role making a good few interceptions and tackles in and around his own box, suggesting that he naturally spent a lot of the game sitting right in front of his Central Defenders if not almost falling back on to the defensive line.
Admittedly this experiment is only based on a single game however it is interesting to think about what each role can bring to the team and what to expect when deploying it as part of your match tactic. If you are looking for someone to plant themselves in front of the defence (e.g. to neutralise a top quality opposition Number 10) then perhaps Anchor Man is more effective than a standard DM – if your goal is to cover your onrushing full backs/wing backs, then perhaps a Half Back might suit in order to cover these when on the attack. As it has often been said with this game, there is no right or wrong approach in FM – it is down to what works for you and what you find to suit your style of play (or for many of us, its about finding out what doesn’t work usually the hard way).
My FM19 Tips
Again, I am admittedly no expert however taking all of the above in to account and having played a sh*tload of FM19 since it's release in November 2018, below is my hitlist of Top FM19 Transfer Targets for the DMC position, some of whom are already well known / hot prospects and some perhaps not so well known (yet!). Feel free to click each name to view their FM profile and observe their preferred role and natural positions etc.
Franck Kessie (Milan)
Amadou Diawara (Napoli)
Sandro Tonali (Brescia)
Thiago Maia (Lille OSC)
Arne Maier (Hertha Berlin)
Tanguy Ndombele (Lyon)
Kristoffer Ajer (Celtic)
Jean-Manuel Mbom (Werder Bremen)
Manuel Locatelli (Sassuolo)
Matheus Fernandes (Palmeiras)
Tom Krauß (RBL)
I guess that's it! (although be sure to check out the hilarious quotes section below regarding some of the more infamous DMCs over the years). Hopefully you found this post to be interesting, informative and somewhat relevant to your own FM adventures - as I said before, I am a huge admirer of the role and value that these players have brought to their teams over the years (both in FM and IRL), and I am a big advocate of utilising a strong DMC to form the backbone of my team in order to provide both defensive support / brick-shithousery as well as a fulcrum through which quick short-passing counter-attacking football can be played. Scouting for a decent DMC is actually not the easiest thing in the game especially when you bring in the more advanced attribute analysis in to your search, and equally it isn't too often that a DMC consistently scores above a 7.0 average rating (as they don't usually get goals, assists or clean sheets etc). However, what I will say is that regardless of which league or level you are managing at, if you can find that core Defensive Midfielder and deploy him effectively to do the job you need done, it will usually yield solid results and allow you to then get creative in other areas of the field where you can look at punishing your opponent.
Thanks for reading - if you have any thoughts, comments, feedback or questions please be sure to post them in the comments below or on my Twitter page – follows and retweets are always appreciated! Also, if you enjoyed this post and would like to read more of my FM content, please feel free to check out my blog here – my latest conquest is with CD Tenerife in Spain, where we are attempting to dethrone Barcelona and the Madrids from the peak of Spanish football (appropriately entitled “Roy De Los Rovers”). For now I will leave you with some of my favourite quotes that I discovered during my research which pretty much sum up the DMC role in a nutshell:
References/Interesting Reads 📖:
"Inverting the Pyramid" - Jonathan Wilson
"50 Best Defensive Midfielders in History" - Michael Cummings, BleacherReport.com
"How the Makélélé role redifined English football" Zain Mahmood via Sportskeeda.com