A midfielder is an association football position. Midfielders are generally positioned on the field between their team's defenders and forwards. Some midfielders play a more defensive role, while others blur the boundaries between midfielders and forwards. The number of midfielders on the team and their assigned roles depends on the team's formation; the collective group of these players on the field is sometimes referred to as the midfield.
Most managers assign at least one midfielder to disrupt the opposing team's attacks, while others may be tasked with creating goals, or have equal responsibilities between attack and defence. Midfielders are the players who typically travel the greatest distance during a match.
Central or centre midfielders are players whose role is divided roughly equally between attack and defence. These players will try to pass the ball to the team's attacking midfielders and forwards and may also help their team's attacks by making runs into the opposition's penalty area and attempting shots on goal themselves.
When the opposing team has the ball a central midfielder may drop back to protect the goal or move forward and press the opposition ball-carrier to recover the ball. A centre midfielder defending their goal will move in front of their centre-backs in order to block long shots by the opposition and possibly track opposition midfielders making runs towards the goal.
The 4–3–3 and 4–5–1 formations each use three central midfielders. The 4−4−2 formation may use two central midfielders, and in the 4–2–3–1 formation one of the two deeper midfielders may be a central midfielder.
The term box-to-box midfielder refers to central midfielders who have good mobility and are skilled at both defending and attacking. These players can therefore track back to their own penalty box to make tackles and block shots and also run to the opponents' box to try to score.
Left and right midfielders have a role balanced between attack and defence, similar to that of central midfielders, but they are positioned closer to the touchlines of the pitch. They may be asked to cross the ball into the opponents' penalty area to make scoring chances for their teammates, and when defending they may put pressure on opponents who are trying to cross.
Common modern formations that include left and right midfielders are the 4−4−2, the 4−4−1−1, and the 4−5−1 formations. Jonathan Wilson describes the development of 4−4−2 formation: "…the winger became a wide midfielder, a shuttler, somebody who might be expected to cross a ball but was also meant to put in a defensive shift." A notable example of a right midfielder is David Beckham.
A holding or deep-lying midfielder stays close to their team's defence, while other midfielders may move forward to attack. A player in this role will try to protect their goal by disrupting the opponents' attacking moves and stopping long shots on the goal.
The holding midfielder may also have responsibilities when their team has the ball. This player will make mostly short and simple passes to more attacking members of their team but may try some more difficult passes depending on the team's strategy.
Defensive midfielders are midfield players who focus on protecting their team's goal. These players may defend a zone in front of their team's defence, or man mark specific opposition attackers. Defensive midfielders may also move to the full-back or centre-back positions if those players move forward to join in an attack. Sergio Busquets described his attitude: "The coach knows that I am an obedient player who likes to help out and if I have to run to the wing to cover someone's position, great."
A deep-lying playmaker is a holding midfielder who specializes in ball skills such as passing, rather than defensive skills like tackling. When this player has the ball they may attempt longer or more complex passes than other holding players. They may try to pass the ball long to a centre-forward or winger; or pass short to a teammate in the hole, the area between the opponents' defenders and midfielders.
Writer Jonathan Wilson described Xabi Alonso's role: "although capable of making tackles, [he] focused on keeping the ball moving, occasionally raking long passes out to the flanks to change the angle of attack."
An attacking midfielder is a midfield player who is positioned between central midfield and the team's forwards and who has a primarily offensive role. According to positioning along the field, attacking midfield may be divided into left, right and central attacking midfield roles. A central attacking midfielder may be referred to as a playmaker, or number ten (due to the association of the number 10 shirt with this position).
These footballers try to create good shooting opportunities by making crosses, through balls, and headed knockdowns to teammates. They may try to set up shooting opportunities for themselves by dribbling or performing a give-and-go with a teammate. Attacking midfielders may also make runs into the opponents' penalty area in order to shoot from another teammate's pass.
"False 10" or "central winger"
The "false 10" or "central winger" is a new type of midfielder recently introduced to football. Much like the "false 9", his/her specificity lies in the fact that, unlike a traditional playmaker who stays behind the striker in the centre of the pitch, her/his goal is to drift wide when in possession off the ball to help both the wingers and fullbacks to overload the flanks. This means two problems for the opposite midfield: either they let him/her drift wide, and his presence with both the winger and the fullback makes it three-on-two out wide; or they follow her/him, but leave space in the centre of the pitch for wingers or onrushing midfielders to take. False 10s are usually traditional wingers who are told to play in the centre of the pitch, and their natural way of playing makes them drift wide. This role is specifically meant to respond to the fact that more and more midfielders are fielded in the centre of the pitch.
In modern football, the terms winger or wide player refer to a non-defender who plays on the left or right sides of the pitch. These terms can apply to left or right midfielders, left or right attacking midfielders, or left or right forwards. Left or right-sided defenders such as wing-backs or full-backs are generally not called wingers.
In the 2−3−5 formation popular in the late 19th century wingers remained mostly near the touchlines of the pitch, and were expected to cross the ball for the team's inside and centre forwards. Traditionally, wingers were purely attacking players and were not expected to track back and defend. This began to change in the 1960s. In the 1966 World Cup, England manager Alf Ramsey did not select wingers from the quarter-final onwards. This team was known as the "Wingless Wonders" and led to the modern 4–4–2 formation.
This has led to most modern wide players having a more demanding role in the sense that they are expected to provide defensive cover for their full-backs and track back to repossess the ball, as well as provide skillful crosses for centre forwards and strikers. Some forwards are able to operate as wingers behind a lone striker. In a three-man midfield, specialist wingers are sometimes deployed down the flanks alongside the central midfielder or playmaker.
Even more demanding is the role of wing-back, where the wide player is expected to provide both defence and attack. As the role of winger can be classed as a forward or a midfielder, so this role blurs the divide between defender and midfielder.
A winger is an attacking midfielder who is stationed in a wide position near the touchlines. Wingers such as Stanley Matthews or Jimmy Johnstone used to be classified as forwards in traditional W-shaped formations, and were formally known as "Outside Right" or "Outside Left", but as tactics evolved through the last 40 years, wingers have dropped to deeper field positions and are now usually classified as part of the midfield, usually in 4–4–2 or 4–5–1 formations (but while the team is on the attack, they tend to resemble 4–2–4 and 4–3–3 formations respectively).
The responsibilities of the winger include:
- Providing a "wide presence" as a passing option on the flank.
- To beat the opposing full-back either with skill or with speed.
- To read passes from the midfield that give them a clear crossing opportunity, when going wide, or that give them a clear scoring opportunity, when cutting inside towards goal.
- To double up on the opposition winger, particularly when he is being "double-marked" by both the team's full back and winger.
The prototypical winger is fast, tricky and enjoys 'hugging' the touchline, that is, running downfield close to the touchline and delivering crosses. However, players with different attributes can thrive on the wing as well. Some wingers prefer to cut infield (as opposed to staying wide) and pose a threat as playmakers by playing diagonal passes to forwards or taking a shot at goal. Even players who are not considered quick, have been successfully fielded as wingers at club and international level for their ability to create play from the flank. Occasionally wingers are given a free role to roam across the front line and are relieved of defensive responsibilities.
The typical abilities of wingers include:
- Technical skill to beat a full-back in a one-to-one situation.
- Pace, to beat the full-back one-on-one.
- Crossing ability when out wide.
- Good off-the-ball ability when reading a pass from the midfield or from fellow attackers.
- Good passing ability and composure, to retain possession while in opposition territory.
- The modern winger should also be comfortable on either wing so as to adapt to quick tactical changes required by the coach.
Traditionally, right-footed players are played on the right wing and left-footed players on the left as a matter of familiarity and comfort. However, in the modern game, coaches usually demand wingers to be able to play on both flanks and to switch sides during play regularly as a quick change of tactics. For instance, a right-footed winger who plays on the left flank (or vice versa; with a player playing on the 'opposite' side from his or her strong foot often being referred to as an inverted winger) is more comfortable cutting inside, which suits the styles of playmaker forwards who can cause a threat both by shooting from distance, dribbling towards goal, or sliding through-ball passes to other forwards. Another advantage is that the winger can cut inside, towards the weaker foot of the full-back. Clubs such as Real Madrid often choose to play their wingers on the 'wrong' flank for this reason; former Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho often played Ángel Di María on the right and Cristiano Ronaldo on the left. Former Bayern Munich manager Jupp Heynckes often played the left-footed Arjen Robben on the right and the right-footed Franck Ribéry on the left. One of the foremost practitioners of playing from either flank was German winger Jürgen Grabowski, whose flexibility helped Germany to third place in the 1970 World Cup, and the world title in 1974.
Although wingers are a familiar part of football, the use of wingers is by no means universal. There are many successful football teams who operate without wingers. A famous example is Milan, who typically play in a narrow midfield diamond formation or in a Christmas tree formation (4–3–2–1), relying on full-backs to provide the necessary width down the wings.
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