Analysis: – Modern-Day Defensive Midfielders – Statistical Comparison

The modern-day defensive midfielder has different roles in several systems on the pitch. Some take part in keeping it simple and just acting as a shield for their defensive line. While others play as a deeper play-maker to control the tempo of the game and find “that” incisive pass to open the opposition up. There are generally three types of defensive midfielders in football. We will analyse and do a stats comparison of every type one by one with player examples.

Who exactly is a Defensive Midfielder: – 

Defensive midfielders are those players whose main focus is to protect their team’s defensive line. They can either cover a particular zone ahead of the last line or play as a man-marker to certain opposition attacking players. The other role can be as a game controller with an ability to pass the ball to open up opposition defences.

Let us analyse the several types of central defensive midfielders and their roles statistically and in heat-maps: –

1.) Controlling type Defensive Midfielder: – 

As the name suggests, a controlling midfielder is one who will stay in his position and look to control the tempo of the game. “Controlling the tempo” exactly means to be tidy in possession, tackling and intercepting at vital moments. In other words, they are a work-man type players who will do no wrong in possession and be disciplined off it.

Some of the best player examples of this type of defensive midfielders are Sergio Busquets, Daniele De Rossi, etc. If we look at the stats of these two players, Busquets has a pass accuracy of 93%, de Rossi has 87%. This epitomises their role of “doing no wrong in possession.” Just keeping it simple and tidy with few defence-splitting balls to open the game up if needed.

Tackling and intercepting at vital stages is an integral role of any defensive midfielder. Being a controller in central midfield means their defensive side has to be spot on as well. Busquets has a tackling rate of 2.7/Game while de Rossi has 1.1/Game. Actually it is not very high but their good use of the ball doesn’t allow them to make more.

Intercepting rate is always a must for controlling midfielders because it enables their team to make a fast transition once the opposition through-ball/pass is intercepted. Busquets does that 1.4/Game while de Rossi does it 1.8/Game. Something they have to do as mandatory. Teams can rely on a controller to do the all-round job. In addition, being flexible according to the need of the game is a must as well.

The lower dispossession rate is also a thing which is high on agenda. Busquets gets dispossessed only 0.4/Game. While de Rossi has an impeccable habit of getting dispossessed only 0.1/Game.

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Busquets heat-map v Chelsea, a perfect example of the positioning of a controlling defensive midfielder
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Daniele de Rossi heat-map v Udinese, another example of how a controlling midfielder functions in a game.
The above two heat-maps shows us the positions and impacts of a controlling midfielder. Obviously with Barcelona, Busquets has more collection in the central areas while de Rossi is more of a passer with intercepting abilities and being flexible.

Play-maker type Defensive Midfielder (Regista): –

They may not be called an old-fashioned defensive midfielder, but their key passing ability from deep areas is a thing to witness. One of the primary roles play-makers have, is to play in a midfield 3 and be the sprayer of passes. It can be towards the fullbacks moving forward or incisive through-balls to wide forwards making inside runs.

This is the reason why their key passes leading to goal rate is very high. One of the best example of a play-maker type was Andrea Pirlo back in his days. In the current scenario, Jorginho of Napoli comes into mind. In terms of stats related to key passes and assists, these two are prime epitome.

In the 2014/15 season for Juventus, Pirlo contributed in 40 key passes and assisted in 5 goals. Jorginho also bodes the same strength, making 31 key passes and 4 assists. One other trade which is quite key to a play-maker is how many times they get dispossessed in a game.

The legend that is Pirlo has an exemplary record of getting dispossessed only 0.7/Game. Jorginho is doing pretty well to match that stat. The unsuccessful touches per game is also key for a regista. It is 0.1/Game for the Italian legend and 0.8/Game for the current Napoli play-maker. Good enough when you have the quality to pick a pass.

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Jorginho heat-map v Manchester City in Naples.

The above image shows us the impact a play-maker has from a deeper position. Jorginho’s impact is in almost every position of midfield and passing from there on to open up opposition defences. A play-maker can be flexible in position, from being no 6 to no 8 depending on whether the team is in possession or not.

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Ball-Winning Defensive Midfielder: –

Once again, as the name implies, a ball-winning midfielder’s primary job is to break up opposition attacks, make tackles, interceptions and act as a dummy centre-back if the original CB is caught higher up the field. Basically, they can be called as the momentum breaker for oppositions.

Passing accurately and incisively is not one of their main trades. They allow players ahead of them to be free in attack with an adequate safety of the defensive line behind them. The best examples of this type must be N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic. They are a typical attack-breaker type players whose first job is to defend and then look to join attack when in extreme need.

The Frenchman Kante makes almost 3.5 key tackles per game. While Serbian Matic makes almost 2 key tackles per game. Interception-wise, both have an equal rate of making 2 key interceptions per game. This embodies their primary trade of breaking up attacks with key tackles and interceptions. They are almost saving 4-6 goal scoring opportunities per game.

Making tactical fouls when caught on the counter or when as a defensive midfielder you think you are in trouble is vital too. Something in football we call “taking one for the team.” This implies to taking a yellow card. Both Matic and Kante has a record of making 1 foul per game which is tactical or certainly goal-saving. Fouling is not a great way to rate a player, but when in a position like as a defensive midfielder, players have to do this as part of the game.

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Matic heat-map v Sevilla in Seville. An example of covering every space ahead of the defensive line.
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Kante heat-map v Manchester United, disciplined and covering the space ahead of the defensive line.

The above two heat-maps is a perfect way to explain a role for a ball-winning defensive midfielder. Being simple, covering the space ahead of the defensive line and breaking up attacks. Sounds very simple but it is a very tough job. The defenders are banking on them to protect in certain situations. While, the attacking midfielders know they have someone behind them who can “mop up” play when they are caught higher up.

Overview: –

Overall, if we see the bigger picture, the role of defensive midfielders is vital in whatever attribute they possess. Different type have several effects based on the system deployed by their respective manager. However, the use of defensive midfielders has evolved in the most important direction. Managers nowadays are preferring a system of one DM and supporting midfielders free to move forward. Gone are the days when two DMs sitting in front of back four was a necessity.


Stats of the players involved in this article are from 2017/18 (current) season. Only Andrea Pirlo’s stats are from his last season at Juventus (2014/15).

Article assembled by Mizgan,

Twitter – @mizgans




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