Position #6 The Holding or Defensive Midfielder

When I first began coaching soccer 20 years ago I learned the basics of a 4-3-3 formation from the local high school coach.  I conscientiously took copious notes and recently came across them while searching for other documents. Times have certainly changed. The high school program still has the same coach but their formation has gone from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2 and back to 4-3-3 over those 20 years.  The word Libero lept off the page at me along with brief comments about needing to put your best player in the center of the formation and therefore the center of the field.

Now, I know today that libero refers to a sweeper and I identify the position with German great Franz Beckenbauer. Back in the day I thought of the libero as more of the stopper or holding midfielder in the 4-3-3 tasked with disrupting the opponents attack and rhythm of play. The advent of the modern offside rule has seen man marking systems give way to zonal defending and hybrid systems. The sweeper position of Beckenbauer's era is all but gone with the role of the libero shifting to the defensive or holding midfielder.

In today's game the backs in zonal systems share the workload of Beckenbauer's libero in covering deep for one another. It actually is the holding mid or defensive mid that is tasked with a proactive sweeping of opposition breakthroughs as they patrol in front of center backs "protecting" against the generation of through balls on the ground or in the air as well as against long shots being taken. In this sense they are free or libero.

In bringing together players from multiple high schools and differing systems one challenge I face is in defining positions in a manner all can understand. Understandably every coach and system have their own terminology. I suppose I compound the problem even as I attempt to simplify things for the players on my club team.  For our purposes the holding midfielder is designated as position #6 and tasked as follows:

The primary responsibilities of the holding midfielder are to protect the center defenders and to be the link between the backs and the attackers. He will serve as a pivot when the team wants to switch the point of attack. 

This player will remain central most of the time. He must read the movement of his attackers recognizing when his centralized support role is redundant thereby opening opportunity for him to move into the attack himself. 

When the goalkeeper is in possession of the ball they must present the initial penetration option.  Because this option presents itself centrally he must realize it is more often than not a decoy option, a very important decoy option as he occupies defenders allowing other options to be open. 

More importantly the Holding Midfielder becomes a prominent option to the player who receives the goalkeeper’s distributions.  He must always make himself available and present himself for the ball.  

The Holding Midfielders first option is always to look to make a penetrating pass or facilitate a penetrating combination pass sequence playing a teammate forward. 

The second option is to switch the field of attack. The Holding Midfielder is both an anchor and a pivot player. It may help to consider him as a linking player. Consider the pivot player role as one that links wide players on one side of the field to wide players on the other side of the field. 

The third option is to play the ball back to a supporting player, either a defender or the goalkeeper.
Clearly, just as it was in Beckenbauer's day, the position calls for one of the teams best overall players.  It demands the ball hawking presence of football's  "free safety" or baseball's "center fielder" be combined with the traditional facilitator responsibility of basketball's "point guard". It is a demanding role to be sure requiring an ability to read the game from both defensive and attacking perspectives. In many regards the Holding Midfielder is the linchpin of our system.  As such organization and communication skills are critical to effective play in this role.

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