Evolution in Soccer - the Linking Mid

In camp settings I strive to impress upon players and coaches alike that soccer is a living breathing entity. As such, the game is constantly changing. The easiest way to depict this is to note how the diamond stopper / sweeper system has faded away with the advent of zonal defending concepts.  Yet even as you read this the standard zonal systems are being solved - the game is further evolving.

Teams that played a zonal back four utilized the backs to execute changes of field and often did so with little pressure from opposing forwards. That is, until it was discovered that two, and at times one, opposing forward could disrupt this process. This especially holds true when the outside backs are played advanced in a bowl configuration.

In this regard we have witnessed a zonal back four and the then standard 4-4-2 formation devolve back to 4-3-3 and then evolve into hybrid 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-4-1 formations.  Triangle, diamond and box midfields have once again become the norm.  It is within the triangle and diamond midfields in particular that the Linking Midfielder role has been (re)established. 

The term "linking midfielder" might be new to you but I hardly think I have coined a new descriptive term.  This is a defensive mid or holding mid with a more specifically (and broader) role defined.  In many ways it is the re-emergence of the Stopper role.  Defensively the Linking Mid is charged with protecting the back line and the specifically the center backs.  The attacking role for the Linking Mid is as the name infers - to link the back four with the midfielders and forwards.  Distributing the ball, changing field and playing teammates in is a critical role for the position. So too is the ability to make foraging runs into the attack. 

My teams often refer to this position as the Michael Bradley role.  This is true when Bradley is deployed as the defensive or linking mid.  He "sits" in an advanced position between the center backs and is used to split the afore mentioned opposing forward(s) who would otherwise disrupt the backs ability to move the ball laterally across the back.  By doing so, the back line can continue to function in a forward bowl shape instead of being forced to withdraw the outside backs to provide the depth necessary to defeat the opposing forwards pressure. The linking mid creates a 5 vs 2 (or 3) situation in your favor. 

In some ways delegating 5 players to defeat one, two or three might seem a waste of resources, but the linking mid allows the outside backs to come forward and that is the key to creating numbers up situations for your team to exploit in the attack.

This is the key to understanding how soccer evolves - Deployment of resources seeks to create numbers up advantages.  The zonal four has had numerical advantages in defending for some time now.  This created a real need to get more players forward into the attack. The solution has been to use outside backs to come forward. This can create even numbers for attacking and even give the attackers a man advantage dependent on the manner and timing of deploying the outside back.

The next phase of evolution?  Given many teams are going to one traditional forward combining with a false nine I would suspect there could be a move to playing a back 3 instead of a back four.  This is not a huge leap if we consider the current bowl configuration of back lines which might be better depicted as 2-3-4-1 or 2-4-3-1 formations.  The strength remains down the spine of the pitch and I do not foresee that ever changing.  The goals are located along the central spine after all.


Action expresses priorities.
As coaches we have all had to deal with the player who talks a good game. He will say all the right things.  Then when in the game his actions betray him.  TEAM play is ignored in favor of ME play.  There is a general refusal to embrace a role within the team concept and the player will act as if the team is present to serve his purposes. 
A good video session with players such as this can often go a long way towards rectifying the situation.  The player may decide to conform to the team philosophy or the player may seek greener pastures elsewhere if he is stubborn and resistant to learning.
Actions often resound and resonate louder and longer than mere words.
Actions definitely provide a view into a players priorities.