Born Again: How the Deep-Lying Midfielder Position is Reviving Careers

Born Again: How the Deep-Lying Midfielder Position is Reviving Careers


In football, as it’s played today, central midfielders have become the most important players on the pitch. Due to the growing importance of the transition game, the roving role of a post-to-post player demands competence in both defense and attack.

Finding the right player, however, is difficult. The position demands an innate intelligence. The ability to improvise and shift on the fly. Caught out of position, a central midfielder can leave the defense open and vulnerable to quick counterattacks. Marooned at the back, often in position to fill in holes left by marauding full backs or wingers charging into midfield, they may also leave the striker(s) isolated if they can’t move up the pitch in support.

Consequently, knowing how to utilize a central midfielder is absolutely the key tactical decision a manager has to make.

The phenomenon of our times is the notion of a deep–lying play maker. One who sits deep in a pocket in front of the defensive line, using a virtuoso’s quiver full of long and short-range arrows. Attacks and counterattacks are begun using a wide range of passes.

Historically, a deeper midfielder had been what, in the late 60s and early 70s, was known as a ‘sweeper,’ a hard man, an enforcer. Someone capable of thuggery, mayhem and gamesmanship, but also blessed with the ability to tackle like a ton of bricks. Beyond protecting the defense, and breaking up plays, his job usually stopped at passing the ball to more creative players around him. Theoretically, at least, this type of player needn’t be the best natural footballer. All that was necessary was a good sense of tactical discipline, brute strength and tackling ruthlessness.

A deep-lying play maker, however, has no particular need for brawn. Coaches who use a deep-lying play makers are generally absorbed in playing possession football. Atypically, instead of utilizing the long kick, the goalie rolls the ball to a defender, who, in turn, passes to the play maker sitting just in front and sets the attack in motion. Andrea Pirlo and Michael Carrick are the finest examples of deep-lying play makers currently in the game. No disrespect is meant toward Claude Makalele, once the absolute epitome of said job description; unfortunately, he is now three seasons past his best, although still strutting his stuff with Paris S.G.

Andrea Pirlo

Pirlo began with a small club, Brescia, before moving to Internatzionale Milano. At Inter he played a more attack-minded role. The ideal at the time was that Pirlo, as an attacking midfielder, be capable of both working on the wing and inside. He’d be fed by a sweeper, have a full panoramic take on the action in front of him, pass short and long balls and then run to slot in wherever a forward attacked, while, at the same time, he’d always be looking to make that single assassin’s pass, the one which rips apart the opposition defense.

Bought to connect with the defensive midfielder, Vladimir Jugovic, and enhance the attacking skills of Alvaro Recoba and Christian Vieri, Pirlo found himself at odds with the silky skills of the Uruguayan. Recoba has a lot of talent and a marvelous ability to hold on to the football. Unfortunately, his ‘ball hog’ style and an innate unwillingness to pass and share left Pirlo lost.

Sold to A.C. Milan, Pirlo found his dream coach in Carlo Ancelotti. A rapturous admirer of the little Congolese magpie, Claude Makalele, Ancelotti loved his minimalist, vanity-free style. Makalele won the ball with his quick feet, not savage tackling. He would hold the ball, assess a strategic situation and quickly fire off a killer pass.

Ancelotti saw that Pirlo’s extensive passing skills would be well suited to a similar, deeper role and moved to play him further back in midfield next to Gennaro ‘Rhino’ Gattuso, the archetypal midfield enforcer. Thus Gattuso become Pirlo’s hard-core right-hand man. Rhino was all over the pitch while Pirlo probed, winning the ball, allowing the slightly-built Pirlo the freedom to work his magic.

Since his move to Milan, Pirlo has won one Scudetto, two Champions League titles, and, along with Rhino and a second tough customer, Daniele De Rossi, was instrumental in Italy’s 2006 World Cup triumph. It’s not hard to make a case for him as the best player in the world in the deep-lying role and it’s not surprising that there are rumours that Ancelotti would like to take Pirlo to Stamford Bridge, no matter what the cost. If Ancelotti gets the go-ahead from Chelsea’s oil oligarch owner, Roman Abramowich, Pirlo is going to cost Chelsea at least £40M.

Michael Carrick

Michael Carrick came through the ranks of the old youth conveyor belt at West Ham United, alongside Joe Cole and Rio Ferdinand. He quickly gained a reputation for his long stride and accurate passing, earning himself a PFA Young Player of the Year nomination for the 2000/01 season.

However, once the Hammers were relegated from the Premier League, Carrick decided he wanted a new club. Consequently, the Geordie kid, sold to Tottenham Hotspur, went through a renaissance under the tutelage of Coach Martin Jol and his staff. His talent, overshadowed at the Hammers by Joe Cole’s flash bag of tricks, only needed a little nurturing to bloom. Very much instrumental in Spurs’ finishing in fifth place in the 2005/06 season, Carrick’s splendid passing displays caught the eye of Sir Alex Ferguson, who spent £18M on him in the summer of 2006.

Ferguson, having never properly replaced the divine passing skills of David Beckham, long since sold to Real Madrid, felt he had finally obtained the missing link for his team to once again win the European Champions Cup. Fully matured for the 2007/06 season, Carrick’s radar passing dissected the likes of A.S. Roma, Olympique Lyonnais, Villareal and Barcelona on the way to winning it all.

Unlike Pirlo, Michael Carrick has not made the most of his England chances. England, although deficient in other positions, have a wealth of players capable of shining in a central midfield role. An impressive performance in Berlin alongside Gareth Barry in England’s 2-1 win over Germany clearly showed that he could play the international game.

The problem for Carrick has been, however, that his main rivals, Frank Lampard and Stevie Gerrard are flair players, much more intent on scoring than being the kind on-field instigator that is Carrick. Tooled to suit the more spontaneous game of give-and-go utilized by Gerrard and Lampard, Fabio Capello’s England team just don’t seem to need Carrick’s game.

Still, there are many of us out there who believe that the opposite is true. Lampard and Gerrard will shine against ordinary and mediocre teams; but, that Carrick’s passing game will be exactly what England need to take their game to the next technical level if they want to defeat the likes of Brazil, Spain, Argentina, France and Italy at the 2010 World Cup.

Premier League Playmakers

In the recent 2008/09 English Premier League season, Xabí Alonso, Jermaine Jenas and Stilian Petrov played key roles in midfield for their clubs, but proved slightly less successful. At Liverpool, Gerrard and Torres relied on Alonso to begin attacks from a deep position, dexterously feeding the short ball to Gerrard and, longer, usually over the top passes for Torres. Opta Statistics clearly showed that Alonso was the first player in the league to complete 1,000 successful passes.

How weird that Alonso had a career season while his coach, Rafael ‘The Tinker Man’ Benitez was desperately trying to sell him in order to buy the crude talent of Gareth Barry. Alonso’s problems are less in his style of play, because he is capable of doing everything Pirlo and Carrick can do only with more physicality, than the odd tactics Benítez uses to support him. Possessed of probably the finest defencive midfielder in the world in Javíer Mascharano, Benítez prefers that he run interference for the second striker, Gerrard. rather than protect Alonso.

Coach Harry Redknapp of Spurs has also chosen to marginalize a player who has the talent to be a world-class deep-lying midfielder in Jermaine Jenas. Redknapp has preferred to defer to the physicality and speed of Wilson Palacios and Didier Zokora, even though neither one of them is much of a passer.

Although Zokora has been sold, Redknapp seems to prefer using the big bench-warmer, Tommy Huddlestone in his place, rather than using Jenas’ more sophisticated finesse style. Things will look up for Jenas, however, as Inter-Milan’s boss, Jose Mourinho, aims to buy the lad use to replace the ageing Patrick Veiera in partnership with his midfield enforcer, the wide-bodied Sulley Muntauri.

Stilian Petrov was the most consistent performer for a callow young Villa team which flirted regularly with the Premiership top four in the first half of the season. Petrov’s long range passing ability complemented Villa’s quick-on-the-break counterattacking style of play. Having mostly played on the wing in the Scottish Premier League at Glasgow Celtic, Petrov found himself competing with three young speedy wingers in Ashley Young, James Milner and Gabriel Agabonlahor.

Under the wise tutelage of coach Martin O’Nell, Petrov has found a brand new niche as a deep-lying midfielder. If Villa’s erratic defensive midfield pair, Nigel Reo-Coker or Steve Sidwell, manage to get it together, Petrov could yet take Villa to the next level.

Serie A Playmakers

Pirlo definitely rules in the deep-lying role in Italy’s Calcio, although two young pretenders, Udinese’s Gaetano D’Agostino and A.S. Roma’s Alberto Aquilani have stepped up the competition.

Like Pirlo, D’Agostino used to play in an advanced role just behind his strikers at his old club, A.S. Roma. Unable to make the grade at Roma, where Francesco Totti stood between him and the first-team football, D’Agostino eventually ended up playing for Messina before being sold to Udinese. In D’Agostino’s second season in Udine, Pasquale Marino was hired as coach. An Ancelotti acolyte, Marino took D’Agostino’s passing ability and moved him to deep in the midfield. The midfielder’s long range passing then caught the eye of the national coach, Marcelo Lippi, who, because Pirlo was suspended over a red card incident, called D’Agostino up to the full Italian squad for the first time in November 2008.

D’Agostino made his first appearance for the Azzurri against Northern Ireland in June 2009. His other rival for an Italian national team place, Alberto Aquilani, is much more physical than Pirlo or D’Agostino, but lacks that penchant for executing the perfect killer pass. No wonder he’s being chased by Italy’s big three, Chelsea and Liverpool.

Surprisingly, the role of the deep-lying play maker is still conceptually new. Pirlo, Petrov and D’Agostino have revived fairly ordinary careers. An apt conclusion is that there are a number of players out there with the ability to play in that position but don’t know it, and, more surprisingly, coaches don’t seem to know it, either.

The Petrov example, because he was such a clever ‘jinky’ winger, might lead you to imagine that any player with high-quality technique and ball-distribution skills, like, say, Kieran Richardson of Sunderland, Chris Eagles of Burnley or Simeo Sabrosa of Atletico Madrid, are naturals for the job. A certain kind of vision, an ability to relax and a unique gift of intellect are necessary for this kind of player to succeed, however. Accompanied by a hard man, a creative deep-lying midfielder has that bit of protection he needs in order to make a positive impact on game day. He is very much like a quarterback in American Football.

The role can clearly play a big part in the game everywhere. In Italy the pace of the game is slower and the gamesmanship of defenders allows any deep-lying midfielder constant access to the ball.

Interestingly, in England, where the game is often played at a frantic, frenetic pace, midfielders get little time on the ball; nevertheless, the role of the deep-lying play maker can be utilized to allow flair players an extra second to pick out a pass.

Only in Spain, where every player seems to want to hold onto the ball, will the concept probably not work.

Being converted in soccer terms is like being Born Again in the Real World. Revival=Survival!!!

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  1. cesc fabregas probably isn’t mentioned because he spends more time up field, alonso and co are deeper more often hence the words deep-lying midfielder. but your right cesc is more than capable at playing in front of defendrs as he has all range of passes.

  2. @ erwf

    You clearly know nothing, Cesc is hardly a deep lying midfielder.

    Also, Carrick is hardly one of the finest examples. He is a good player, but I’d argue players such as Alonso are of much better quality in this position.

  3. Yea Fabregas’ career was waning a little before he finally settled down to play his final years as a deep lying midfielder….

  4. Essien and Senna are also one of the best midfielders playing in the deeper half of the pith.

  5. How is fabregas not a deep lying playmaker?

    He has one of the best passes in the PL, a vision matched by few and the fact that he plays best with a good defensive midfielder (like flamini) outlines his creativity and his value to the team in that respect.

    YOU are the one who clearly knows nothing.

  6. but erwf,how many deep lying playmakers can be seen 25-30 yards out from the opposition goal trying to thread a ball through the defence?he may have begun to play deeper since flaminis departure,but he is still too forward minded to be considered a deep lying playmaker

  7. Interesting article, but some things come to mind:

    #1 I recall reading this in excerpts of Ancelotti’s autobiography, but maybe someone could clarify this – I seem to remember Ancelotti said it was actually Pirlo who suggested he could play from deep, since Ancelotti was having a problem trying to fit his best players into a tactical scheme.

    #2 Like others have mentioned before, I would consider Alonso a better example than Carrick.

    #3 I’m not convinced by your reasoning explaining why deep-lying playmakers are more common in England and Italy than in Spain. Again, as mentioned before, Senna is one of the best in that position too, and before Makelele there was Redondo, and you do have other players or midfield pairings who serve that function in La Liga without being as distinguished as Pirlo, Alonso or Senna. (Fernando Gago comes to mind!)

    I’m taking my references from the team I know best (obviously), and I watch very little Italian football so it’s hard for me to make a comparison, so there may be some truth to your assessment – nonetheless, it seems like a shoddy argument to me.

  8. I’m surprised you highlighted Carrick more so than the best player of it’s kind, at the moment, in England, if not Europe: Xabi Alonso.

  9. It seems that you are confusing two types of players. You were correct to identify Pirlo and Carrick as deep-lying playmakers, but you failed to mention Xabi Alonso, and you guys criticized people for mentioning Cesc, but comparing deep-lying playmakers to players like Fabregas, Xavi, and even Guti is more accurate in my opinion than comparing to Makelele. I mean no offense to Makelele and his important successors such as Essien, Obi Mikel, Diaby, Yaya Toure, and the Diarras, but they are much more orthodox defensive mids than they are playmakers. Defensive mids use their strength and commanding physical presence to tackle the ball away from the opposition and then distribute to their more creative teammates, while playmakers, deep-lying or not, are the creative center of their team, and it just so happens that some of them are blessed with tackling skill, so they play farther back.

  10. xabi alonso is probably the most complete player in that position, carrick does have the abilities especially his passing but he’s no alonso. essien doesnt have the passing range of xabi and carrick.

  11. I agree with ruud van nistlerooy.I dont think makelele has the passing range of an alonso,a carrick or a pirlo
    and isn’t aqualani too advanced to be used as an example here?

  12. Since when have Senna, Guti or–puzzling to me–Fabregas been used as deep-lying playmakers. Senna is a post-to-post midfielder of the orthodox kind like Keane or Veiera. Fabregas might make a very good one, but predicting who could make a good one is for another article. I’ve seen Aquilani playing from in the pocket in a number of games and he was rather good. Essien is perfectly capable of playing in this position. It depends on how Ancelotti chooses to use his line-up. My point about Makalele was not to say that he’s a great passer, but that his unique style, where tackling is not the be-all and end-all, and fast interception and distribution is at a premium, let 10,000 bloom in the mind of many an observant coach. Makalele is not at all like Diaby, Keane, the Diarras, Touré or Essien. All I can think is that you never saw him play. You can count the number of Makalele tackles for Real or Chelsea on your hand. That’s not what he was out there for. The point is that Pirlo, Carrick and Alonso have further refined what Makalele started.

  13. Firstly Fabregas doesn’t come close to being a deep-lying playmaker. Perhaps earlier in his young career he was closer to that role, but last season Arsene Wenger used him just behind Adebayor, ala Gerrard’s role at Liverpool.

    I can’t believe the fact that no-one has mentioned by far and away the best deep-lying playmaker in the game. Xavi at Barcelona operates with the aforementioned defensive specialist (Toure) and in tandem with the more attack minded Iniesta. Xavi creates the attacks for the best team in Europe (as much as it pains me to say it as a United fan).

    Carrick is a great example, and has improved massively since coming to Old Trafford, but Xavi sets the standard in world football.

  14. some of you are confused, defensive midfielders who can attack are not always deep-lying mids, deep-lying mids do a specific job using long passes to start of a attack roving back and foward where needed but usally starting attack in front of back 4. cesc does have ability to play this kind if game but wenger plays him in a more attacking role. anyone disagree?

  15. ohh and by the way alonso is the best at this postion, thats why real madrid are so fixated on him,they know he is the best at deep mid, but 35 mil is a lot

  16. mikel, passing range superior to carricks and can defend better then any of the other mentioned players. His only weakness is that he cant anticipate and control the game making him at best a decent DM but not a great playmaker.

    lampard is way more complete then carrick is he does things carrick can only dream of. That is why lampard is chosen ahead of carrick and asked to play more defensively for england. Lamps was the best midfielder in the EPL last season.

    alonso is probably the best deep lying playmaker i have to admit in england. He is very classy and knows how to break up play, something pirlo is clueless about.

    senna was in 2008 the best DM in the world, worlds ahead of any1 else. He tackled, broke up play and sprayed passes like no 2morrow. In 2009 he has been better then average but not 2008 levels.

    Cesc xavi and lampard are similar players, nearly box to box but with a more attacking mind set. They arent deep lying. Both will normally start the attack from the opponents half unlike pirlo who usually plays the ball from his own half

  17. @Bob Peter: Oops! isn’t that virtually the same article?

    Good debate though. The differences are subtle in how we classify players and the overall make-up of the team is important to what type of CMs you need.

    I used to think a defensive and attacking midfielder were the best combination (Keane/Scholes) but Carrick has come in at Utd and delivered 3 titles in 3 years.

    We can argue all day about who is or isn’t deep lying or who is just a DM as opposed to a playmaker etc.

    It’s about getting the overall balance of the team right.

  18. @Erwf

    You just answered your own question, he plays well with a defensive mid who sits back and covers the defense, while he moves forward and plays like an attacking midfielder. You are the one with no idea, sorry. Read a book or something.

  19. Hey Bob Peter, Thanks for noticing the ‘similarities’ in these two pieces. Interesting because I put it out there about six weeks ago with about 600 more words and couldn’t find any takers, probably because of the length. It’s not the first time this has happened to me and you do wonder. Well, at least I got turned on to a new footie website.

    I still can’t see Xavi as a deep-lying lying play maker. To me, he’s an orthodox post-to-post midfielder who has inherited Roy Keane’s mantle.

  20. I can see why the author would highlight Carrick over Alonso based on their relative successes over the past few years. Carrick has a few Prem League titles and a Champions League Medal, Alonso has a Champions League medal from 05 i think while no Prem League titles.

    That being said, I’d take Alonso over Carrick, individually, he is a better example.

  21. Carrick one of the finest deep-lying playmakers? Hell no. Essien, Makelele play a more defensive midfield charged with retrieving the ball, and are not deep-lying playmakers. (In Italian these are simply differentiated by “regista” a playmaker, and “mediano” a ball-winner)

    Xavi is one of the best deep-lying playmakers in the world, and Xabi Alonso is within a shout. Watch Barcelona, sure, Xavi moves up the field occasionally but nearly all moves begin with him. Euro2008 with Spain, the triple this year, Carrick can’t hold a candle to him.

  22. Also, yes, Rafa’s crazzzzy Xabi Alonso stifling tactics that beat Manchester United 4 – 1 at Old Trafford should be thrown right out. The ones where he had one of the best years and earned many accolades. Throws those tactics right out.

  23. erwf.

    I am sorry for telling you to “read a book or something”, because it is obvious you are unable to read.

    If you read my above post, i say “he plays well WITH a defensive mid who sits back and covers the defense, while he moves forward and plays like an attacking midfielder”.

    I respect your right to love another man, but that man ain’t me. Good luck finding love.

  24. it’s about time Carrick is highlighted ahead of the other midfielders in an article. No point arguing who’s the better deep lying or playmaking midfielder right now as there are a lot of good midfielders in the game. It depends on the make up of the team whether a midfielder is surrounded with good defense and attacking/goal scoring players that play better as a team. As well, the team or coach’s defensive or attacking philosophy has a lot to do on how a midfielder would approach a game depending on the situation and opponent. For me, right now Carrick, Xavi, and Xabi Alonso execute their roles and complement their respective teams better than the rest.

  25. For clarity’s sake, there are four types of center midfielders:
    Holding/Defensive mids
    Deep-lying playmakers
    Box-to box mids
    Playmakers/Attacking mids (often #10’s)

  26. It seems everybody has gotten the point wrong.That piece was not intended to compare those players highlighted but to expose the importance which the role of the deep-lying mid has assumed. I am a milanista and I know what happens to game coordination when Pirlo goes missing on/off the pitch.

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