The pressure-eluding midfielder: the most important position in football
As I sat down on a cold Wednesday evening to watch Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid, I was expectant of a high-quality match. Madrid have won three of the past four Champions Leagues; no team has scored more goals that PSG in this year's version of the competition. The stage was set for a blistering, searing match, one that was bursting with pace and dynamism, bursting at the seams, uncontainable in its tempo and vivacity. The toing and froing of a midfield ding-dong battle, like a ship in stormy waters, lurching from side-to-side, unable to settle into a rhythm, a routine, a structure. That is not what I got.
That is not to say that this was a dull affair of slow, measured, conservative, tentative possession. There was a tactical joy to this game that has been of increasing regularity as football has evolved rapidly in recent seasons. But the entertainment of this match did not come as I expected. It was not in its drama, or though there was plenty. For me, it was in the deliberate brilliance of its midfield generals.
Madrid's European dynasty has been founded on the dual-axis of Luka Modric and Toni Kroos. It may be the Ronaldos and the Bales and the Benzemas that grab the headlines. They are, naturally, the flashier members of this remarkable team. But it is the control, the command and the creativity of the midfield that Madrid's inordinate success has stemmed from. Specifically, it is the ability to elude pressure.
In the ever-changing tactical world of the modern game, the penchant for pressing has only intensified. Pep Guardiola's Barcelona, for all of their prettiness with the ball, were so relentlessly successful because of their incessant work without the ball -- they suffocated the opposition like no other team I can remember, stepping their foot on their throat with an insatiable drive to recover possession as high up the pitch as possible. Then the likes of Jurgen Klopp with Borussia Dortmund, Mauricio Pochettino with Spurs and Massimiliano Allegri with Juventus, although to a lesser extent and at a rarer frequency, adopted the same approach.
And now, there are very few teams within Europe's elite that do not press their opposition throughout the pitch, leaving no blade of grass unattended. They hunt in packs, hounding and harassing the defenders. They smell blood with a loose first touch, a wayward, panicked pass, a drop of the head in an attempt to avoid being given the ball. And then they pounce. Both Madrid and PSG adopted that very tactic on numerous occasions on Wednesday night. It was fascinating to watch.
So, naturally, it is the team that is able to elude this pressure, bypass their efforts and expose what is undoubtedly a vulnerable defence that has vast spaces to protect, that often finds greater joy in the match. The ability of the holding midfielders, as well as the centre-halves and full backs to receive a pass with a defender on their back, turn into space and then play a pass forwards or away from the pressure is invaluable. Protecting the ball has become paramount, even in such intensified situations.
That is not easy. It takes tremendous composure, self-confidence and positional awareness, nevermind the technical qualities that one must have to control the ball and pass the ball when under such pressure. But it is quickly becoming the most important position in football, and in Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, Madrid had two masters of it.