One of the talking points that has come of Dortmund and Bayern’s Champions League victories has been the excellence of their holding midfielders, Illkay Gundogan for Dortmund and Javi Martinez for Bayern. Both were more influential than their counterparts, though no one is resting the Spanish failures on Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets. In Alonso’s case, the main argument seems to be that Dortmund was so effective because they throttled his influence, and I’d say that speaks more to the genius of the individual player targeted, and the subsequent failure of the coach/rest of the team to protect him.
What’s interesting is how these players have overshadowed -at least in the past few days- their more glamorous attacking teammates. Gotze, Ronaldo, Ozil, Reus, Messi. As the audience for soccer has become more interested in tactics, there have been waves of obsession over positional quirks, and the way they evolve. For a couple years it was all about the false 9, Messi’s dominance, and the obsolescence of the traditional striker. Was the attacking game being remade before our eyes? Maybe.
Then, possibly with Pirlo’s brilliance in last year’s Euros, the fad position shifted to the holding midfielder, who didn’t need to be a Makelele-style destroyer, but could be the impetus in attack, and a team’s organizational mastermind. Of course this deep creative role wasn’t brand new, but it sure got a lot of attention. Kind of like Pirlo: he’d been amazing for a long time, and suddenly people seemed to open their eyes and say: he’s really amazing.Now everyone is talking about Gundogan. Maybe he’ll be the one to replace Alonso (by the way, does Alonso really need replacing?). (Stupid aside: For the past five or six months, Gundogan has been my favorite player on my iphone FIFA game and I haven’t sold him yet, though I did sell Lewandowski… the guy always comes to my rescue).
What I keep thinking about when I hear all this elevated talk about the deep lying players is how much I loved that space on the field when I was young. In Alabama, we played an outmoded diamond-shaped defense with a stopper and a sweeper; sometimes I played stopper, and I played pretty far ahead of the fullbacks. The field would was wide in front of me, with a palpable depth to it: there were layers and layers before me, and a layer behind. When we went forward, and I liked going forward, I felt like the game was moving forward from me, like I was radiating it. I was an engine.