Explaining the Midfield Destroyer – Player Role Analysis

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When it comes to achieving footballing success, each player on a team must work in harmony, co-existing to bring out the best in one another. The task of any manager is then to not only create an environment in which players feel that they belong within a greater scheme, but to give each and every player a clearly defined role that suits their assets. A player’s role can change by the match to suit the opposition or the particular game-plan, but modern day footballers will each have their own over-arching style of play and role within a team that suits their strengths, or even in many cases, erases their weaknesses. This is where our brand new Role Continuity Evaluation System enters the scene, identifying the various roles that players adopt on the pitch, and using that as a key metric to evaluate performance.

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Back when this process began, we identified thirty-two different roles that a footballer could adopt over the course of a football match, working to develop a more accurate system for assessing performance and over-arching team tactics, rather than utilizing a pure statistical approach. We have since updated that list to a narrowed-down twenty-six unique player types that best describe the modern trends of football. This series breaks down each of those roles, contextualizing the tasks, function and job description within each – that can allow us to better measure their performance, without solely relying on statistics.

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Defensive midfielders are not always the flashiest of players, nor do they garner the greatest attention, even despite their importance to structuring and shaping the entire organization of the team. That is precisely why a system like our Role Continuity Evaluation System works on so many levels, as we are able to adequately assess the important characteristics to a player’s performance, while minimizing the scrutinization over less important facets of the player’s game. Within the system, we separate our defensive midfielders into three broad categories: the well-known ‘Deep-Lying Playmaker‘, the antithesis to that in our ‘Midfield Destroyer’ type, and a solid mix between the two within our ‘Anchor’ persona. Today’s topic is all about the ‘Midfield Destroyers’, the ones who are responsible for breaking up the play, and helping their teams restart attacks. Here is everything you need to know about the modern day ‘Midfield Destroyer’.

JOB DESCRIPTION

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Midfield Destroyers typically play at the base of a midfield three, holding primary responsibilities for breaking up the play and putting in challenges before the opposition advance toward the defensive line. They are not only responsible for screening their back-line as they should within our ‘Anchor’ umbrella, but they must also be active members within defensive phases, and optimal ball-winners that excel in defense over any other facet of the game. They are often the hard-men in the team, the ones that provide the added steel, gusto, guts and perhaps even glory. They are fearless, spartan-like players that want to kick everything in their wake, whether it be fair to do so or not. Historically, they have even been some of the most hated footballers, especially by rival fans, for their role in disrupting attacks, and their gamesmanship in breaking up the play.

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Not only do ‘Midfield Destroyers’ complete a high number of defensive actions, such as tackles, interceptions, blocks and pressures; but they also complete a high number of fouls, and may even be the ones being bypassed more than any other player on the field, simply due to the sheer number of times they throw themselves into the action. While your typical ‘Anchors’ hold position and screen centrally, ‘Midfield Destroyers’ may occasionally venture wide, up and out of position to combine in 2v1’s and throw mud against the wall. But unlike ‘Shuttlers’ it would be true to say that they do the bulk of their defensive work in central channels, and rarely venture forward into attacking positions. This does not mean that our ‘Midfield Destroyers’ never combine in the final third. Fred of Manchester United even under-reportedly notched 8 goal contributions in the Premier League last season. But his runs from box-to-box were still few and far between, instead prioritizing the defensive side of the game, and holding rank to defend in transition.

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Within this job description, you might be wondering why every single team on the planet does not have one at their disposal. It’s incredibly useful to have a midfielder who prioritizes the defensive side of the game, simply even just in allowing other players to work their magic up ahead. But the fact that the ‘Midfield Destroyer’ is more limited in ability and completeness means that modern day ‘Defensive Midfielders’ are evolving into more than their name suggests on paper. We are seeing more ‘Anchors’ who essentially do it all when it comes to the phases of the game, and the ball-winning midfielders of old are often seen as being limited in other crucial facets of football.

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Nevertheless, the fact that we have the likes of Casemiro and Yves Bissouma in this category does illustrate the potential for ‘Midfield Destroyers’ to still perform at the highest level in other aspects of the game, even if they will always prioritize the defensive side – particularly in throwing themselves into challenges and ‘destroying’ the midfield.

QUINTESSENTIAL MIDFIELD DESTROYERS

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It’s true that ‘Midfield Destroyers’ may be specialists in one specific realm of the game, but that doesn’t mean they can’t operate with the versatility to contribute in other footballing facets. The key, as you’ll see with players like Casemiro and Bissouma, is that they make themselves the first ones to leap into action in defensive phases, and hold a withdrawn stance to allow other, more creative and progressive players to flourish in the attacking third. ‘Anchors’ as we call them do the same, but they tend to make fewer defensive actions that show up from a statistical standpoint, even if they may be just as involved when it comes to screening, shuffling and stunting the opposition’s plans. Our ‘Anchors’, such as Fabinho and Guido Rodriguez, also tend to be sound ball-players who hold a greater level of importance in build-up to progression. By comparison, the likes of Fred or Allan are typically bypassed in builds, as other players are prioritized in progressing the play.

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We mentioned briefly how ‘Midfield Destroyers’ can sometimes be some of the most hated players by rival fans, simply for their no-nonsense approach to breaking up the play. But they can also be some of the most beloved by the true fans of the team, for the exact same reasons. Yves Bissouma for example became a massive fan-favourite at Brighton, for his excellence in all phases of the game, but particularly for his ability to break up the play as the sole defensive midfielder in an incredibly flexible Brighton attack. As Brighton attack in a 3-1-5-1 to 3-1-6-esque shape, Bissouma’s role in holding rank and leaping into action during defensive transitions remains the preeminent part of his game.

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In the NWSL, Desiree Scott and Sophie Schmidt could both be considered ‘Midfield Destroyers’, tasked with holding a central position to win back possession for their teams and restart attacks. The likes of Casemiro and Wilfred Ndidi play alongside sound ball-playing midfielders that can progress the team up the pitch, as they hang back and wait to clean up all the messes in behind. Lucas Leiva and Everton’s Allan also provide useful examples, as they simply sit in front of the defensive line, and then step up to make challenges when its most required. Of the players listed above, very few are outstanding on the ball, and capable of doing more than just keep their team ticking. They prefer to hold the ball for only short periods of time, instead readying themselves to contribute when the ball changes hands.

In the Canadian Premier League, it’s been more of a rare prototype, showcasing in some sense the dying breed of ‘Destroyers’ in the modern game. Charlie Trafford best fits the modem for his role in throwing himself into tackles in the Cavalry midfield, and possessing that fantastic warrior mentality. Shamit Shome floats in and out of different roles for FC Edmonton, but his main task is always to be an active member of defensive phases, and make his presence known in crunching into challenges.

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Statistically, it’s an easy one to measure and quantify. The likes of Óscar Valentín of Rayo Vallecano, Benjamin André of LOSC Lille and Christian Nørgaard of Brentford emerge ahead of the pack, for their role in successfully completing an outrageous number of defensive actions – particularly tackles and interceptions. Again, Nørgaard is an awesome example of a player with a killer eye for a pass, and an underrated edge of progressiveness to his game. But his main task is to defend and defend for his life, particularly as soon as the ball changes hands. Our destroyers may make upwards of 4.00 to even 7.00+ tackles and interceptions per 90, such as Valentín , and/or hold the gauntlet down when pressing from the front, such as Dortmund’s new signing Salih Özcan. The key will always be that they perform a defensive role above any other function for their side, particularly in making that defensive role a proactive one.

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So with that job description in mind, now it’s your turn! Name a ‘Midfield Destroyer’ from either the past or present, who perfectly exemplifies the job description outlined above.

MEASURING MIDFIELD DESTROYERS

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Within our Role Continuity Player Evaluation System, players are first measured by what they are expected to do in their position and role first, accompanied by a secondary role. We utilize statistics to help measure performance, but go far beyond that to incorporate the eye test in analyzing player IQ, awareness and tactical understanding. We can then congregate data to more adequately assess their player positioning and movement around the pitch, the areas in which they make defensive actions, and the success at which they win back possession for their team. So with that, here is how we measure ‘Midfield Destroyers’.

1. DEFENSIVE IQ

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As opposed to other ‘number 6’ midfield types, ‘Midfield Destroyers’ prioritize the defensive side of the game above all else. We therefore measure their ‘Defensive IQ’ as the preeminent factor to evaluating performance. That extends beyond just sheer numbers, to include their timing of challenges, timing of movement, and how and when they cover spaces on the field to break up the play. Within ‘Defensive IQ’, we give a score in each of the following categories…

  • Tackle % and decision making when tackling
  • Pressure % and decision making when pressuring
  • Dominance in midfield battles + combined % of duels won across thirds
  • Positional awareness and positional discipline
  • Awareness of own strengths vs. strengths of teammates
  • Discipline (e.g. fouls, bookings, and positional discipline)
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From the above categories, you can see a mix of statistical metrics, and seemingly non-quantifiable metrics that may require bias and personal opinion. But it’s important to note that even the so-called ‘non-quantifiable metrics’ utilize statistics as a basis, helping to reduce bias where possible, without discouraging the use of the eye test to assess performance. A player is given a score out of 10 in each ‘IQ’ category, which is then averaged together to create an overall ‘IQ’ score.

2. DEFENSIVE CONTRIBUTION

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After we get IQ out of the way, sheer statistical numbers are still important to helping us assess player performance, especially given that we expect ‘Midfield Destroyers’ to be highly engaged in defensive phases. This may include their number of…

  • Tackles
  • Interceptions
  • Blocks
  • Pressures
  • Recoveries
  • Aerial duels won
  • Clearances
  • Accumulation of a clean sheet
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Again, it’s worth noting that we hold ‘IQ’ and percentage-points in a higher regard. But sheer statistics carry weight in establishing players who were particularly active on the day. They can also bring to light some essential facets of IQ, such as ‘interceptions’ or ‘recoveries’ which help to tell a partial story in uncovering a player’s anticipation and awareness when defending covering laterally and defending the half-spaces.

3. POSSESSION & DISTRIBUTION

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‘Midfield Destroyers’ don’t necessarily have to be outstanding in possession, and they may not even need to be that progressive when they receive. They can instead just keep the game ticking, and do more hard work off the ball instead. But all modern footballers must be capable of making a variety of short and long passes and contributing positively to their team’s possession. In consequence, we measure…

  • Passing % + long passing %
  • Decision making in supporting the build-up and progression.
  • Progressiveness (i.e. prog. passes and prog. carries).
  • Control (touches, miscontrols, dispossessed, passes received %)
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As the third most important set of traits and characteristics, a player who wins every challenge and performs their defensive tasks to remarkable heights will still accumulate a high player score even if their in-possession stats and IQ lack. Nevertheless, a defensive midfielder must be competent on the ball, and contribute to their team’s build-up when called upon.

4. attacking threat & contribution

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More than any other midfield role, ‘Midfield Destroyers’ do not need to contribute to attacking phases. Even despite often possessing magnificent engines and the capabilities to venture box to box, they typically hold their position and remain ready to defend in transition. This means that while defensive midfielders like Fred and Casemiro may occasionally pop up with the odd goal or assist, it is never their role to do so. This can’t be showcased more than by the fact that it was a surprise every single time Fred scored or assisted a goal last season for United, despite doing so eight times. But when we measure this category, it’s worth noting that we’re not even looking for goals or assists.

  • Passes and carries into the final third
  • Key passes + passes into the penalty area
  • Goal and shot-creating-actions
  • Dribbles + dribble %
  • Shots + shot on target %
  • Decision making in attacking phases
  • Fouls won + fouls won to fouls conceded percentage

Again, the sheer number is often less important than the player’s success and/or timing of decision making when it comes to the attacking side of the game. In most cases, both are measured to better understand a player’s ‘IQ’ and ‘Contribution’ within the overall umbrella of ‘Attacking Threat’.

5. ABNORMALITIES

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‘Midfield Destroyers’ may also be given additional boosts or retractions for any abnormalities that they perform in a match, including the following…

  • Goals
  • Assists
  • Defensive contributions leading to a goal (GCA-Def.)
  • Penalty kicks won, or given away
  • Errors leading to shots or goals
  • Own goals
  • Red cards

While these metrics may affect a player’s rating in a given match, they don’t tend to change a player’s score over the course of a season, unless repeatedly conducted.

So with that, based on the five key evaluation metrics, let’s jump into what you’ve been waiting for – the very best ‘Midfield Destroyers’ in the world of men’s football as of 2022.

TOP 20 MIDFIELD DESTROYERS

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When assessing ‘Midfield Destroyers’, we’re searching for defensive midfielders, typically playing within the scope of a three-man midfield. We’re then narrowing our search all the more to include players that excel in the defensive side of the game – posting up remarkable numbers in tackles, interceptions, blocks and pressures. Above all else, tackles are particularly imperative to this player type, as that is the key mechanism by which attacks can be broken up by an individual’s physical willpower as opposed to positioning and intelligence (such as interceptions and recoveries).

It’s worth noting that this list does not necessarily encapsulate the best at the art of ‘Midfield Destroying’; but instead, the best of those who fall under this player type within our Evaluation System. So after scouring the databases, and scrutinizing over statistics from both the 2021-22 season, these are the best ‘Midfield Destroyers’ in the world at this time.

Rank #Player TeamTkl + Int.Press %Blocks
1CasemiroReal Madrid 5.2340.22.28
2Yves BissoumaBrighton 5.4535.91.83
3Wilfred NdidiLeicester City6.3933.41.78
4Kalvin PhillipsLeeds United5.5929.62.37
5Fred Manchester United5.1125.52.09
6Fernandinho Manchester City3.4634.60.56
7Boubacar KamaraMarseille4.7239.71.36
8Thomas DelaneySevilla FC3.7428.31.72
9Salih ÖzcanBorussia Dortmund5.1442.01.83
10Nicolas HöflerSC Freiburg 4.2933.61.97
11Geoffrey Kondogbia Atletico Madrid 6.2235.51.29
12Christian NørgaardBrentford6.3431.51.74
13Benjamin AndréLOSC Lille6.2431.92.52
14Óscar ValentínRayo Vallecano7.0534.61.72
15Lucas LeivaLazio4.8127.01.85
16Santiago AscacibarHertha Berlin5.6832.31.82
17AllanEverton4.9031.51.89
18Azor MatusiwaSC Reims5.1129.72.08
19Dominik KohrMainz 054.4131.31.79
20Charles AranguizBayer Leverkusen5.3131.21.94
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From the search, we were pleasantly surprised to see the depth of quality in ‘Midfield Destroyer’ types across Europe. With so many to choose from, the role clearly remains an important component to the modern game, rather than becoming a dying breed of the past. The vast majority of players listed above play as the deepest ‘Anchor’ in a midfield three, with only a few acting as the destructor of a double-pivot (such as Fred and Höfler). Since we want our ‘Midfield Destroyers’ to be incredibly active, but also incredibly successful in timing their challenges, we can now narrow the list down even further, to those that best exemplify the perfect prototype of the role (*cough* Casemiro).

PERFECT PROTOTYPES

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Among the twenty names listed above, these are the ten most prototypical ‘Midfield Destroyers’. To rank high on this list, a player should boast a high influence out of possession, particularly in defensive transitions, and in throwing themselves into tackles across all defensive phases. They should test lower on the traits associated with other midfield personality types, such as play-making from deep, venturing forward into the attack, or the sheer versatility in skillset that may be more common in an ‘Anchor’. Here’s what we came up with!

Rank #Player TeamTkl %Press.Drb. Past
1Óscar ValentínRayo Vallecano43.426.72.42
2Benjamin AndréLOSC Lille32.022.42.16
3CasemiroReal Madrid45.715.61.33
4Charles AranguizBayer Leverkusen25.825.32.63
5AllanEverton29.526.72.55
6Lucas LeivaLazio32.319.41.85
7Wilfred NdidiLeicester City44.722.81.44
8Nicolas HöflerSC Freiburg 40.318.71.38
9Dominik KohrMainz 0531.120.41.73
10FredManchester United26.824.62.31

Within our search, we’ve scanned for players with a high number of defensive actions and success, who tend to make the defensive side of the game their entire identity on the pitch. Players who may be less active in creating the volume of numbers in defensive phases or edge toward the ‘Anchor’ (e.g. Kamara) or ‘Shuttler’ side (e.g. Delaney) were removed from this section, prioritizing those that most closely fit the prototype.

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The likes of Óscar Valentín, Benjamin André and Casemiro come out on top through their defensive success, and in simply making their presence felt in defensive phases. This may even include the number of times they remain unsuccessful in defensive phases (such as causing fouls or being dribbled past), as it shows a higher degree of heart and desire to put themselves through the ringer. So when studying the best ‘Midfield Destroyers’ on the planet, these are the midfielders most worth scrutinizing over.

CONCLUSION

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The role of the defensive midfielder continues to evolve, and those that perform at the highest level carry out far more tasks than just breaking up the play. Despite that, the ‘Midfield Destroyer’ continues to be alive and well in the modern game, and encapsulates some of the most highly regarded and sought after defensive midfielders on the planet. The ‘Destroyer’ is essential to defending in transition and stunting attacks before the opposition reach the final third, within the wider umbrella of ‘Anchoring’ the midfield and screening in front of the back-line.

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Casemiro and Yves Bissouma would qualify as some of the best around, with Óscar Valentín and Benjamin André performing as two other fantastic emblems of the fearless persona behind the ‘Midfield Destroyer’ player type. As the game continues to evolve, it will be intriguing to see if teams do away with defensive specialists in their midfield, preferring to deploy versatile rockets capable of travelling to the moon and back. But for now, the ‘Midfield Destroyer’ remains an important function in the modern game, and one that every single team should have at the ready.


So there it is! Explaining our ‘Midfield Destroyer’ prototype within our Role Continuity Evaluation System. Be sure to check out more from this series as we detail all twenty-six roles, and follow on social media @mastermindsite to never miss an update. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

More in this series…
-> Explaining the Shot Stopper – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Sweeper Keeper – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Wide Warrior – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Inverted Fullback – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Wing-Back – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Ball-Playing-Centre-Half – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Stopper – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Sweeper – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Shuttler – Player Role Analysis

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