Explaining the Anchor – 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 mighty ‘Anchors’, the ones who are responsible for screening the back-line, fastening the midfield unit, and holding their central stance in all phases of the game. Here is everything you need to know about the modern day ‘Anchor.’

JOB DESCRIPTION

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Anchors tend to play at the base of a midfield three, holding the midfield together, and allowing others to work their magic up ahead. Their role is in both screening in front of the defense to disallow progressive passes forward, particularly into the opposition’s striker, and to ‘anchor’ the midfield by holding everything together as other members step out of position or drift into the half-spaces. Unlike the ‘Midfield Destroyer’ they do not need to be overly active in defensive phases on sheer statistical contributions, but should be equally active on the hard work done off the ball to shift, shuffle and slide with the play. They must constantly be scanning their surroundings in order to properly front the opposition’s striker, and to limit the distance between themselves and any opposing players attempting to advance into ‘Zone 14’ – which lies directly below the eighteen yard-box.

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Not only do they hold these vital defensive roles, but they must also be sound progressors of the ball, adequately engaged in build-up and progression, and capable of being more than just a watchful eye. Simultaneously, they should not necessarily be outstandingly excellent ball-players, or the main force for playing through the thirds and dictating the tempo of the match. That would be the responsibility of our ‘Deep-Lying-Playmakers’. Anchors therefore hold a unique role in between two more or less ‘specialist’ player-types, where they can do it all, without making either destroying or playmaking their key act on the pitch.

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As tall, talented, defensively-minded footballers, most also tend to be capable in fulfilling the bill at centre-half, transitioning into a deeper role without any hesitation or doubt. Their role in front of the defensive line is already almost like another centre-back, albeit one that sits slightly in front. So the seamless transition makes logistical sense, and makes our ‘Anchors’ a highly sought after prototype.

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Before closing this section, it’s worth noting how this role came into existence within our system. Someone who ‘anchors’ in football would be described as the glue that keeps everything together, particularly within a midfield line. It is therefore used to describe a player who not only holds their role as a defensive midfielder, but rarely ventures out of position beyond that holding role. Simultaneously, we recognized the need to classify the Fabinho’s of the world, who excellently hold rank, but don’t necessarily play the most integral role in build-up, or even in defensive phases. From Henderson, to Trent, Thiago, Van Dijk, Matip and all the way to Alisson, Jurgen Klopp prioritizes other players in his build-up and progression through the thirds. Fabinho is used more as a mechanism to hold down the centre of the park and remain ready in case the ball is turned over, rather than an outrageously active member of builds.

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At the same time, while he’s often super sound in his positioning, he’s never overly active in breaking up the play and launching himself into tackles. He’s more likely to intercept, block and recover the ball, illustrating his tactical intelligence rather than his raw physical force. This is exactly what we are looking for in an ‘Anchor’ as a mix between the other two, without overdoing it on either end of the spectrum. Thus, the ‘Anchor’ was born. So with this job description in mind, let’s jump into some of our most quintessential within the role.

QUINTESSENTIAL ANCHORS

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When it comes to identifying not only ‘quintessential’ ‘anchors’ but the best of the art, we are looking for top-tier midfielders who prefer to sit and screen, rather than to be overly progressive or overly defensive. We are scouring for players who hold down the midfield, always know where to be through their sound positioning in the centre of a park, and typically hold rank in a midfield three. Let’s start with Fabinho. The Brazilian will be the best in the role for years to come, and that’s down to more than just his excellence in all phases of the game, but in the prestige that he holds when it comes to positioning and IQ above any facet of sheer statistical value for his team.

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While the Brazilian is excellent in selecting moments to join attacks, he rarely ever ventures out of what would normally be expected of his position. The 28-year-old rarely leaves central channels, tends to hold his stance in front of the back-line, and he excels in all facets of the game – from tackling and pressing all the way to progressing and finishing.

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The fantastic Guido Rodriguez also materialized into the perfect prototype this year for Real Betis, even emerging as the first-choice defensive midfielder for Argentina. Rodriguez remains excellent in closing down the exact right pockets of space to shut down central avenues and a route forward for the opposition. His defensive stats are so solid that he would even be on the border of the ‘Midfield Destroyer’ persona. But his physical make-up, combined with his role in aiding build-up and excellently screening the back-line, make him more suited to the ‘Anchor.’

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Quite curiously, the ‘Anchor’ role tends to skew toward older players, often either approaching 30 years of age, or already having surpassed their peak. Perhaps as they age, they have less mobility to go box-to-box, and instead hold position at the base of play, making more intelligent movements rather than vigorous ones. This does not mean that ‘Anchors’ fail to possess the physical capacity to roam about the pitch, but instead that they choose to hold their own in midfield instead, allowing others to venture box to box instead. Nemanja Matic is a wonderful example of a player that finds the time to venture box to box, carry the ball forward randomly, and even make solid passes into the final third from anywhere on the pitch. But his role will always be more about holding position, where he comes on late in games to ensure his team sure up the midfield and compact the field together.

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Even in the women’s game, the best of the art skew toward the age of 30. Charlotte Bilbault has been fantastic for France at this summer’s Euros, and wonderfully performs as an anchor for Corinne Diacre’s team. She rarely ventures outside of central areas, and while she can handle her own in all phases of the game, others remain more important to both breaking up play and progressing through the thirds. In the NWSL, Emily van Egmond and Andi Sullivan hold the two prime examples, remaining at the base of their team’s structure – shifting and sliding with the play to both defend and receive.

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You have excellent examples like Sergio Busquets and Rodri who could also spring to mind for the exact same reasons already outlined, but they are far too sound in possession to ignore. The inverse could perhaps be said of Andre Rampersad in the Canadian Premier League, one of the division’s top players so far in 2022. Rampersad wonderfully holds down the gauntlet in central midfield, allowing Gagnon-Laparé to set the tempo and dictate passing play, and Lamothe to go more box-to-box between the thirds, while also spraying long diagonals from deep.

Rampersad’s role is instead to maintain his central defensive stance, where he can utilize his aerial dominance and ‘destroying’ mentalities to break up the play. But while his defensive are strong (1.92 tackles per game), they aren’t groundbreaking, even when compared to Gagnon-Lapare’s (2.7 tackles per game). Rampersad is instead higher than the vast majority of midfielders when it comes to interceptions (1.57 per game), highlighting how his defensive brilliance becomes more about intelligence and positioning than raw pace and power.

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All of these examples show the remarkable versatility in skillset required to perform the role to the highest level, and how the role often comes with experience over time. As mentioned, ‘Anchors’ can even become so tactically flexible and sound in their positioning, that they can dovetail as centre-backs. Boubacar Kamara is an excellent example of an ‘Anchor’ (we’ve classified him under the ‘Anchor’ umbrella within our Midfield Destroyer type), who plays both centre-half and defensive midfield to equal effect. Josuha Guilavogui (yes we spelled his name right), is similar in that sense, as he always holds a central defensive role, whether that be as a centre-back or ‘number 6’. Even Marten de Roon and Bryan Cristante fall under this category, in large part due to their versatility to drop into centre-back either as a tactic in-game or as an actual positional move beforehand. De Roon was once more of a box-to-box presence who also excellently set the tempo of the match. But he now plays alongside players who hold more crucial possession responsibilities, as he sits and connects his defensive or midfield line together.

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Cristante too is an excellent progressor of the ball and one of the best around at positioning himself out from the back to break pressing structures. But the Italian also happens to be an exceptional tackler, and a beast in the air, in that central defensive role for his team. It’s true that Busquets and Rodri fit the same exact description as Cristante and de Roon, only amplified. The difference is that Busquets and Rodri operate for teams that play with upwards of 60% possession in any given match, and their role therefore has to be seen as a possession-oriented one, when already combined with the brilliance and importance they exude in playing out from the back and pulling the strings from deep.

So with that job description in mind, we turn the tides over to you! Name a ‘Anchor’ from either the past or present, who perfectly exemplifies the job description outlined above.

MEASURING ANCHORS

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Within our Role Continuity Player Evaluation System, players are first measured by the expectations thrust upon them in their position and role first, accompanied by a secondary role. An ‘Anchor’ for example could be assessed on both their ‘Anchoring’ and in their ‘Deep-Lying-Playmaking’ if their secondary role in the team was to be that ‘DLP‘. 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, let’s unveil how we measure ‘Anchors’.

1. DEFENSIVE IQ

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While they offer a vast range of skills in all phases of the game, the main purpose of the ‘Anchor’ is to hold a central defensive stance, and allow others to work their magic in attack. We therefore measure their ‘Defensive IQ’ as the preeminent factor when 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 stunt forward momentum. This is particularly imperative for an ‘Anchor’, as their role is all about positioning and intelligence, more than raw numbers. 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 ‘Anchors’ to be switched on in defensive phases, and contribute where and when necessary. This may include their number of…

  • Tackles
  • Interceptions
  • Blocks
  • Pressures
  • Recoveries
  • Aerial duels won
  • Clearances
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The vast majority of ‘Anchors’ are quite tall, and so handling aerial duels may be of a particular importance to their prototype over other midfielders. 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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As already noted, ‘Anchors’ must also be sound on the ball, and capable of helping their teams progress through the thirds, even if it’s never their preeminent function within their team. Danilo Pereira of PSG for example is incredibly sound on the ball and rarely misplaces a pass, but he’s not one to overstretch his imagination, play outstanding progressive passes, or contribute to creation. He instead roams around central channels, seeking space to receive, where he can then play it safe and simple – keeping his team ticking along.

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If a midfielder were to play obsessively over the top to immaculate effect in a given match, they may even be re-quantified as a ‘DLP’ for that match rather than as an ‘Anchor.’ But nevertheless, all of our ‘number 6’s’ must be capable passers and controllers of the ball. Including…

  • 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 %)

4. attacking threat & contribution

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Anchors do not need to contribute to the attack, although they can through staying in central areas and advancing closer to the penalty area. They may then use their central ‘defensive’ stance to play passes into the penalty area, or change the point of attack. As ‘Anchors’ tend to be quite tall, they may also pop up with the odd headed-goal from a set-piece, illustrated wonderfully by Fabinho and his natural knack for scoring from corner kicks. But beyond goals and assists, this category takes a glance at…

  • 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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‘Anchors’ 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 ‘Anchors’ in the world of men’s football as of 2022.

TOP 20 ANCHORS

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When assessing ‘Anchors’, we’re searching for defensive midfielders typically playing within the scope of a three-man midfield, who tend to shield and protect rather than over-exuding themselves in defensive phases. We’re scouring the search-bars for players who then hold their position in all phases of the game, working to screen the defensive-line and remain ready to stunt attacks in transition.

It’s worth noting that this list does not necessarily encapsulate the best at the art of ‘Anchoring’; 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 ‘Anchors’ in the world at this time.

Rank #Player TeamTkl + Int.Tkl %Press %
1FabinhoLiverpool 4.4027.031.7
2Marten de RoonAtalanta5.2746.330.9
3Bryan CristanteAS Roma4.4655.431.2
4Guido RodriguezReal Betis 4.9847.127.2
5Etienne CapoueVillarreal3.3944.436.4
6FernandoSevilla 3.4530.636.8
7Danilo Pereira Paris Saint Germain3.5837.526.6
8William CarvalhoReal Betis 3.4847.430.2
9Martin ZubimendiReal Sociedad3.8555.032.7
10Cheikhou KouyateCrystal Palace4.7544.129.3
11Maxime GonalonsGranada 4.6537.526.1
12Pablo RosarioOGC Nice3.9335.631.8
13Rani KhediraUnion Berlin4.1840.029.3
14Boubacar TraoreFC Metz 4.4832.427.5
15Douglas LuizAston Villa4.1432.929.8
16Josuha GuilavoguiBordeaux 6.3242.036.4
17Nemanja MaticManchester United4.2934.530.2
18Hugo GuillamónValencia3.7042.929.8
19Joris ChotardMontpellier 4.3337.026.5
20Lassana CoulibalySalernitana3.9437.326.4
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More than just about any other player type we’ve examined so far, the footballers within the ‘Anchor’ profile all fit a fairly similar mold. They tend to have incredibly similar physical, technical, tactical and psychological characteristics, with a solid but middling amount of defensive actions. Part of that physical component comes from height, steel and strength, where the vast majority stand over 6 feet tall. They all have excellent tactical IQ when it comes to defending central areas, and that shows up more in their positioning, screening and shuffling, more so than sheer volume in numbers.

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Josuha Guilavogui is the only one who emerges from the crowd with his outstanding 6.32 tackles and interceptions per game. On volume and success, he’d even be toward the top of the ‘Midfield Destroyer’ crew. But Guilavogui, like quite a few other players here (Fabinho, Danilo, de Roon, Cristante and Kouyaté) can excellently dovetail as a centre-back. This means that he spent the vast majority of his time in 2021-22 exhibiting the ‘Anchor’-like qualities he possesses in a non-midfield position. We then felt that the ‘Anchor’ would be the best fit for his skillset and positioning; although we may see him fully transition into a centre-back as he reaches the twilight of his career. Nevertheless, there are better prototypes who perform the role 9.9 times out of 10, and that is where we travel to next, in this journey to discover the perfect emblem of the ‘Anchor’.

PERFECT PROTOTYPES

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Among the twenty names listed above, these are the most prototypical ‘Anchors’. To rank high on this list, a player should boast a high influence out of possession, particularly in screening, shuffling and holding the midfield, even if not in throwing themselves into challenges across defensive phases. They should generally test lower on the traits associated with other midfield personality types, such as play-making from deep, venturing forward into the attack, or reaching obscene heights of defensive numbers more akin to a ‘Midfield Destroyer’.

Building around these characteristics, we highlight ‘ball recoveries’, ‘aerial win rate’, and ‘passes into the final third’ to better understand our ‘Anchors.’ Here’s what we came up with!

Rank #Player TeamRecov.Aerial %Passes 1/3
1Cheikhou KouyatéCrystal Palace11.867.51.83
2FabinhoLiverpool 12.161.65.64
3Rani KhediraUnion Berlin9.8049.41.83
4Lassana CoulibalySalernitana10.650.02.59
5Guido RodriguezReal Betis 10.766.03.99
6Etienne CapoueVillarreal8.7865.34.92
7Boubacar TraoréFC Metz9.7465.52.50
8FernandoSevilla10.348.33.16
9Martin ZubimendiReal Sociedad9.4165.04.20
10Maxime GonalonsGranada10.367.92.91
=Hugo GuillamónValencia10.453.84.43

Given that the role was built with Fabinho in mind, it only makes sense that the Liverpool man be our ‘Perfect Prototype’ of the role, for reasons already discussed. But even he is quite outstanding in possession of the ball, and fully capable of spreading long switches of play and acting as a ‘DLP’. Crystal Palace’s Cheikhou Kouyaté more closely exemplifies absolutely everything we are looking for – an uber aware, defensively-minded player who understands exactly how and when to position himself in central defensive areas to screen and win back possession for his team, without being outrageously sound in possession.

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The Palace man is also capable of playing centre-back and dropping in to build-up phases, even if he’s responsible for just keeping the team ticking in possession. Rani Khedira and Lassana Coulibaly also wonderfully fit this description, as they don’t boast intense defensive numbers, they don’t step horribly out of position or out of line to participate in the moment, instead sitting in front of the defensive line, screening the opposition’s striker and shuffling with the play. So when searching for ‘Anchors’ across the market, look no further than these eleven names.

CONCLUSION

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The ‘Anchor’ may not always get the bounding heaps of praise they deserve, and can even go unnoticed in their performance. Their role is not to do anything flashy in or out of possession, instead holding rank and holding position. This means that while the role of the ‘Anchor’ is incredibly valuable to keeping the midfield together and screening the back-line, professional teams may instead opt for someone who can be more of a ‘jack of all trades’. Why have Cheikhou Kouyaté, who is fantastic at holding position and allowing others to shine, when you can have Sergio Busquets? The Spaniard performs the exact same ‘screening’ role, but with a greater edge both in and out of possession.

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Even the best of the art like Fabinho, Guido Rodriguez and Bryan Cristante must perform their role to extreme heights, pushing the envelope either in or out of possession to add that extra cutting-edge and drum-banging tone. Nevertheless, the ‘Anchor’ is an incredibly unique role in that it essentially operates like Perry the Platypus from Phineas and Ferb. When it comes to a lad like Kouyaté, you’d be forgiven for thinking “They don’t do much”. But in reality, they do an awful lot – screening, shuffling, shifting, sliding, destroying and even play-making, all wrapped up in one.


So there it is! Explaining the ‘Anchor’, as part of 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
-> Explaining the Midfield Destroyer – Player Role Analysis

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