Explaining the Box to Box Midfielder – 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 make-up. 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 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 evaluating performance.

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Back when this process began in early April, 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 modern footballing trends. This series breaks down each of those roles, contextualizing the tasks, functions and job descriptions within each – that can allow us to better measure performance without solely relying on statistics.

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Central midfielders may not always get the credit they deserve, even despite often fulfilling an imperative part in linking defense to attack, and shaping the entire organization of a team. That is precisely why a system like our Role Continuity Evaluation System works on so many levels, as we are able to 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 break down our central midfielders into three broad categories: the ‘Tempo Setter’, which runs like a ‘DLP’ playing as a ‘number 8’ rather than as a ‘6’, and the polarizing opposites of the already discussed ‘Shuttler’, matched up against the topic of today’s article – the ‘Box-to-Box Midfielder’. So with that, let’s jump straight into the job description of the ‘Box to Box Midfielder’ and discuss the intricacies around the role.

JOB DESCRIPTION

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‘Box to Box Midfielders’ are generally seen as more ‘attack-minded’ than other central midfield player types, playing an imperative role in venturing forward and contributing to attacking play. While they always put in a shift during defensive phases, you would never want to limit them to a strict defensive role, knowing the quality they can offer in carrying, dribbling, venturing forward off the ball, and even in scoring goals. Unlike ‘Midfield Maestros’, which dovetail as half-baked ’10’s’ and half-glass-full ‘8’s’, a ‘Box-to-Box Midfielder’s’ on the ball work ethic manifests more in power, speed and raw running ability, rather than particular degrees of skill and invention. They may also be more likely to use their box-to-box engine to gallop forward off the ball, seeking space through intelligence and their keen awareness about where to pick up pockets of space to contribute into the final third.

Additionally, sometimes ‘Box-to-Box Midfielders’ can be the most influential in creating chances, scoring goals and making magic happen in the final third. They may not be expected to accumulate a high number of ‘key passes’ (chances created), as that might be more the role of a ‘Creative Ten’, using more silky smooth moves to advance the team through the thirds and break into the box. But they may accumulate a high number of ‘Shot-Creating-Actions’ for their role in either setting up the assist, letting shots fly from anywhere on the field, and arriving late into the penalty area to bang in a cross. Their attacking role is therefore paramount to their play, even if they exist within the scope of a traditional ‘number 8’ in their positioning.

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But being ‘Box-to-Box Midfielders’, the players within this category must also be sound in galloping back to contribute on the defensive end, which again may be more of a mitigated requirement of ‘Midfield Maestros’ or the ‘Creative Tens’ that sit in front of them. They need to participate in the hard off-the-ball shuffling and shuttling that takes place in defensive phases, and may even be required to venture all the way into the box to block crosses and shots in the team’s low-block. They should therefore post positive numbers in both attack and defense, even if those numbers shine greener and brighter on the attacking end.

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This is where ‘Box to Box Midfielders’ feature in stark contrast to our ‘Shuttlers’. Shuttlers exist within the ‘box-to-box’ mold, albeit with a defensive edge. They make a high number of tackles, interceptions and blocks in the half-spaces, as they shuffle and shuttle right to left or up and down. Box to Box Midfielders on the other hand are more likely to make a high number of progressive carries, progressive passes, shot-creating-actions, and even a higher number of ‘progressive passes received’. So much so, that many are capable of playing in ‘number 10’ or even wide roles, where their creativity and energy can take center-stage all the more. Jude Bellingham acts as a fantastic example of this. While his magnificent engine is best used in venturing from one end to the other in a ‘number 8 role’, he’s easily capable of playing in any of the three attacking midfield positions in a 4-2-3-1 formation, due to that creativity and innovation in the final third.

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But again, while they may be creative and influential in the attacking third, ‘Box-to-Box Midfielders’ must still be regarded for what they do at the defensive end of the game, and that is why they continue to exist as ‘number 8’s, rather than always playing higher up the pitch. We want to see heatmaps covered in blood from box to box, with evident notations in both penalty areas. Here’s an example from Lazio’s favourite ‘B2B Midfielder’ – Sergej Milinković-Savić.

Sergej Milinkovic-Savic’s heatmap, from SofaScore.

Despite his shirt colour, his heatmap bleeds red all over – particularly down the right. As a right-sided central-midfielder, that’s natural. But what’s maybe less natural for a player in Milinković-Savić’s position – he peaks red virtually from box-to-box, and even inside of both penalty areas. Here’s another great example, showcasing more of a vertical centrality to the ‘box-to-box’ role.

Leon Goretzka’s heatmap in 2021-22, from SofaScore.

You can see the massive spaces of red where Leon Goretzka contributes to Bayern’s defensive phases, or perhaps even their build-up. But you can also see massive pockets of red where he bursts into the attack, even all the way into the box. These are the kind of heatmaps we would want to see from ‘Box-to-Box Midfielders’ – ones that showcase a clear attacking edge within the realms of orange and red all over the pitch. So with that job description in mind, I’m sure you can already begin to fathom up the best of the art in 2022.

QUINTESSENTIAL BOX-TO-BOX MIDFIELDERS

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In any team in which they operate, ‘B2B Midfielders’ are often considered to be one of the first names on the team sheet. Their ability to contribute at all ends of the pitch ensures they become imperative figureheads to their team’s organization, and success. Often times, they can even be some of the greatest goal contributors, primarily through their astute awareness about how and when to arrive in the final third.

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Conor Gallagher became a quintessential ‘Box-to-Box Midfielder’ in his second loan spell away from Chelsea at Crystal Palace last season. At West Brom, he had shown fantastic mobility in many ‘shuttling’ ways, and his defensive edges proved rounder. Within minutes of his Palace career, he had almost become like a second-striker in attacking phases, bouncing off his team’s ‘number 9’. But in defensive phases, he always held an important role in shuffling with the play in their 4-1-4-1 defensive block, even coming all the way into the penalty area to add numbers to the chaos. If he hadn’t spent half the season playing in the ‘number 10’ slot for Palace, he’d be exactly what we’re looking for.

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Jessie Fleming of the Canadian Women’s National Team and Chelsea plays like Conor Gallagher’s soul sister, dovetailing perfectly as either a ‘number 10’ or ‘number 8’, and floating between both positions throughout a match. She always plays a crucial role to defensive moments in either slotting into the midfield or pushing up to the front of the press. But more crucially, she explodes into the final third at the exact right moment to score goals and create chances for others.

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With the fast-paced nature of transitions and pressing in the Bundesliga, ‘Box-to-Box Midfielders’ in Germany’s top flight can be found in abundance. Jude Bellingham and Leon Goretzka stand out as the two most obvious examples, and each would be perfectly capable of playing in a ‘number 10’ position due to their exceptional awareness of space and timing of their runs forward. But like all the quality ‘B2B Midfielders’ out there, they never take no for an answer in defense, even at times to their own peril in over-exuding themselves (particularly Bellingham as he learns his trade). They’re the obvious examples, but how about a less obvious one? Konrad Laimer. As a defensive beast who never stops running, the Austrian may seem like a quintessential ‘Shuttler’. But alongside a clear ‘6’ that is Kevin Kampl (acting as a ‘Deep-Lying Playmaker’), Laimer is then given license to roam forward as he pleases. In 2021-22, he took his attacking numbers to new heights, and made a name for himself as an integral component to Leipzig’s attacking overloads through the centre of the pitch, combining masterfully with the likes of Nkunku, Olmo and Silva.

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Next, I have no choice but to ask you a question. How is he still playing at Lazio? Sergej Milinković-Savić, of course. Last season, the Lazio midfielder scored 11 goals with 10 assists from a ‘Box-to-Box’ role that corresponded nicely with a ‘Midfield Maestro’ on the other side of him in Luis Alberto, and a defensive presence in either Danilo Cataldi or Lucas Leiva playing as the ‘number 6’. With the tireless mobility of Milinković-Savić in midfield, Lazio cruised to a surprise fifth place finish above many other big hitters in 2021-22.

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If looking for a Milinković-Savić-esque comparison in the women’s game, look no further than OL Reign’s Jess Fishlock. Fishlock envelops the ‘never-say-die’ attitude, and always puts up massive numbers in both attack and defense – operating in either a ‘number 8’ or ‘number 10’ role. Angel City’s Cari Roccaro offers another example of someone who shines at both ends of the pitch through her tireless energy, but with 3.1 tackles per game, her numbers spark slightly higher on the defensive end. So while she’s a massive contributor to attacking phases and so powerful in her running, Roccaro should be considered more of a ‘Shuttler’.

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So instead of a player like Roccaro who lives on the edges of defense, think Georgia Stanway and Erin Cuthbert. They always contribute more in attacking phases, even if playing in a deeper, defensive role than what lies ahead. At its core, that is the preeminent task of a ‘Box to Box Midfielder’. They need to exist in those half-spaces exhibited by Milinković-Savić’s heatmap, but not just by being static and staying in one spot. You don’t get box to box by teleporting. You get there through constant and consistent energy across all phases of the game. Just ask Bellingham, Stanway or Milinković-Savić.

MEASURING BOX TO BOX MIDFIELDERS

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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 contribute, and the success at which they aid their team from a ‘box-to-box’ lens. So with that, here is how we measure our ‘Box-to-Box Midfielders’.

1. ATTACKING CONTRIBUTION

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Since we want our ‘Box-to-Box Midfielders to be highly influential in attack, we first assess for the amount to which they contributed in venturing box-to-box and aiding creation. This may include…

  • Dribbles + carries
  • Touches in the attacking third
  • Key passes + passes into the penalty area
  • Passes and carries into the final third
  • Goal and shot-creating-actions
  • Shots + shots on target
  • Fouls won + fouls won to fouls conceded percentage
  • Goal contributions (i.e. goals + assists).

The ‘Box-to-Box Midfielder’ is only the second player type to hold ‘goals + assists’ in a separate section from the ‘abnormalities’ placeholder (after the ‘Wing-Back’); as we expect our engines in midfield to contribute heavily to attacking phases – including goal contribution.

2. ATTACKING THREAT & IQ

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Beyond just sheer statistical values, we also want to assess for the decision making processes of our ‘Box-to-Box Midfielders’. This includes how and when a player ventures forward into the attack, and the types of positions they adopt to positively contribute to attacking phases. It also extends to…

  • Decision making in the attacking half
  • Spatial awareness in the attacking third + progressive passes received
  • Intelligence in timing of ‘box-to-box’ runs.
  • Dribble %
  • Shot on target %
  • xG + xA

3. DEFENSIVE IQ

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Since they are ultimately ‘number 8’s’, ‘Box-to-Box Midfielders’ must still contribute at the defensive end of the pitch. More imperative than contributions is a player’s timing of decision making and their intellect when engaging in defensive phases of the game, which is measured within our broad umbrella of ‘Defensive IQ’. This includes…

  • 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.

4. POSSESSION & DISTRIBUTION

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Even if they may be responsible for doing the bulk of their hard work off the ball, ‘Box-to-Box Midfielders’ can still be imperative in helping a team break free in possession, either through passing, or their strong carrying ability through the thirds. This category therefore assesses a midfielder’s ability to play passes around the pitch, and every spike during on-the-ball moments.

  • Passing %
  • Decision making in supporting the build-up and progression.
  • Progressiveness (i.e. prog. passes and prog. carries).
  • Control (touches, miscontrols, dispossessed, passes received %)

5. 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 ‘Box to Box Midfielders’ to remain relatively engaged in defensive phases, and contribute at all ends of the pitch. This may include their number of…

  • Tackles
  • Interceptions
  • Blocks
  • Recoveries
  • Pressures
  • Aerial duels won + Aerial %
  • Clearances

6. ABNORMALITIES

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

  • 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 ‘Box to Box Midfielders’ in the world of men’s football as of 2022.

TOP 20 BOX TO BOX MIDFIELDERS

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When assessing ‘Box to Box Midfielders’, we’re searching for midfielders who perform an attack-minded role for their teams, particularly through physical willpower and excellence in timing of runs forward into the attack. In the table below, we’ve chosen to include three essential statistical categories that bring to light some of the best at the art.

It’s worth noting that this list does not encapsulate the players best at being ‘Box to Box Midfielders’; but instead, the best of those who fall under this category based on our evaluation.

So after scouring the databases, and scrutinizing over statistics from both the 2021-22 season, these are the best ‘Box to Box Midfielders’ in the world at this time.

Rank #Player TeamG+ASCABlks
1Jude Bellingham Borussia Dortmund3+83.162.06
2Leon GoretzkaBayern Munich3+33.871.10
3İlkay GündoğanManchester City8+43.440.92
4Nicolò BarellaInter Milan3+114.050.92
5Bruno GuimarãesNewcastle United5+43.091.68
6Sergej Milinković-SavićLazio11+103.191.51
7Federico ValverdeReal Madrid0+13.141.18
8Conor GallagherCrystal Palace8+32.821.77
9Konrad LaimerRB Leipzig4+42.402.03
10Marcel SabitzerBayern Munich1+12.591.09
11Jordan VeretoutAS Roma4+83.300.62
12Naby Keita Liverpool3+13.301.85
13Joelinton Newcastle United4+12.252.36
14Jacob RamseyAston Villa6+12.301.50
15Mikel MerinoReal Sociedad3+22.151.93
16Khéphren Thuram-UlieOGC Nice4+22.461.85
17Lovro Majer Stades Rennes6+84.271.42
18Florian NeuhausMonchengladbach4+42.082.16
19Szymon ZurkowskiEmpoli6+22.342.03
20Piotr Zieliński Napoli6+53.751.08

Like any of our ‘Player Roles’ so far, you can see the discrepancies between individuals that hold the same over-arching player type we describe. We aim to cluster players together of a similar type, whilst recognizing the difficulty to find perfect clones of the ‘Box-to-Box Midfielder’.

In our table, we’ve chosen to include goals + assists and ‘shot-creating-actions’ as two important attacking metrics. ‘Creative Tens’ and even ‘Midfield Maestros’ may be more responsible for scoring and creating goals, but the role of a ‘B2B Midfielder’ is to contribute to the attack and make magic happen in the final third, whether that be through their creation of space or their creation on the ball. Our ‘B2B Midfielders’ should therefore not boast insane chance creation numbers, but should illustrate some degree of proficiency in thrusting forward to the aid of their teams.

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Federico Valverde and Marcel Sabitzer were the only names in our cluster who did not boast positive ‘Goal + Assist’ numbers last season, and both could have been considered ‘Tempo Setters’ for their participation in positive possession for Real Madrid and Bayern Munich respectively. Knowing the role they play in participating ‘box-to-box’, sometimes even in advanced positions, we still included them in our final table.

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At the other end of the pitch, we’ve chosen to measure blocks, as an important facet of breaking up play that may take place anywhere on the field, but particularly in their defensive half. Playing more of an attack-minded role, we’d expect our ‘B2B Midfielders’ to make fewer clearances and recoveries, but they must make strides to aid their teams defensive endeavours all over the pitch. Jordan Veretout was the only player who drastically stood out on the low end. As neither a creative dribbler, imaginative wonder of the world, or ‘number 10’, the ‘B2B Midfielder’ ended up being the best option for the Roma man, even if needing to improve his defensive numbers.

PERFECT PROTOTYPES

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Among the twenty names listed above, these are the ten most prototypical ‘Box-to-Box Midfielders’. To rank high on this list, a player should post high numbers in both attacking and defensive phases, and hold a tireless role for their team in both on-the-ball and off-the-ball movement that drives their team forward. Let’s jump in!

Rank #Player TeamTkl + Int.Prog C.P.P. Rec.
1Sergej Milinković-SavićLazio3.174.805.90
2Jude Bellingham Borussia Dortmund3.525.195.74
3Leon GoretzkaBayern Munich3.813.815.74
4Szymon ŻurkowskiEmpoli5.006.483.36
5JoelintonNewcastle United4.233.773.56
6Florian NeuhausMonchengladbach4.364.073.22
7Nicolò BarellaInter Milan3.096.514.72
8İlkay GündoğanManchester City2.336.415.83
9Conor GallagherCrystal Palace3.543.323.80
10Jacob RamseyAston Villa3.806.022.92

Within our search, we’ve chosen ‘Progressive Passes Received’ as a metric to demonstrate that our ‘Box-to-Box Midfielders’ should have a higher level of attacking intent, particularly in seeking spaces to receive the ball in the final third. We’ve also analyzed ‘tackles + interceptions’ and ‘progressive carries’, highlighting how we want our ‘B2B Midfielders’ to be active contributors in driving their team forward at all ends of the pitch.

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Some standouts that have not already been previously highlighted include a man we highlighted in our ‘Replacing Conor Gallagher at Crystal Palace‘ piece – Szymon Żurkowski, and Newcastle’s Joelinton. Both contribute massively in attacking phases through their tireless energy to burst forward into the attack and strike at goal. But they never mitigated their defensive responsibilities in 2021-22, even surprising many through their never-ending work rate and exceptional timing.

CONCLUSION

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As goal-contributors, defensive warriors and midfield engines all wrapped up in one modem, ‘Box to Box Midfielders’ end up being some of the most imperative members of their squads. Unlike other midfield player types, they consistently catch the eye for their attacking performances, even when deployed in a deeper, defensive, ‘number 8’ role. The likes of Conor Gallagher, Sergej Milinković-Savić and Georgia Stanway perfectly encapsulate the role, helping us to qualify and quantify more of these ‘Box-to-Box’ engines in the future.


So there it is! Explaining our ‘Box-to-Box Midfielder’ 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 Midfield Destroyer – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Anchor – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Deep-Lying Playmaker – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Shuttler – Player Role Analysis

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