As the name suggests, a midfielder is usually positioned in the middle of the playing field. Depending on the type and the position, a player can potentially cover several different areas. We will clarify various positions and roles of midfield players and will give an example of a player archetype.
What kinds of midfield positions are there?
Like in football, but also the majority of other sports, there is both an offensive and defensive line. Midfielders are positioned in between those two lines and some would argue that playing in the central part of the field is probably the most important role a soccer player could have.
When it comes to this position, a player could have several different roles. First of all, a defensive midfielder is placed somewhere in the center of the field, but mostly on his half. Depending on the instructions, a defensive midfielder will help his teammates when defending but will not have that big of a role in the attacking phase. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, but the majority of defensively oriented players will usually just stay at the back and focus on taking the ball away from the opposition rather than being a playmaker. A defensive midfielder could either defend a certain zone or mark an opposing player. Something worth noting is that during the offensive phase, the player also known as CDM (central defensive midfielder) will usually cover some other positions that are vacant at the moment – like a full- or a center back.
A defensive midfielder is also usually a physical player who can push the opposing attackers off the ball. After taking the ball away, the most usual next step is to pass it to a more creative player who will then proceed with the transition into offense. Some good traits for every defensive midfielder would be physicality, aggression, solid tackling, and marking. One of the most famous defensive midfielders in modern soccer would be Barcelona’s and Spain’s Sergio Busquets. His tall build and top-tier defensive awareness make him one of the best in the history of this game.
Another type of defensive midfielder that is not as tall and as strong as many of his peers, but still performs at a world-class level, is N’Golo Kanté. The Frenchman is only 5’6 but that doesn’t affect his performance at all. His skillset mostly consists of defensive awareness, tackling, aggression and stamina. Kanté is a proper powerhouse who constantly runs throughout the whole game and never seems to get tired. His positioning both on and off the ball makes him one of the best defensive midfielders in the whole world.
Offensive players – in this case, CAMs (Central Attacking Midfielders) usually focus on creating chances and staying on the opponent’s half of the field. Unlike CDMs, their build usually doesn’t require them to be physical to be able to push the opposing players off the ball. Their skillset usually consists of being a good passer, dribbler, and someone agile.
CAMs tend to be called “10s” since a player wearing number 10 is usually the best and the most creative one on the field. If you think about it, the majority of the best players on the squad usually wear number 10 and tend to have the most assists out of all other players. If we make a comparison to sports more popular in the States, a CAM would either be a QB in football or PG in basketball. A player who starts almost every attack of his team – someone who is usually the most skillful one with the ball.
A really good example of a modern offensive midfielder would be Bruno Fernades who plays for Manchester United. A player who is probably one of the best dribblers in the league and who is good both on and off the ball. For example, Bruno managed to score 18 goals and made 11 assists in 37 Premier League games last season. That means that he was a part of 29 league goals that Manchester United scored last season. Another great example of a player with a similar role would be Kevin de Bruyne who plays for Bruno’s city rivals – Manchester City. A player with maybe an even greater pedigree. De Bruyne managed to score 13 goals and get 20 assists two seasons ago – 33 goal involvements in only one season.
Wide midfielder positions refer to left and right midfielders – LMs and RMs. Their main goal is to stay on the wider areas of the field throughout most of the game. They are usually quite pacy and tend to make runs along the sidelines. Some of them tend to cut inside and get in the middle of the field either to help their CAMs or to confuse the opponent.
Both their offensive and defensive qualities depend on the strategy. The majority of them are usually offense-oriented, but a good wide midfielder should be somewhat versatile. That means that some coaches like players who can offer something in both the attacking and in the defending phase. They can act as wingers and cross the ball to the center of the box or cut inside, make several passes, or shoot. They could also act as wingbacks which means that they are more defensively oriented.
A good example of a wide midfielder would be David Beckham – a player known for his crossing and free-kick ability. You couldn’t say that he was a defender, but neither that he was an attacker. He was a constant threat to the opposition on the right side of the field.
Players who control the center of the field are usually the ones that are the backbone of every team. A good central midfielder offers solid offensive and defensive qualities, just like Luka Modrić. A world-class box-to-box midfielder who doesn’t offer huge numbers in terms of goals and assists, but whose presence is regarded as the most important one.
Central midfielders usually have the highest pass accuracy. If they have a slow day at the office, that will most likely affect the whole team. Modrić, for example, tends never to rush an unnecessary pass. His ability to read the game and predict the movement of the opposition lets him carry his team and feed them with short- and long passes, especially behind the opposition’s defensive line.
We’ve already mentioned how some players can cover various positions all over the field. Midfielders are usually the ones that can offer the most versatility compared to forwards and defenders.
For example, a CDM can easily act as a CB (center back – central defender) whether that be throughout the whole game or only in the attacking phase. A good example here would be Fernandinho who plays for Manchester City. A creative midfielder with good vision, Fernandinho had to spend a huge part in the center of the defense two seasons ago. The Citizens, as they are also known, were plagued with injuries, especially when it came to defense, so Fernandinho had to jump in and performed more than well.
We can again take Manchester City and their coach Pep Guardiola as an example here. Tactically, Guardiola’s strategy is among the most advanced ones in modern soccer. For example, Guardiola’s fullbacks (defenders playing along the sidelines) tend to make inside runs and cover the midfield in certain attacking or even defensive phases. That’s why, for example, Oleksandr Zinchenko, who plays as a left left-back at City (and tends to make both inside and overlapping runs) is a player who is suited enough to play as a CAM for the Ukrainian national team.
If we take a look at the versatility of offensive players, we will notice that CAMs tend to play well as false nines or have that second striker role. An example of a false nine is a player like Messi. Messi tends to come back to the center of the midfield and when he is in possession, he starts the attacking phase from there. A false nine is a striker (strikers usually wear number 9, hence the name) who acts as some sort of a creative midfielder and confuses the opposition by not being on the part of the field where the opposing team expects him to be – some sort of a “fake striker” to be more exact. A good number of CAMs, therefore, are usually suited for this role because of both their creative and finishing ability.
7 Key roles that midfielders have – the summary
So, what actual roles do midfielders have?
We have already mentioned some, but it’s important to make a summary and put them all into one place. The roles can, of course, vary depending on the four different midfield positions that we’ve mentioned.
Attacking assistance – This role applies to the more offensive midfielders, like CAMs, wide midfielders, or even some CMs and CDMs if needed. The idea is to provide assistance by either passing the ball, crowding the opposing side of the field, or acting as a forward.
A midfielder with a good attacking skillset will usually read the opposing defense’s play and pass the ball into an empty space to a forward or another attacking or wide midfielder and create an opportunity.
Defensive assistance – As much as CDMs are a vital part of any defensive strategy, every midfielder should contribute in the defensive phase. As we’ve mentioned, wide midfielders tend to have solid defensive skills. That’s why it’s quite important to have a pacy and versatile wide player who can come back, disrupt the opposition, and start the offensive phase for his team.
There are cases in which forwards don’t have any defensive tasks, but every midfielder, whether that be a CAM, CM, or a wide midfielder, should come back and defend. A good midfield will usually hold the line and stop the opposing attack even before the actual threat either by disrupting the opposing players or covering other positions that teammates have left open.
Scoring and assisting – As much as passing and other “hidden stats” are important, having a midfielder who can both score and assist is not only useful but in most cases necessary. The central midfielders, especially the attacking ones set the tone for the attacking phase, and if they don’t succeed in either providing assists or scoring goals, they will in some cases drag the whole team down.
Set pieces – Every team needs to have a corner, a free-kick, a penalty, or a throw-in expert. Midfielders are usually the ones taking these roles upon themselves. Their passing and game-reading abilities make them suited for this role.
For example, wide midfielders tend to be the ones making throw-ins (alongside full backs) since they are usually positioned on the wide parts of the field, while generally, CAMs and CMs are the corner, penalty, and in some cases even penalty experts.
Fitness, mental strength, and good communication – A good midfielder is a good team leader – in most cases a captain – the player who should be a role model to the rest of the team. Since midfielders tend to run quite a lot during a game, physical preparedness and good stamina are key to controlling the center of the field. Every coach can’t quite rely on a midfielder who can run for only 50-60 minutes.
Mental strength is also a huge part of controlling the game since a team can’t quite afford to have the backbone of their squad getting an unnecessary red card. That’s why world-class midfielders tend to be level-headed leaders who won’t fall for the opposition’s mind games.
Good communication is something that makes the difference between average and world-class players. A good player, and in this case, a midfielder, should be the one talking to the others throughout the whole game and “making orders” to some extent. The creative midfielder is usually the coach’s right hand.
Having a role in the center of the field is quite important, whether it’s defensive, attacking, wide or central. They pass the ball more than a hundred times per game, and they can decide the outcome.
All in all, having a good midfielder is one of the most popular aspects of soccer. You can have a world-class forward or a defender, but if midfield doesn’t match the quality of the rest of the roster, the whole team will struggle to make an impact.