The evolving expectations of modern midfielders

The evolving expectations of modern midfielders

The modern game has changed the way football is played and although simplicity is still the most effective form of strategy, creativity and flair is encouraged. More and more teams are demonstrating new styles of football and as a result, the roles of the players have adapted in recent times. The team isn’t split into defence, midfield and attack but there are elements of each role within another. The traditional 4-4-2 is still used but there’s now a common need for a DM and an attacking three, including a ‘false nine’ – roles which have become popular in modern football times.


The role of a midfielder is very versatile and demanding. They’re expected to perform in a number of roles, adapt to different formations, possess a variety of skill sets and perform defensive and attacking duties at the same time. However, expectations of what a midfielder is seems to have become more complex and more demanding in recent years. There’s a need for flair, creativity, goals and tactical awareness more and more as the game develops. Nowadays, it’s not enough for a midfielder to deliver results – he has to look the part too and give that little bit extra.

James Milner is a good example of a classic midfielder. He works hard for a full 90 minutes, can press the ball, put in strong tackles, get stuck in, take charge on set pieces and gets assists. He created a number of chances for Liverpool last season, including 11 assists – the fifth best in the Premier League during the 2015-16 season. He was responsible for providing his side with 18% of their goals throughout the league campaign and was listed alongside David Silva and Riyad Mahrez on number of assists.

Milner is a player managers like to have in their squad and he has been a regular feature under Roy Hodgson for England in the last few years. He was also played regularly under Mancini and Pellegrini at Manchester City, before joining Liverpool and being named the club’s vice-captain by Brendan Rodgers.

However, he’s rarely rated higher than 7/10 for a performance and he’s not the player fans want to see in the starting XI this season. He’s not got the flair of Philippe Coutinho, the defensive awareness of Nemanja Matic, the passing abilities of David Silva or the box-to-box pace Yaya Toure used to possess. He’s a simple midfielder that does the job asked of him, but rarely does much more. However, in today’s game, fans expect a little more than simple and Milner just doesn’t cut it.

A midfielder should now possess all of the skills demanded of them but have a speciality within one of those departments which make them stand out from the crowd and fill a specific midfield role. Most teams now possess a creative midfielder; someone who has a free reign to create chances, terrorise defences and act as an extra attacker. A box-to-box midfielder has the ability to change games and a defensive midfielder has become a necessity for most squads as the game evolves.

The transfer market has become a place where you can find the perfect footballer to fit any system you want to play and the role of a ‘general midfielder’ has become increasingly insignificant. Whilst players like James Milner continue to earn popularity amidst managers, they’re simply not effective or ‘special’ enough to earn a consistent starting position in a performing team. Versatility is a trait admired by many and should be rewarded but being good at several things and not being excellent any, has now become a real limitation for midfielders. The expectation to produce something different or to provide an edge or the ability to fulfil a specific requirement; is something that’s evolved in modern football and has become the norm.

Long gone are the days of a simple footballer, and now is the era for technical midfielders.