The importance of the holding midfielder to any Premier League title challenge has never been doubted. While flashier proponents of the footballing art have rightly been serenaded by fans, there has always been place for the likes of Patrick Vieira, Roy Keane and Claude Makalele in a discussion about modern-day giants. Having the right player in the middle of the park has often proven to be the difference between ending a campaign as league winners or also-rans. Michael Essien’s injury time red card against Fulham and subsequent absence in the 2010-11 season for Chelsea. Jordan Henderson similarly seeing red mist late on in Liverpool’s clash with Manchester City in 2013-14. The aftermath from these games are just a couple of examples of the influence a deep lying midfielder can have on the fortunes of a side.
There are quite a few talented holding midfielders plying their trade in the Premier League this season. Dale Stephens, Wilfred Ndidi, Philip Billing and Oliver Norwood have all had outstanding campaigns so far and their performances have had a major effect on the start their respective teams have had. The scrutiny however, as always, has been more on the personnel employed in that role for the ‘big six’ sides and these players have been the talk of the town this season for various reasons.
Poor Granit Xhaka has been the centre of discussion far beyond this campaign with opinion deeply split on his worth to Arsenal. There exist stats that make him look good and there are those that make him look bad and that’s possibly because he is being played out of position. Unai Emery recently revealed that Fabinho was a target before he signed for Liverpool and it is understood that he wanted Steven Nzonzi as well. He got neither and has stuck the player he thought could do a pale imitation of what he wanted in that role. It has shown up in the turgidity of the Gunners’ performances. Matteo Guendouzi is the all-action foil to Xhaka in that midfield but the player who most often collects the ball from the defence sets the tempo and until Arsenal find that person, preferably in January, they will struggle.
The same can be said of Scott McTominay and Fred, who alternate in that position in the double pivot that Solskjaer employs. They provide decent defensive cover to their backline but struggle to dictate games and as a result, Manchester United’s buildup play is slow and laboured in possession. Tottenham have favoured the double pivot as well when not using the diamond and they have had issues as well. They have the right player in Harry Winks to carry the ball out from the back, but suffer from a lethargy that has cropped up in their play. Some of that has to do with a surfeit of unsettled players around Winks and also the integration of Tanguy Ndombele into the starting eleven. Once the deadwood clears out and the Frenchman settles, Spurs should play with the intensity we are all accustomed to.
Time is all it took for Chelsea’s Jorginho to make his mark on the league. After enduring the wrath of his own supporters last season, the regista turned things around towards the end of Mauricio Sarri’s reign and has continued in a similar vein this year. The demands have been different with a new manager and the Italian has been tasked with facilitating a more direct approach, as has the rest of the team. This has resulted in more goals but it has come at the cost of control and Chelsea have conceded almost half as many as they did the whole of last season; in just eleven games.
This is what sets the two best holding midfielders in the league apart. The aforementioned Fabinho and Fernandinho have set the gold standard in the role. For two teams which are relentless in their drive towards forward areas, albeit in different ways, the Brazilians’ skill and understanding of space allows them to set the tempo and also stop opposition attacks in their tracks. It is no surprise that Fabinho wasn’t risked for Liverpool against Aston Villa before this weekend’s blockbuster clash between the league leaders. The result could also hinge massively on the position Fernandinho takes on the field. The player who wins that midfield battle for his side could decide which way the title goes this year and Pep will be tempted to reinstate him in his preferred role.
Whichever way the game ends, more power to the holding midfielder. They may not set pulses racing or make any Fantasy Premier League sides, but many a time are the first names on the team sheet. And to a footballer, that’s all that counts.