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Why Are Midfielders So Important in Football (Soccer)?

Top Midfielders in 2020.

Top Midfielders in 2020.

What Are Midfielders?

Midfielders, as the name suggests, are the footballers who play in the middle of the field, right between the defenders at the back and the forwards at the front. In today's game, midfielders have different roles. For instance, some midfielders play at a lower position of the midfield. These are defensive midfielders, and their job is to support the defense.

However, it wasn't always like this. In traditional football, midfielders weren't always called midfielders. For instance, in a 2-3-2-3 formation (which was a common formation in the past), midfielders either played as an inside forward or a halfback. There were only two defenders who played predominantly at the center-most part of the field.

Traditional football's 2-3-2-3 formation.

Traditional football's 2-3-2-3 formation.

Eriksen was playing as an attacking midfielder while Tottenham was attacking to create a four-man midfield.

Eriksen was playing as an attacking midfielder while Tottenham was attacking to create a four-man midfield.

Road to Modernity

The proper role of a midfielder wasn't defined until the creation of the 4-4-2 formation in the late 60s. This became the default formation in most football teams as it is the most balanced. This formation is what gave midfielders their defined role.

The popularity of this formation allowed central midfielders to play in defensive or attacking roles. This formation also includes flank players, which are the left and right midfielders. They act as the support for the attacking front and the defensive back.

Fun fact: Midfielders are normally the fittest players on the field as they typically travel the greatest distance during a match. This can range from 9-12 kilometres in total. They typically have the most possessions on the field.

Left: traditional 4-4-2. Right: diamond 4-4-2.

Left: traditional 4-4-2. Right: diamond 4-4-2.

Roles in a Four-Man Midfield

Here are the positions in a four-man midfield.

Wide Midfielders

Left & right midfielders have a demanding role where they are expected to provide defensive cover for the full-backs and attacking support for the strikers. To cover the full-backs, wingers are tasked to fall back and try to regain possession of the ball. As support to the forwards, wingers need to provide excellent crosses into the opponent's penalty box whilst looking for an available forward.

Central Midfielders

In a traditional 4-4-2 formation with four midfielders, there are normally two central midfielders, sometimes with two different roles. They're tasked to dominate the center of the pitch and make decisions on whether to pass the ball to forwards or defenders. Central defenders are tasked to support the attacking players, positioning themselves around the opponent's penalty box to find forwards to pass to or to create chances themselves as they are commonly long-shot specialists.

In some cases, a 4-4-2 diamond formation is used. This is a narrow midfield formation that utilizes a left and right midfielder closer to the central midfielders. This was used during England's 1966 FIFA World Cup triumph, infamously known as the "Wingless Wonders".

An example of a box-to-box midfielder's movement on the field.

An example of a box-to-box midfielder's movement on the field.

Notable Roles of a Modern Midfielder

Here are the roles of a midfielder you can see in modern football.

Box-to-Box Midfielder

These are hard-working central midfielders who have all-around abilities both defensively and offensively. They can track down a defensive box to make tackles, block shots and carry the ball forward to support the attacking play. For instance, in a 4-3-3 balanced formation, which normally deploys one or two box-to-box midfielders, their role is to either be a "holder" or a "creator". Some notable box-to-box midfielders in include Steven Gerrard, Patrick Vieira, Yaya Toure, Roy Keane, Frank Lampard and Jordan Henderson.

Holding Midfielder

Not to be confused with defensive midfielders, a holding midfielder often stays close to a team's defense. However, they move forward with the other central midfielders during an attack. They don't make runs into the penalty area, but they do support the attack from outside the penalty box. Holding midfielders can either be creators responsible for creative passes or destroyers responsible for tackles and regaining possession. They are similar to early central midfielders in this regard. Some notable holding midfielders include Xabi Alonso, Michael Carrick, Fernandinho, Fabinho, Sami Khedira and Luka Modric.


Playmakers can be divided into two positions, a deep-lying playmaker or an advanced playmaker. Let's start with the deep-lying playmaker, which have a slight similarity with holding midfielders. Deep-lying playmakers are holding midfielders who have the ability to create passes. They often create complex passes to forwards, making it difficult for the opponent's defense to predict the pass. The advanced playmaker makes runs into the penalty area by predicting the opponent's defense and splitting passes to the striker. Advanced playmakers must possess the ability to pass and dribble. Xabi Alonso is a notable deep-lying playmaker and Zinedine Zidane is a notably advanced playmaker.

What Technical Skills Does a Midfielder Need?

Here are the skills that a good midfielder needs to excel at.


No matter where you play in the midfield, passing determines how your team moves during the match. Accurate passes help to keep opponents away, especially if you're a playmaker (Both holding & advanced). It also increases the tempo of your team's movement. A "Tiki-taka" or "Gegenpressing" tactic is an example of how accurate and fast passes can win the game.


This is a key skill for an advanced playmaker or attacking midfielder. Excellent dribbling can help players move into the penalty area quickly and shut off their opponent's defense. This is important for attacking roles where the player needs to move the ball up front.

Positioning Awareness

A key element on the technical side of being a good midfielder is to make yourself available for passes at all times. Sometimes you can use these positioning opportunities to divert the opponent's defenders and create space for your teammate to move forward. You could then make yourself available for the follow-up pass.

Know Your Role

As part of awareness, a midfielder needs to be constantly aware of their roles so that they do not divert from the task at hand. A midfielder who moves out too far from their position can allow the opponent to create opportunities and start an attack.

Fabinho, the holding midfielder for Liverpool FC.

Fabinho, the holding midfielder for Liverpool FC.

The Importance of Midfielders

After reading this article, you hopefully understand the work that goes into becoming a midfielder. They have a huge role in how the team moves from back to front or front to back. They don't need to score 100 goals to be important to the team. They just need to be good passers and technical players who can lead their team to glory.

A recent example of how midfielders can change the dynamic of a team is Liverpool FC's final 10 games during their winning streak, when key players like Fabinho returned to his original position as a holding midfielder. He controlled the movement in the midfield, a trait Liverpool was lacking throughout the season. The extra touch of class from playmaker Thiago, with the box-to-box skills of Gini Wijnaldum, allowed the midfield to become a stronghold. This balanced the team's style of play, and it was a key element to Liverpool's successful claim for a spot in next season's Champions League as they finished third in the Premier League.

© 2021 Nigel Koay Talks Football