There are eleven positions on a soccer team, each with its own character. None is more glamorous than the striker, whose job is to score the goals in a game that has so few of them. None is more romantic than the goalkeeper, who stands alone as the team’s last line of defense, the only player who can use his hands in a sport that depends on the use of the feet, the head, and every part of the body but the hands. None is more celebrated than the Number 10, known sometimes as the fantasista, the team’s playmaking superstar who’s asked to supply the creativity that can undo the most rehearsed and structured defense. Yet despite the spotlight that shines on those players, the midfield position situated just in front of the team’s defensive backline is perhaps the most critical of all. Depending on a coach’s preference, a team’s formation, or a player’s talents, that position can be a defensive one, an offensive one, or a blend of both. In most every case, though, it’s the pivot on which the rest of the team turns.
“There’s a reason why they call it the engine of the team,” said Taylor Twellman, a soccer analyst for ESPN. “It controls so many things. The game is determined on the strengths of your team in that position.” Traditionally, the role of that player has been a defensive one, and it often still is. Kyle Beckerman, who sports a powder keg of dreadlocks that makes him easily identifiable on the field, has filled the role for the United States team: his hard tackles and deft touch have made him one of the best holding midfielders, as the traditional name of that position is known, in Major League Soccer, where he is the captain for Real Salt Lake.
“The biggest thing is that it’s a transition position,” Beckerman said. In a game where possession changes hands (or rather, feet) constantly, this is no small thing. When your team is attacking, Beckerman said, “you’re trying to sniff out things before they happen.” This could mean making a tackle that would allow the rest of the team time to catch up to the play—and, at the same time, risking a mistake that would leave the team vulnerable behind him. The way Beckerman performs it, that tackle is often a hard one, straddling the line between a referee’s whistle and a yellow card, and usually incurring the wrath of the opposing team’s fans.
In the World Cup, Javier Mascherano, one of the best of these players, will fill this same role for Argentina, a team that fields one of the most explosive offenses in the world centered around Mascherano’s superstar teammate at Barcelona, the Number 10 Lionel Messi, and Manchester City’s celebrated striker Sergio Aguero. “With the attacking options they have, Mascherano’s going to play a vital role in Brazil,” Twellman said. “In that position, defensively you have to have an unbelievable tactical awareness of where you need to be in each defining moment. He’s got to make the right decision at the right time.” Those right times become one of a match’s recurring subplots. A split-second hesitation can change the outcome of the entire game.
The transition role works in the opposite direction as well, when a team starts its move forward on offense. As Twellman put it, “The modern version of that player is much better technically than thirty or forty years ago.” Though they’re both defense-minded, Beckerman and Mascherano handle the ball with an unconscious ease; it seems to roll off their feet effortlessly. Their outlet passes might not be the ones that lead immediately to a goal, but they are often the first step toward scoring. “You want the attacking guys to be creative, you want them to have imagination,” Beckerman said. “It’s trying to make their game easier. So a lot of times it’s getting the ball to the attacking midfielder where he has time and space to make the killer pass to the guy who scores.”
The more offensive a player’s abilities, the more that natural ease with the ball turns into gifted creativity, making him a constant threat. Italy’s Andrea Pirlo has demonstrated this as well as anyone in the world—he shined in Italy’s 2006 run to the World Cup championship, and he led the team to the Euro 2012 final, where it lost to Spain. As Pirlo plays it, the position is known as a deep-lying playmaker, and every time he touches the ball the game’s temperature rises.
It’s also what England’s Steven Gerrard has, to much acclaim, done this season for Liverpool. “Some people like to have a defensive midfielder next to a Pirlo, and some people think you can have the defensive midfielder ahead of him and allow the Gerrards of the world to roam and play those long balls over the top and be dangerous from there,” Twellman said. “Gerrard can still impact the game from that role of playmaking untraditionally. Where everyone thinks a playmaker’s a Number 10, he’s playing underneath the forwards in that quote-unquote Pirlo role.”
And then there’s the rare player who’s uniquely gifted on both sides of the ball. Manchester City’s Yaya Toure often lines up for Ivory Coast in front of the defense, yet at times you’ll find him changing the course of the game on the other side of the field as well. “He is your definition of a two-way midfielder,” Twellman said. “He applies pressure out of the midfield defensively, but what makes him so good is his ability to recognize, now is my opportunity to make that run forward … And he does it [for Manchester City] at an alarming rate in arguably the best league in the world.”
Twellman cites the former Manchester United captain Roy Keane, currently an assistant coach with Ireland’s national team, and Dunga, the captain of Brazil’s 1994 World Cup championship team and its 2010 World Cup coach, as two of the best players at that position in the last couple decades. Beckerman says he learned how to play it from American Pablo Mastroeni, who now coaches the Colorado Rapids, when the two were teammates in Colorado early in Beckerman’s career. It’s no coincidence that all three of those players have graduated to coaching. The position is inherently a leadership one. Whereas a goalie, a striker, or a winger might disappear from the match for long stretches of time, the deep-lying midfielder will rarely be uninvolved. Instead, he’s often at the center of its action, dictating the game, setting its tone.
David Gendelman is research editor at Vanity Fair. Follow him on Twitter at @gendelmand.