Midfield Enforcers Are Not The Key To Success

The best stories in soccer are always at When Saturday Comes!

When Saturday Comesby When Saturday Comes

Midfield Enforcers Are Not The Key To Success

When Saturday Comes

This feature on U.K. football journalism comes from our friends at When Saturday Comes, the site that bills itself as "The Half Decent Football Magazine".

March 8, 2011

Ian Plenderleith

Last week was not a good one for Bayern Munich. The reigning German title-holders lost comprehensively at home to champions-in-waiting Borussia Dortmund, were knocked out of the German Cup by Schalke 04 in the same stadium four days later, and then were easily beaten by perennial Bundesliga journeymen Hannover 96, now five points above them in a coveted Champions League position. And Bayern’s reserve team, which has historically nurtured the club’s young talent, fell on Saturday 4-1 to Saarbrücken to stay rooted to the bottom of the third division without a first-team prospect in sight.

The kindest word you can use to describe Bayern president Uli Hoeness is "impatient", and so yesterday it was announced that coach Louis van Gaal – who last season took Bayern to the domestic double and the Champions League final – would be leaving at the end of the season. This came just two weeks after a famous 1-0 away win in the San Siro against Inter, the team that tactically outsmarted him in the CL final last May.

The English commentator on US-based GolTV at the weekend lamented the absence of the recently transferred Mark van Bommel when watching the replay of Hannover’s third goal. As Sergio Pinto dribbled towards the Bayern end before releasing a shot that young goalkeeper Thomas Kraft made a Jackson Pollock canvas out of, it was supposed that Van Bommel would never have allowed such a run. In other words, the Dutchman would have taken Pinto out long before he would have had the chance to shoot.

Later that same day, Van Bommel was playing for his new team AC Milan at Juventus, and doing what he does best – getting a yellow card, remonstrating with the referee and disturbing the rhythm of the Juventus midfield as his side hacked its way to a forgettable 1-0 win, the decisive goal coming from that cultured midfielder Gennaro Gattuso. Now five points clear at the top of Serie A, Milan have gone too long without a scudetto, so they’re heading for a title with pros they can rely on to commit the right fouls in the right places. Having Van Bommel, Gattuso and the likes of Kevin Prince-Boateng in your team is a far cry from the days of Gullit, Maldini and Van Basten, but when Inter have won five championships on the trot, anything will do. Limited against Tottenham, but good enough for Italy nowadays.

Bayern’s decline, however, has less to do with Van Bommel’s departure than it does with other Bundesliga coaches following José Mourinho in working out how to strangle Van Gaal’s preferred passing game, and how to isolate the creative wide duo of Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben. The belief that midfield enforcers are necessary to success is facile, and countered by the serial successes of both Barcelona and the Spanish national team in the past few years. That those who believe in football as art in motion are looking forward to Barcelona and Arsenal this evening is partly down to the fact that neither side has an obvious enforcer who will show up to ruin the party by starting a fight.

For some, that’s reason enough to criticise Arsenal, as though a hollering six foot six English centre-half or an ankle-kicking defensive midfield pit bull would shake up those tippy-tappy paper men and turn them into battle-scarred, trophy-wielding heroes. It’s the type of thinking symbolised by the predictably moronic cheers that greet the scything down of a skilful opponent who "gets what’s coming to him" for being good. Apparently that’s not violence, it’s good old-fashioned professionalism. How tough men used to play in the English mud before namby-pamby flat grass fields were imposed on the game.

However much you may tire of the purists who poetically purr about Barcelona’s mesmerising moves, their lack of an obvious hatchet man at least lays to rest the myth that players like Van Bommel are necessary for success. Why reserve a place in your team for someone who’s so poor at tackling? Xavi and Andres Iniesta are hardly what you’d call soft players, yet they have three yellow cards between them in 60 combined league appearances this season. Positional sense, off-the-ball industry and fitness will ultimately help your team much more than a two-footed lunge.

But enforcers still survive because we let them. Fans can cultivate a romanticised view of them as passionate and somehow authentic, weak-minded managers view them as easy solutions to a brittle midfield, while referees and the game’s authorities have long been way too lenient in dealing with both persistent foul play and violent conduct. But even if you have reservations about the Champions League, or about Arsenal, or about Barcelona (and I do, about all three), it’s hard not to anticipate with relish a game where there’s every chance that football will triumph over thuggery.