First of all apologies for the fact this article will more than likely appear rusty, it’s been a while since I’ve written anything, well anything that I’ve kept. In that time I’ve written roughly 4 articles but each one has been deleted almost immediately. I seem to have got past my period of apathy now though so keep an eye out for more articles appearing on the blog over the coming weeks. 

Football Manager today reflects the real world of football in many ways, one of those is of course tactically. It is becoming more and more important to have at least one player that is able to move between the lines of midfield and attack both linking the play and creating overloads thus pressuring the opposition defensive schemes and creating pockets of space that can be exploited by the more creative attacking players in the side. This tactical trend is most evident away from the Premier League with players like Christian Eriksen at Ajax developing the tactical intelligence to perform the role to near perfection for Ajax. In Football Manager the box to box midfielder role is designed to emulate this tactical trend with the designated player supposed to link between the lines and offer both attacking and defensive options. Why though should we use such a player and what does he offer us?

Drawing Defenders and Creating Space

One of the primary functions of the linking midfielder is to draw defensive players out of position and create space around him. It’s not specifically necessary for the player to be carrying the ball when he moves towards the attacking line. Often all that it takes is for him to physically occupy a space to draw the defenders out.

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Here you can see an example of our play when we are attacking from deep in the inside right position with the player in possession looking to transfer the ball quickly in to the attacking phase.  The initial defensive positioning is actually solid but our central midfield player is able to make a run without the ball away from play, by deliberately running away from the side of the pitch that we are attacking down the linking midfielder is creating more space and occupying the far sided defensive players to prevent them from shifting over to close space and prevent us from creating a chance. When the ball is slipped in behind the defence for our striker to move on to we have effectively isolated a single defender and he is unable to react.

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This time our linking midfielder picks up possession of the ball just inside the oppositions half and has the time and space to turn and drive towards the centre of the field. As he enters the shaded area in the image he is engaged by two defensive players who leave their defensive stations to pressure the ball. The linking player has the presence to slip the ball between the two defensive players to the on rushing right winger who is free to move in to the opposition box and threaten the ball.

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(apologies for the flaw in the image, I did warn you that I was rusty though!)

This time we are in the second phase of the attack having recycled the ball backwards. The AI has also managed to recover to a very solid defensive position. As you can see our two controlling midfielders have the ascendant position, they are however faced by a numerically superior defensive midfield with three players occupying narrow positions just ahead of the play. It is in this position that the importance of a mobile linking midfielder can be truly recognised as the left sided central player takes possession of the ball and is able to drive diagonally towards the corner of the box. Effectively this takes the three narrow defensive midfielders out of the play and creates a more positive angle for our attack. The linking midfielder then has three distinct options, he can either slip the easy ball to the free player in the wide left position, look to shift the ball in to the centre towards a striker or go for goal himself.

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This time we are building the play from the back towards the centre of the field. Our two controlling base midfielders are in position and the defender bringing the ball our of defence offers a triangle meaning that we can comfortably play around the two opposition midfielders. As you can see the AI has again opted for a defensive narrow midfield and when our linking midfielder takes possession of the ball he is able to move forwards and easily bypass the two stationary players. As soon as you have a player in the central area that is able to carry the play like this you are putting instant pressure on the defensive line as the AI will have to choose whether to press up and challenge the ball or take the risk of dropping back and allowing the player in possession to drive closer and closer to their goal.

Breaking Beyond the Defensive Line

The second benefit of employing the linking midfielder is that he is able to create effective overloads by moving in to gaps in the defensive line and creating a passing option that should lead to an immediate chance on goal. The delayed run from the midfielder towards the box is an extremely effective attacking option that we can use.

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This time our linking midfielder is making a deliberate attempt to attack the edge of the box and hopefully with a well timed run and pass from deep we will be able to put the runner through on goal for an easy chance. This run from deep will prove extremely difficult for the AI to defend against. The play is developed down our right flank with two easy short passes. When our playmaker in the midfield receives the ball towards the centre of the pitch our linking midfielder is already bursting towards the box and we are left with a relatively easy pass to play the runner through on goal.

The linking midfielder offers an interesting tactical option and is a role that can be extremely difficult for the AI to contain. When used with the right player and in the right setting we can pull the AI’s defensive schemes apart.