Midfield Matters: What Makes Premier League Teams Tick?

February 13, 2013 in Features, Premier League


Arguments are prevalent here at Ballsy Banter, discussion threads often go on for sixty or seventy comments. Two arguments in particular this week struck me as touching on a bigger problem that the Premier League has faced this year.

The first was an argument in which I, perhaps stupidly, tried to argue the point that Michael Carrick of Manchester United was an equal to Barcelona’s Xavi Hernández. My theory was that, technique-wise, if you put Carrick into the Barcelona team, he would be just as good. While I still maintain that, it was pointed out that it isn’t just technique that makes a midfielder. Xavi (who most would argue is also ahead in terms of technique) is miles ahead of Carrick in mentality, his ability to impose his ability onto games and to believe that he can keep a ball under pressure. Xavi, I will admit, is vastly superior to Carrick in this element.

The second argument that caught my eye was as follows: “Liverpool recently have played the best football� – this was before Monday’s West Bromwich Albion game in which they were woeful. The general consensus was that at the time they had indeed been playing good flowing football, perhaps the best. A more interesting point in that argument, though, which was mentioned was that over the course of the season, Chelsea had been the best footballing team when not self-imploding under Agent Rafa – which, let’s be honest, isn’t very often.

Aside from these arguments, though, one thing that I think we can all agree on: it has not been a vintage year for football in the Premier League this season. Manchester United have managed to storm away with the title without really ever playing well; in fact, in a huge portion of games they have played so badly that they have had to claw themselves back into games after going behind to teams that potential champions shouldn’t be conceding against.

Manchester City, as well, who played so well for the majority of last season, have struggled badly to get any sort of form together. At the bottom of the league, there is no real excuse for a team who has only won two games all season to still be in with a shout of staying up. My own team Sunderland has only played well in one game, against Manchester City, and yet somehow we are thirteenth in the league.

But why has it been such a poor year for top-tier football in this country?

I think the answer lies somewhere in the arguments from last week.

Carrick has arguably been the best central midfielder in the league this season consistency wise – Manchester United are top of the league. In the last few games, Steven Gerrard has reminded everyone alongside the returning Lucas Leiva that he still makes Liverpool tick, and subsequently Liverpool have been playing fantastically well. Lastly, Chelsea have occasionally been stupendous when their midfield trio, and particularly Juan Mata and Eden Hazard, have been on form.

The dearth of consistently good midfield play this season has cost the Premier League badly in terms of quality.

Manchester City is perhaps the finest example of this. Yaya Toure has been a big miss to the Champions this term. Though in both seasons he has been whisked away on International duty for the African Cup of Nations, a bigger problem has been the Ivorian’s form. Apart from the game against Newcastle, he has not had the same dominance he exhibited throughout their title-winning season. The options alongside him too have found it difficult. While manager Roberto Mancini last season had the option of placing Nigel de Jong in front of his back four alongside Gareth Barry so he could push Toure further up field, he does not have the same options this season. De Jong has been replaced by Javi Garcia and Jack Rodwell, and neither has lived up to their billing. As a result, City have struggled to supply their front line and have virtually conceded the title to United in February, whereas last season they ran the Red Devils right to the end and took the title on the final day.

How much the league has suffered because of a lack of good midfielders is highlighted particularly in teams that have done poorly this season. Newcastle struggled badly in the first half because of injuries to Cheick Tiote and Yohan Cabaye, the two towers of strength on which Newcastle’s success last season was built. Similarly, Liverpool and Sunderland have struggled to produce good football early on in the season with injuries and loss of form to key midfielders. As well as injuries, lots of Premier League teams sold off their key midfielders; Luka Modric and Alex Song, who were among the best midfielders of last season, were sold to the Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona respectively. Both teams have struggled with these losses. Fulham too, lost Moussa Dembele to Spurs, which significantly weakened their team.

Not every team has played badly, though, and perhaps the most consistent team in terms of performance has been Swansea. It is no surprise to me then that they are the team that most significantly strengthened their midfield bringing in both Jonathan de Guzman and Pablo Hernandez, both of whom have played brilliantly this season. Similarly, West Brom started the season off like a rocket, their star player? Summer buy, midfielder Claudio Yacob, with their decline in form running concurrently with Yacob’s injury. But the fact that these two teams are the best examples of teams that have played well shows how badly the league has lacked real quality this season.

It seems clear then that because teams have failed to strengthen their midfields - and have in several cases have actually allowed their midfields to be weakened – the Premier League has suffered greatly in quality. Massive amounts must be spent in the summer to rectify this if the Premier League wants to maintain its tag of greatest league in the world.