Talking Tactics: Linking up through the midfield

De Guzman, Beckerman, Lindpere -- the unseen linchpins to success

Joel Lindpere

Photo Credit: 
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Everyone recognizes the value of a striker who consistently finds a
way to through. Worth their weight in gold, those guys.

And we
all recognize what a blue-ribbon goalkeeper can mean.

Creative
midfielders who zip passes into forwards in good spots? Check. Flank
midfielders who can cross a good ball? Check. Center backs who patrol
with authority? Check. Overlapping fullbacks who hold down their side
and put extra numbers into the attack? A little less obvious, perhaps,
but we generally see it.

But what about that one solid possession
guy right in the middle? If he’s a hard-tackling, uncompromising
defensive midfielder, then we know about him.

But what if he’s a
little less glamorous? Just a darn good presence at establishing
possession? I’ve long said that guys who claim possession, create a
little time and space for themselves and then move the ball calmly along
in the middle of the park, are probably soccer’s most undervalued
commodities. It’s been this way since Thomas Dooley was the US man in
the middle throughout the mid-1990s. Plenty of people didn’t see
Dooley’s value as a connector, someone who could make life easier for
others with calm and sure work on the ball.

With smart
positioning, by shifting a yard or two to receive balls in better
places, these connectors subsequently provide others with more useful
passes, so that they have an easier time on the ball.

But unless
you’re watching with laser-lock focus, it’s easy to miss—or dismiss—the
simplicity of what they do. So it tends to be a tremendously
under-valued position.

Look at Julian de Guzman at
Toronto. I’ll be the first to admit to some mixed feelings about TFC’s
Designated Player. He’s clearly a talent, but he sometimes struggles to
make all the passes he should. Sometimes he doesn’t seem like he’s all
there.

On the other hand, TFC are clearly a better side when he’s
on the field. When fully present, de Guzman allows young central
midfield partner Amadou Sanyang to be a
better player, because de Guzman works himself astutely into spots where
Sanyang can tackle and easily find a teammate with the pass.

True,
de Guzman has just one assist and no goals in 16 games with TFC, so we
can always debate DP value, but in the big picture, Preki’s bunch is
better with their midfield connector pulling the strings.

In the
Los Angeles match two weeks ago, de Guzman came on and helped stabilize
the TFC midfield in a tactical contest that was all about possession and
safety. Against Houston last Saturday, his work in the middle created
several chances for the Reds. Just as tellingly, once he was sent off
(along with Houston’s Joseph Ngwenya), the
visitors grabbed hold of the midfield and helped themselves to a few
good chances, including the game’s opening goal in the eventual 1-1
draw.

De Guzman is not unique in MLS. Real
Salt Lake
’s Kyle Beckerman is
another terrific midfield connector. He’s known more for his tough
tackling and fierce work rate, but his simplicity with the ball is
equally valuable to RSL. They’re doing fine without him
right now, but to truly make a run at LA in the West, they’ll need their
captain and all his tidy work in middle of the park.

In Dallas, David Ferreira gets a lot
the credit for pulling the offensive strings. But almost every FCD
possession begins with Daniel Hernandez. He is
fast approaching his 34th birthday, and central midfielders in their
mid-30s are fairly rare beasts. But Hernandez enjoys a role that allows
him to be effective, sitting deep as the midfield screener in the team’s
4-1-4-1 setup. Perhaps even more important than his defensive work is
his clever positioning and ball handling. Hernandez is a master at
efficient movement, at taking those one or two easy steps to better
align his body relevant to opponents.

New York’s Joel Lindpere may be the best overall
addition any MLS side has added in 2010. His body of work has been as
responsible as anything else for Red Bull’s recovery from last year’s
pitiful pose. People see his ability on restarts and the danger he poses
with pushes into the attacking third. But his calm, smart and steady
ball-handling is probably more important than any of it. His work
against Colorado was a big reason for a well-earned 1-1 draw in a place
where New York has had very little success historically.

There’s
another way a connector in midfield helps a team: by not committing
cheap turnovers in bad spots. Teams pay the ultimate price for an
inability to cleanly maintain possession in the midfield transition from
defense to the attack. It happens every week. For instance, Chivas
USA
’s failure to steer the ball out of the back against Philadelphia
proved costly at the Home Depot Center.

Also at the HDC, if you
go back to the origins of Los Angeles’ first goal, you’ll see where the
entire problem begins for the visitors from Seattle. A lot will be made
of Kasey Keller’s swinging
miss on the first corner kick near the 19th minute—and Keller’s
continued struggles to consistently handle routine chores certainly
deserves discussion—but go back further and you’ll see that the entire
sequence begins with a couple of imprecise midfield passes from Patrick Ianni and Pete Vagenas. Again, it’s
not glaring. But without midfield linchpin Osvaldo Alonso in the
lineup to make simple, stabilizing passes, to set up attackers Freddie Ljungberg, Fredy Montero and Steve Zakuani in good spots, routine matters
of possession and distribution become more difficult than they need to
be.

In short, if your team has a proficient midfield connector,
do yourself a favor and don’t overlook what he’s bringing to the
exercise. It is very often the difference between no points and three.