Defensive midfielders are midfield players who focus on protecting their team's goal. These players may defend a zone in front of their team's defence, or man mark specific opposition attackers.
What Is a Defensive/Holding Midfielder in Soccer
A defensive midfielder in soccer is a player who primarily plays a defensive role in the midfield.
Also known as a holding midfielder, central midfielder (CDM), "stopper", or "number 6", it is positioned in front of the defensive backline and behind the other midfield players.
Its role is to support the defense and act as a bridge between the defensive and offensive sectors of the team.
This position in association football needs to cover a lot of ground during a game to help the defense stay solid and provide balance and stability to their side.
Having the ability to read the game and find the best placement possible, they pressure the opponent players, intercept passes, and make tackles to regain possession and distribute the ball to other midfielders or attacking teammates.
The central position that a defensive midfielder occupies together with their role and responsibilities are vital at maintaining control of the game, stopping opposition attacks, preventing goal scoring opportunities, and initiating offensive movements.
Much like the proverb "a chain is only as strong as its weakest link", the better the player playing the defensive midfielder position is, the stronger and more effective a soccer team will be.
Role of a Defensive Midfielder in Soccer
A defensive midfielder in soccer significantly contributes to the team's stability, fluidity, balance between offense and defense, and overall success.
They are strategically placed just in front of the defenders and the furthest back of the midfielders. This position allows them to link the defense and attack units within their team, acting as a bridge between the two.
Their primary tasks involve shielding the back four, breaking up opposition attacks, and screening the defense to initiate counterattacks.
Shielding the Back Four and Providing Cover
By staying close to the defenders, they can limit the opposition's chances and minimize the space available for the opponent to exploit.
Their awareness and ability to read the game make it easier for them to anticipate and stop potential threats early on.
Breaking Up Opposition Attacks
Often called the team's "destroyer", a player in this role is tasked with intercepting passes, tackling opponents, and regaining possession of the ball.
These actions help to break the opponent's attacking momentum and regain control for their team.
Screen the Defense and Initiate Counterattacks
To further contribute to their team's tactical strategies, defensive midfielders must quickly identify where to be to effectively cut off passing lanes and be ready to launch a counterattack when the opportunity arises.
This involves intelligence, vision, and composure to exploit spaces left by the opposition, turning defense into an offense in a matter of moments.
Defensive Midfielder's Responsibilities
Now that we’ve learned about their role, let’s talk about the responsibilities of a holding midfielder.
Meaning, the specific actions that this type of player is expected to perform to fulfill its role effectively. They can be broken into defensive and offensive responsibilities.
A defensive midfielder is primarily responsible for disrupting the opposition's attacks and securing possession for their team.
The defensive tasks a “number 6” performs are paramount for this position.
To be effective, a holding midfielder needs to be adept at:
- Winning headers.
- Intercepting the ball.
- Regaining possesion.
- Breaking passing lanes.
- Marking opposing players.
- Making blocks or clearances.
- Anticipate where the ball will go next.
- Tracking back to support the defenders.
- Pressure the closest opponent controlling the ball.
- Reading the game and pick the best possible placement.
In modern soccer, the “stopper” has the increased responsibility to cover for other defensive positions when the opposing side in counterattacking and the defensive line is out of place.
These responsibilities demand keen spatial awareness, excellent tactical understanding, and high work rate from the player occupying this role.
By excelling in these tasks, defensive midfielders prevent the opposition from advancing forward and potentially scoring.
Aside from their defensive duties, a defensive midfielder is also tasked with aiding the attacking aspect of the team.
Some of their attacking responsibilities include:
- Supporting attacking midfielders and forwards.
- Maintaining possession and control in the midfield.
- Contributing to set-pieces and shooting opportunities.
- Initiating attacks by distributing the ball to other players.
- Distributing the ball to their teammates: playing short, simple passes to maintain possession, or more ambitious passes to launch counterattacks.
- Help the attack when the opportunity arises: making forward runs, playing through-balls, or providing an option for teammates to pass to when in possession.
A responsibility that is both defensive and offensive in nature is organizing the team.
The “number 6” needs to be vocal and communicative on the pitch to arrange their teammates, maintain the team structure and ensure that everyone is fulfilling their roles effectively.
To do that, this type of player has to be comfortable calling out instructions, offering encouragement, and providing feedback to their colleagues.
This requires a multifaceted skill set, leadership skills, and excellent tactical awareness and knowledge from the player in this position.
Skills Required to Excel as a Defensive Midfielder
To excel in the defensive midfielder position a player must develop a multifaceted skill set.
Some of the key attributes for a successful defensive/holding midfielder include:
- Tactical Intelligence
- Positional awareness
- Passing, technique, and ball control
- Tackling, blocking, and intercepting
Vision plays a significant role in a defensive midfielder's success.
They should have the ability to read the game, anticipating their teammates' and opponents' movements, and make decisive and accurate passes that can change the course of a match.
An ability to mark opponents is also important for defensive midfielders, as they are often tasked with tracking key playmakers from the opposing team.
This skill requires excellent anticipation and agility to stay close to the marked player and prevent them from influencing the game.
Another important attribute a good defensive midfielder must have is being able to make the best decisions very quickly.
Decision-making refers to the speed, knowledge, and intelligence needed to know when to commit to challenges and when to hold their position. This skill can be improved with time and experience at the highest level.
Tactical intelligence enables the player to understand and adapt to different formations and tactics employed by both their team and the opposition.
It helps them make crucial decision-making during the game to nullify the opposing team's attacks.
Positioninal awareness is the ability to read the game and understand where to be at all times, recognizing when to move forward and when to stay back to best anticipate the movement of the ball and opposing players.
Being able to do this effectively ensures a defensive midfielder is always correctly positioned to intercept opponent passes, break passing lanes, regain possession, support their team in both defense and attack, and cover spaces left open by teammates.
Passing, Technique, and Ball Control
Although some great holding midfielders are super strong at destroying and average at building, the best ones excel at passing, have good technique, and ball control.
In fact, in modern-day soccer, a good passing ability is vital to initiat attacks from deep positions.
Defensive midfielders need to possess a wide range of passing, including short and accurate passes to maintain possession, as well long, pinpoint passes to bypass opponents and jumpstart a counterattack.
Having good technique and ball control is a great bonus as even defensive players sometimes need to dribble past opponents or find a way to clear the ball out of danger with a more skillful approach.
Tackling, Blocking, and Intercepting
Tackling is sliding on the pitch to try and win back the ball. That’s the easy part; the hard part is doing it without conceding fouls.
Blocking is using the body to stop, disturb, or slow down the progress of an opposing player, without actually making contact with the ball. As long the player does not use their hands or arms to impede the other player it is considered legal.
This skill helps prevent an opposing player from getting to the ball or to positioning themselves on the best spot to receive a pass or shoot on goal. It also creates space or time for a teammate to get into a better position.
Intercepting refers to a defensive move where a player blocks or catches a pass from an opposing player, preventing them from moving the ball forward and creating a dangerous play.
It involves reading the movement of the ball and the players on the field, and positioning oneself strategically to anticipate, intercept a pass and regain possession of the ball.
Tackling, blocking and intercepting are critical for a defensive midfielder, as they are the first line of defense in front of the backline.
They must be adept at dispossessing opponents, disrupting the opposing team's attack, and reclaiming possession through timely tackles, blocks, and interceptions.
Importance of Defensive Midfielders in Modern Soccer
The defensive midfielder position is one of the most important ones in modern soccer.
Their defensive responsibilities and overall attacking strategy contributions can significantly impact the stability and performance of their team.
Here are a few reasons why their presence and effectiveness is integral to the success of modern soccer teams.
CDMs have an all-around influence as:
- Their primary focus is on assisting in defense and preventing attacks from the opposition.
- They are responsible for breaking up the opponent's plays and stopping entry passes to their forwards.
- They are crucial in preventing quick counterattacks from the opposition, especially in today’s soccer where high pressing and counterattacking styles are prevalent. This responsibility extends to cover the outside midfielders during these opponent responses or when they are out of position.
- They provide additional defensive cover during set pieces, such as corners and free kicks, where they can mark opposing players and prevent them from scoring.
Defense-Attack Connection Role
Due to the nature of their position on the pitch, the central defensive midfielder acts a link or a bridge between two important sectors, the defense and the attack.
It’s their responsibility to support the backline and play a key role in transitioning the ball from defense to attack, receiving the ball from the defenders and delivering it to other midfielders or to the attacking players.
This defense-attack connection role makes them one of the team’s elements with more touches on the ball during a match.
The more in play a player or a position is, the more pivotal it becomes to their side.
Essential Piece In the Center of the Game
The midfield is the center of any soccer game, the engine room of any side, so to speak.
It’s where matches are won or lost.
If a team’s midfield is not working properly, then, regardless of the quality of their defense or attack, they won’t be able to control the flow of the game and be stable enough to reach their objectives.
Defensive midfielders are an essential part of this engine. They are the backbone of their team.
- By breaking up play in the middle of the pitch and disrupting the opposition's attacking flow, they provide stability to the entire side.
- By helping their maintain possession, controlling the ball, and deciding when and where to distribute it, they dictate the pace of play.
Best Defensive Midfielders to Ever Play the Position
Some iconic footballers played as number 6. Their ability to control the midfield and provide essential protection for the defense has earned them a place in soccer history.
Here are a few of the best defensive midfielders to ever play the position.
Claude Makélélé is often considered the epitome of a defensive midfielder.
The French player's excellent positional sense and tackling abilities allowed his team to regain possession quickly and initiate counterattacks.
Makélélé's influential style of play led to the coining of the term "The Makélélé Role", highlighting the importance of a holding midfielder in modern soccer.
Lothar Matthaus was a versatile player known for his exceptional stamina, accurate passing, and tenacity in the midfield.
The German midfielder captained his national team to victory in the 1990 World Cup and was awarded Ballon d’Or in 1991.
His ability to read the game and dominate opponents made him one of the most complete midfielders in history, allowing excel as a defensive midfielder, attacking midfielder, or box-to-box midfielder (his main position).
Roy Keane was a tough, hard-working midfielder who captained Manchester United and the Republic of Ireland national team.
His ability to win the ball and control the game's tempo led him to multiple Premier League titles and Champions League triumphs.
Keane's aggressive play and leadership on the field were instrumental in his team's success.
Patrick Vieira was an imposing presence in the heart of Arsenal's midfield.
The tall, powerful French player combined physicality with technical brilliance, resulting in a highly effective ball-winning midfielder.
Vieira was an integral part of Arsenal's "Invincibles" team that went undefeated during the 2003-2004 Premier League season.
Frank Rijkaard was a Dutch legend renowned for his elegant and intelligent play.
His exceptional vision and passing ability allowed him to contribute effectively to the attack while maintaining his defensive duties.
Edgar Davids brought energy and tenacity to the midfield with his tireless running and aggressive tackling.
Nicknamed "The Pitbull" by Louis van Gaal, the Dutch midfielder was known for his ferocious style of play (and also his super cool glasses), which helped him dominate opponents and earn a reputation as a tough, determined competitor.
He helped Ajax win the Champions League title in 1995.
Didier Deschamps was a French player known for his astute tactical awareness and dogged determination.
As a defensive midfielder, Deschamps acted as a shield for the back four, using his positional discipline and excellent ball-winning abilities to break up opposition play.
Deschamps' leadership on the field was vital in helping France to win the 1998 World Cup and the 2000 European Championships.
Can a Team Be Successful without a Strong Defensive Midfielder
While having a strong defensive midfielder can be highly beneficial for a soccer team, it is not necessarily a requirement for success.
By adapting tactics and strategy to suit their players’ strengths and weaknesses, utilizing alternative formations, emphasizing high pressing strategies, and relying on a robust backline, teams can still achieve positive results without a standout player in this position.
Two Central Midfielders
Coaches may opt for a formation that uses two central midfielders instead of a single defensive midfielder.
This setup allows for greater distribution of defensive responsibilities, with both players contributing to breaking up the opponent's attacks, covering for each other, and transitioning to attack.
This would, however, require a strong understanding and chemistry between the two central midfielders for it to be effective.
High Pressing Tactics
Some teams place a strong emphasis on high pressing tactics, which can compensate for the lack of a dedicated defensive midfielder.
With this approach, a team aims to win possession in the opponent's half by pressuring them, forcing errors, and ultimately making it difficult for the opposing side to construct meaningful attacks.
In such a system, the responsibility of breaking up play is shared between several players, lessening the reliance on a single defensive player.
Super Strong Backline
Deploying a solid backline can also contribute to a team's success without a dominant defensive midfielder.
If a team's defenders are proficient at reading the game and making well-timed tackles or interceptions, they can mitigate the need for a dedicated player in this specific role.
A well-organized, disciplined, and communicative backline can work together to prevent the opposition from penetrating the defensive structure.
What Is the Difference between a Defensive Midfielder and a Central Midfielder?
While both defensive midfielders and central midfielders hold essential roles in midfield, their primary responsibilities differ.
A defensive midfielder is focused on protecting their own defense and preventing the opposition from advancing, while a central midfielder takes on a more balanced role, contributing to both offense and defense aspects of the game.
Here is a brief comparison of the main roles of defensive and central midfielders:
Defensive Midfielder (CDM):
- Protects the defense from opposition attacks.
- Acts as a shield between opponents and defenders.
- Mainly focused on preventing the opposition from scoring.
- Supports other midfielders and forwards.
- Involved in both offense and defense.
- Controls the flow of the game.
- Passes the ball to create chances for teammates.
- Contributes to the overall shape of the team.