Universality and the box-to-box midfielder

In seasons past, it wasn’t unusual to see the likes of Steven Gerrard or Patrick Vieira rampaging in central midfield in an attempt to — or so it seemed — cover every blade of grass on the pitch.

The concept of the box-to-box midfielder is not new to football, although in recent years, the rise and popularization of possession football relegated such players to a niche role — as passers took precedence in a starting XI over all-rounders, and two-man midfields were reformatted into three-man ones, there was simply no need for a player who could do a bit of everything. Why have a jack of all trades, when stifling possession was not only the best offensive, but also defensive tactic?

However, with the decline of pure possession football and the rise of a more universal approach, the box-to-box midfielder has become a resurgent theme — out wide, that is.

The box-to-box wide midfielder?

With universality the dominant trend in world football, it’s become increasingly common for players to not just attack, but defend. Strikers are no longer fox-in-the-box poachers, but mobile players capable of pressing and linking play, defenders are expected to be composed on the ball, wide players are expected to be capable of tracking their opposite numbers.

As a result, hard-working players who can put in a defensive shift are slowly, but gradually seeing time out wide, while playmakers seem to be getting more time in their favored central position.

Perhaps it’s due to the nature of the current game — with most teams keeping compact centrally, either by pushing up the defensive line or by dropping deep and shielding the defenders, it’s no longer easy to thread a pass through said zone.

It’s a role that Angel di Maria occupied for Real Madrid during the 2013/2014 season where his performances as a wide shuttler helped his side win La Decima, with the Argentine being recognized as the man of the match.

After all, it’s easier to crowd out a player when they’re surrounded by (at least) four players, less so when they’re on the touchlines and have one or two players to beat before sending in a cross or cutback.

With more space on the touchlines, there’s also a greater need to defend that zone — and that is where the box-to-box midfielder has a role to play.

Players like Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Ramires, Jordan Henderson and James Milner have all, to some extent, been stationed wide — it’s not a coincidence, but a trend.

The future, or just a passing trend?

It’s interesting to note how managers (and in extension, clubs) have slowly, but gradually, begun to start such a tactical evolution for differing reasons.

Jose Mourinho and Brendan Rodgers utilized Ramires and Henderson out wide respectively for their defensive ability, while others, like Arsene Wenger and Manuel Pellegrini have the likes of Ramsey, Wilshere and Milner out wide in an attempt to fit them into the side when central midfield was packed, although it must be noted that the latter combined well with David Silva during his City tenure.

However, whether this signifies a tactical change or not is difficult to say — all of those players prefer a central position, and it’s unlikely any of them will prefer a wide position.

Yet, almost all but Liverpool have better options centrally — Arsenal have Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla, Chelsea have Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic, while City have Silva and Yaya Toure.

With regards to Ramsey and Wilshere, both do have qualities that suit their team’s balance out wide; the former drifts in and allows Bellerin to become an extra attacking option, while also providing a goalscoring threat, while the latter provides a more direct alternative while on the ball, prompting more fluid counterattacks.

Given Ozil’s relative youth (in comparison the starting central midfielders at other clubs), it’s likely that one of Wilshere or Ramsey will be permanently stationed wide.

However, in the greater sense, the trend of the box-to-box midfielder out wide is unlikely to be permanent, and more of a passing thing due to the very concept that spawned it — universality. Few of the players in said position have much, if any, attacking threat compared to their alternatives.

Still, it’s an interesting tactical trend to observe, and given that most of the aforementioned teams have yet to make a significant change to their squad composition, we can probably expect more of the same next season.