How Stephen Hawking explained the central midfielder
Image: Martin Palazzotto, CC by NC-SA-4.0
Arguably, the most impressive human being to live a full life in the chronological sense was Stephen Hawking, the noted physicist. In his early 20s, he was diagnosed with ALS, a motor neuron disease that slowly paralyses the body. He was given two years to live. He took 55 to die. In that time, he accomplished more in his field than any who had come before. His celebrity also took him into other walks of life even though walking in the physical sense had long been beyond him. His wheelchair kept his lungs and heart functioning and aided his liver and kidneys too. He provided the brain function. In the figurative sense, at least, he also provided the heart.
The human body has five vital organs: the heart, brain, kidney, liver and lungs. You cannot function without them or, thanks to advances in medical science, an adequate replacement. Of the five, humanity attributes emotional qualities to the first two. As we journey through life, we must emulate Steven Hawking: show heart and keep our wits. As must a football team.
If the eleven players are organs, their vitality is relative. For instance, you'll probably tell anyone who asks that the game's most difficult task is scoring. Indeed, goals are hard to find but if a teammate earns a red card, who is almost always the next player substituted if not the striker? Similarly, you can't leave the goal untended but if all your substitutes are made and the keeper goes down, anyone left on the pitch can don the gloves to finish the match. More often than you'd think, it's the striker.
Even though we treat [and pay] them like they're the most important player in the team, strikers are just so much ballast when the boat is taking on too much water. Wingers and fullbacks aren't far behind when tactical needs must. In desperate moments, managers will play with as few as one centre-half, the other deputised as an emergency striker.
Image: Martin Palazzotto, CC by NC-SA-4.0
You must really have the gaffer by the short hairs, however, before he'll mess with his central midfield. Some bosses play with one, others with two or three. In any event, you'll find that they're the heart and mind of the squad. Terms like engine and recycling possession describe tasks that parallel a heart pumping blood through the body. The central midfielder acts as the brain on the pitch as well, directing the attack, launching diagonal balls or long passes over defenders when not making precise through balls for forwards to run onto. If someone asks you whether you'd pick Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo first in your Sunday XI, you should be asking why Xavi Hernandez isn't available. Barcelona didn't stop winning Champions Leagues because Messi lost his mojo. The Cules never replaced their No.6.
Mishandling his central midfield cost Jose Mourinho the Manchester United job, didn't it? You can blame Paul Pogba's attitude more than Mourinho's if you wish but there's no denying it was a bed of the Portuguese's making. First, he signed the player, a long drawn out process that could have ended any time he wished. Second, he knew a creative midfielder's importance. He had Frank Lampard at Chelsea. When he went to Inter, he signed Wesley Sneijder to partner Esteban Cambiasso. At Real Madrid, it was Mesut Ozil.
Manchester City are defending Premier League champions because they field a beastly squad with three hearts and brains. Pep's system revolves around Fernandinho, Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva. When one isn't available, Ilkay Gundogan or Bernardo Silva step into the void. Why do you think Jurgen Klopp wasn't satisfied with James Milner and Jordan Henderson? Look at the difference with Fabinho and Naby Keita in the side. Or notice the effect Lucas Torreira and Mateo Guendouzi have at Arsenal and why so many are concerned Unai Emery cannot make peace with Ozil when Aaron Ramsey counts the days. Or how a healthy Moussa Sissoko supports Christian Eriksen and Harry Winks for Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham.
But the most telling example in English football is Maurizio Sarri's dilemma at Stamford Bridge. He brought Jorginho with him from Napoli to run his complex system but displaced N'Golo Kante, the Frenchman who delivered consecutive Premier League titles in the blue of Leicester and Chelsea. The Italian refuses to play a double pivot, forcing himself to choose between a heart and a brain when, as noted, both are necessary.
It's so simple we tend to forget. Controlling the midfield, with or without the ball, is key to winning. You can dictate terms or disrupt them with a high press. Both are effective. They are the squad's heart and mind.