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On Going Beyond Holding Midfielders

A brief review of Les Ferdinand's words on the redundancy of the pure holding midfielder, and how that view bears out with our current personnel options.

Jamie McDonald

When Tim Sherwood began to field a fluid two-man central midfield pairing of Nabil Bentaleb and Mousa Dembele in the weeks following his appointment as permanent coach of Tottenham, many assumed that the former Blackburn man was simply adjusting to the tactical realities of injuries to enforcers Sandro and Etienne Capoue. In an enlightening interview with Ben Pearce this morning, however, Sherwood's assistant Les Ferdinand confirmed that dropping the permanent covering role was very much a matter of personal preference for the coaching staff, rather than footballing realpolitik.

"I know there's a lot of talk about holding midfield players, and I'm always arguing with Tim and Chris about this - and they agree," he said.

"I don't like holding midfield players. I like players to understand that if one goes forward, the other one tucks in for them. I don't want someone who just sits in front of the back four and doesn't go anywhere, but that's just my own personal view."

Now, many people are going to look at these words and hear the not-so distant sound of alarm bells. Already at times this season, the Spurs Twittersphere has expressed it's dissatisfaction at how open and penetrable Tottenham's midfield looks when bereft of a player sitting between the lines and covering the defence, even when Sherwood's preferred nominal 4-4-2 ends up looking more like a lopsided 4-3-3 with Christian Eriksen cutting in from the left. Worse still, the end of the days where Spurs play with a holding player will surely be taken as heralding the decline in favour of nascent club legend Sandro, one of the League's most fearsome destroyers. All in all, you might think, cause to freak out and finally commence the ever-impending burning of season tickets. Well, for a couple of reasons I hope to lay out for you now, it may not quite be time to start panicking yet.

First of all, playing with no holding player doesn't necessarily imply a lightweight, overly positive midfield which provides no protection for the back line. This was exemplified by the performance of Tottenham's three-man central spine against Swansea, and in particular that of Nabil Bentaleb. On the day, Bentaleb ended up making an amazing ten tackles against the Swans as he dropped deep between defence and midfield- yet applying both the statistical analysis and the 'eye test', you'd struggle to say that the French youngster played a 'holding role' across 90 minutes. Completing 54 of 59 of his passes, many of which were over the halfway line and created dangerous attacks, one could argue that Bentaleb functioned as more of a deep-lying playmaker who fulfilled the subsidiary role of tacking back.

Perhaps, then, what Ferdinand means by 'not playing a holding player' isn't that Sherwood intends to hang the defence out to dry time and time again in the name of being more attacking- instead, maybe he simply means that any player who sits deep will have to do more than simply break up play and pass the ball off immediately to the nearest player. What we're looking at, in effect, is the birth of a midfield where players are given multiple and often-shifting responsibilities- where a double pivot actually means a double pivot in which one man goes forward as the other drops back, or where the deepest player in a midfield triangle has a duty in intricate passing plays that goes beyond simply 'win the ball at all costs'. Thoroughly modern, and potentially incredibly lethal against all manner of opponents.

All academic, of course, unless there were a direct quote from Ferdinand that could confirm these theories... oh hang on, there is! In the form of his admiring analysis of the Man City model of midfield fluidity.

"People say Yaya Toure is a holding midfielder. No he isn't, he's getting forward and getting goals - but if someone else goes he'll stay in there.

"Fernandinho's scoring goals. Why? Because he's a holding player? No. They've just got an understanding: ‘If he goes, I'll hold, and if I go he'll hold'.

Ferdinand, Ramsey and Sherwood's vision of Tottenham's midfield is thus not seemingly one where all central midfielders bomb forward and leave gaps for opponents to exploit. It is simply one where there is no dedicated destroyer- one where all central players are to some extent destroyers, but also dynamically act as playmakers or runners depending on their skills sets.

Furthermore, it is for this exact same reason that we shouldn't worry about the future of Sandro in Tottenham's midfield. For all his tackling prowess, it's actually very easy to see the Brazilian beast functioning in a midfield system where he's asked to go forward when a partner holds and drop back as others press forward- after all, that's exactly what he did in his first half-season last year under Andre Villas-Boas, in a partnership with Mousa Dembele. Though Villas-Boas made many mistakes in his tenure at Tottenham, what should have been one of his lasting legacies was a fluid, telepathic pivot- exemplified best in the victory at Old Trafford and a later match at Fulham in 2012, as the stats below illustrate. On both days, Dembele and Sandro split responsibilities to create and prevent chances more evenly than their nominal places in the team might lead one to suspect.

Dembele Vs Man U Sandro
82% Pass Accuracy 86%
51 Touches 46
2 Fouls 1
3 Key Passes 1
4 Dribbles Won 1
5 Tackles 7
Vs Fulham
93% Pass Accuracy 91%
81 Touches 79
0 Total Shots 1
0 Goals 1
1 Assists 0
1 Key Passes 0
3 Interceptions 4
1 Dribbles Won 0
3 Tackles 3

Sandro's three goals in a Tottenham shirt further illustrate his ability to step up and make a difference in the final third when the team are struggling to carve out clear-cut chances- something purer holders like Wilson Palacios and Scott Parker could never quite manage to do during their time in the sides.

Finally, of course, not playing a holding player as a de facto tactic doesn't rule out using them when the appropriate moment comes. In tighter games, it's easy to see the pivot or fluid midfield triangle being tweaked in the closing minutes to have players that shut up shop- something Tottenham did to great effect against Manchester United against at Old Trafford this year, a game that demonstrated to a great extent Sherwood's tactical pragmatism.

If Spurs are truly intent on forging on without a holding player, then as I've tried to demonstrate above, this should perhaps be cause for celebration rather than alarm- and more importantly it should pose no concern to Sandro, who is more than capable of transcending the narrow confines of the holding role to make a box-to-box impact for Tottenham for years to come.