“No! I want the No5 shirt, the one that (insert name of holding midfielder) wears!”
If you overheard a Brazilian lad make such a plea to his father when buying A Seleção shirt, you can bet the boy either stands out as a strong character or is unusually observant. And for sure he would be one of a very small minority.
The holding midfield role in Brazilian football is far from the most glamorous of positions. Yet there is no denying that in each and every one of Brazil’s five FIFA World Cup™ triumphs, the man who occupied that role was far more than a mere accessory to the attacking talent ahead of him. He was absolutely fundamental in steering the team to glory. In the country of fabulous No10s, mesmerising dribblers and attacking football, where winning ugly is sometimes considered not winning at all, much of the historical success can be traced to a player who although not a defender, has a mission to mark his adversaries.
“Just think about it,” Mario Zagallo said, who played a role in four of the five conquests, in conversation to FIFA.com. “In 58 and 62 we had Zito, who was one of the true leaders of that team. He was the captain of Pele’s Santos. In 70, I pushed Wilson Piazza back to the fourth defender, because we had Clodoaldo who was a great passer and who won back the ball well. And in 94 nobody could get the better of our midfield containing Mauro Silva and the captain Dunga.”
Add to this the unending toil of Gilberto Silva and Kleberson in providing back-up for full-backs Cafu and Roberto Carlos in 2002, and we have the complete set of holding midfielders as leading protagonists in Brazil’s World Cup winning teams. This without ignoring the nuance pointed out by Zito to FIFA.com. “In my time the holding midfielder did not exist: midfield was midfield. But you had the freedom to attack and to defend. It was the same with the full-backs,” he explained, describing the role he played for Santos and in Brazil’s World Cup triumphs at Sweden 1958 and Chile 1962. “If you were playing against quality opposition, you played further back. Against a less troublesome team you would go on the attack. You weren’t restricted to defending.”
Whether or not Josef Masopust’s Czechoslovakia was “a less troublesome team” is open to debate, but the fact is that in the 1962 World Cup final Zito lent his hand in attack, scoring one of the three goals as Brazil ran out 3-1 victors. He was doing his job as a “midfielder”, not a “holding midfielder”.
Football moves on, the holders remain
Observing the way this position has evolved is enlightening when studying how football in general, and Brazilian football in particular, has changed over time. In analysing the 1970 triumph in Mexico for FIFA.com, Clodoaldo pointed out the step forward taken. He was a holding midfielder first and foremost, his main duty being to mark the opposition. “It was an easy option for me. I didn’t need Zagallo to tell me to do it. No matter how good I was on the ball, I needed only to look ahead and see Jairzinho, Gerson, Tostao, Pele and Rivellino, to realise it would be a folly to try and outdo those monsters,” explained the smiling Corro, the No5 of that team. “At the time I was the only holding midfielder providing protective cover for the defence. Today the tactical formations include two, even three, pure holding midfielders.”
It was from that moment that things changed for good. The physical preparation of footballers evolved, the game became quicker, space became more condensed. New weapons were required, such as marauding full-backs, and to accommodate them it needed somebody – the holding midfielders – to provide cover. The speed of the game then increased to such an extent that these players had to mark the opposition, provide cover and even lend their hand in attack. It is the job description of the modern holding midfielder, such as Paulinho or Ramires, to stick to Brazilian examples.
But the arrival of this type of player did not necessarily mean abandoning the protective holder, whose job was to steal the ball, pass it and wait for the next time it was necessary to win back possession. At least that is the opinion of the man who played this role at Korea/Japan 2002, Gilberto Silva, in an interview published by FIFA.com in November 2012. “This concept changed, especially here in Brazil, where you always hear people on TV talking about the ‘modern holding midfielder’. If you don’t join the attack, you don’t score and so you are not modern,” said the former Arsenal captain, who today plays for Atletico Mineiro. “But look how many times the opposition midfielders are nullified by such a player. I think in the past there were more holding midfielders with this mission of doing the dirty work, providing defensive cover, without weakening the offensive movements of his team.”
And so we arrive at the 2014 FIFA World Cup. In contemporary times there is no doubt. Gilberto Silva’s thinking was 100 per cent valid for the man at the helm of A Seleção in 2002. Shortly before the FIFA Confederations Cup 2013, Luiz Felipe Scolari emphatically gave his opinion on the matter.
“A Seleção won in 1994 and who were the holding midfielders? Mauro Silva and Dunga. And what about 2002? Gilberto Silva and Kleberson. This idea painted in the press of the goal-scoring holding midfielder is all well and good. But it’s not all well and good for the coach and the team. When you have full-backs like we do, Daniel Alves and Marcelo, you need protection.”
Even accounting for Scolari’s habit of providing bruising responses when his choices are questioned, the fact is despite the versatility of players such as Paulinho and Ramires, he will not even consider forsaking a midfielder whose sole purpose is to protect the defence. Ex-Gremio player Fernando, now at Shakhtar Donetsk, has been tested out, as has Liverpool’s Lucas Leiva. Manchester City’s Fernandinho has recently entered the fight for a place in the 23-man squad as a player who fits the “modern” prototype but who also plays as a conventional protector.
Everybody is waiting to see who will partner the undisputed starter, Luiz Gustavo, who was given his chance in June 2013 and has made a place in the side his own, thanks to his energy, tight marking and decision making. Not to mention the unassuming attitude he revealed to FIFA.com at the start of the year: “I have no problem marking my man and letting the others go forward to score the goals.”
During the World Cup you will see few youngsters wearing the shirts of holding midfielders like Luiz Gustavo, and the players are well aware of the fact. But they also know that if the next Brazil kit has another star on it, a huge contribution to earning it would have been made by the unglamorous industry carried out in midfield.