Quality comes in many forms. Not every player is able to flash their calibre through such self-evident acts of brilliance as a decisive finish, a last-ditch tackle, a defence-splitting pass or some mazy dribble past multiple markers.
Defensive midfielders seem particularly prone to going overlooked and unloved by those unable or unwilling to appreciate the less immediate parts of the game. Sitting deep ahead of the defence, much of their work can appear mundane, especially in an era where positioning and sideways passes have rendered the slide tackle and chancey hoofs up field obsolete. Possession of the ball, as well as the space in which to play, have become such premiums that football’s version of the admin role is now accepted as one of the most pivotal positions for any team harbouring trophy-winning ambitions.
Yet change is once again afoot, and in Daley Blind Manchester United have the kind of rearguard midfielder that looks set to become a tactical mainstay for the next half decade or so.
Philipp Lahm has shown the way at Bayern Munich, moving from right-back to midfield, a shift that last year led to the press tipping Roberto Martinez to try something similar with Leighton Baines. Arsene Wenger even hinted that he saw the anchor slot as Calum Chambers’ final destination. Yet it’s not as absurd as it all sounds. Full-backs who lack the speed and natural athleticism to dominate their flank through sheer pace and power alone have to become masters of timing. In order to thrive at the highest levels of the game, those without the instant acceleration, aggression and endless running of players like Rafael must instead rely on their powers of anticipation and ability to read a match a phase of play or two ahead.
Football is only becoming more fluid, so it makes sense that players who had to gain such a perceptive insight into the game in one position are able to transfer their skills to other areas of their team. And much like how the most versatile and talented wingers are threatening the traditional role of the fixed, central playmaker, the extra mobility offered by usually nimble, clever full-backs redeployed in midfield means that it’s a trend that is likely to grow.
Blind has never been the quickest of players, but his technical quality and studious reading of the game enabled him to develop into a Champions League regular at left-back for Ajax. Though even as the son of Danny Blind he had to work hard to prove himself and he wasn’t always regarded as a player destined for the heighest level. A January loan move to FC Groningen in 2010 saw him spend the second half of the league season playing as a right-back for one of the Eredivisie smaller, more provincial clubs. Yet the appointment of Frank de Boer proved to be a turning point. The new Ajax boss recognised Blind’s qualities and gave him the time and trust to become his team’s first-choice left-back, and later their defensive keystone in midfield.
He may well come to be as important for United, and the Dutchman has already looked supremely comfortbale and competant at the base of Louis van Gaal’s new-look midfield, both as a passer and an interceptor of threats to the defence. The manner of his passing, and particularly how he looks to use the ball when in possession, has already drawn plaudits from both the stat heads and more romantic observers. Without taking undue risks, he constantly looks to play it forward and maintain the momentum and intensity of the team’s attacking flow. There’s a certain amount of aggression to his passes, as if he is determined to use every interception and loose ball as a chance to ramp up the pressure on his opponents, making every transition and turnover count.
As Sir Alex Ferguson put it in his recent interview with MUTV he said: “Daley Blind is one of those common-sense footballers that make up a team. […] He keeps it simple and protects the defenders and the attacking midfield players in his role.” Common-sense: making the right decisions, being wise to risks, never over-stretching yourself or putting the ball in harm’s way.
Much has already been said about what Blind’s impact will have on the future of Michael Carrick. At 33 years of age, the Englishman is unlikely to gain any extra spring to his step when he returns to full fitness. He may even be less mobile than before due to the combined toll of age and injury. Yet he should still be useful as a safety player to double up some of Blind’s duties in the most testing fixtures this season.
“Safety player” seems to sum Carrick up quite well. His champions need only point to his medal collection and the part he played in United’s late 00’s Champions League winning team to prove his quality, but doubtors and critics remain, largely because he is too timid; too safe. Roy Keane covered Carrick’s duties while also leading by example, bursting up and down the field, clearing out opponenets, playing nasty if he had to and, as the cliché goes, taking games by the scruff of the neck.
However, football is a game that evolves in cycles, in which old ideas are brought back around as new, recycled, remixed and reinterpreted for some fresh context. As Keane’s career wound down, so too did the all-encompassing role he fulfilled for United. The European game especially began to emphasise the importance of specialists rather than players able to cover all their bases.
Even the few who tried to follow in the Irishman’s footsteps were outfoxed by the proliferation of holding players and cynical tactical systems designed to flood midfield, deny them space and turn their up-down movement against them. At that point, Carrick made sense: he was a safe pair of feet to sit behind Paul Scholes and Owen Hargreaves, who provided the impetus while he kept the team’s passing game ticking over while plugging the gap between midfield and defence. He was a ball-recovering passer not a complete, ball-winning box-to-box midfielder. He didn’t need to be. Yet he was and always has been a very passive, reactive player whose bread and butter lay in interceptions and pass completion percentages.
Blind hasn’t got anything to be ashamed about when it comes to either of those two metrics, but due to his greater mobility—first-hand knowledge of the full-back role and how they need to be adequetely covered and supported from midfield—and more intentful passing, he has looked like a protagonist on the field rather than a bystander. It may sound counterintuitive—and down right wrong to his most ardent critics—but part of the reason for this is that Blind is in some ways less ambitious with his passing compard to Carrick. While the Englishman likes to try and pick out team mates with long diagonal balls and the occasioanal direct, deep launch to the front, Blind insteads looks for snappier options nearer and ahead of him, allowing him to find team mates faster and increase the tempo of passes. Add in his greater agility and movement, and it’s easy to see why a moving body constantly looking to offer a fast supply line to teammates in advanced positions has appeared more dynamic than a slow, static figure whose options can often look limited due to his inability to pass and move effectively.
So after Keane the defensive dynamo and Carrick the safety player, it seems as though Blind the return serve is all set to take on the mantle of being new United’s defensive midfielder in the position’s latest, most fashionable iteration. After all, like Lahm, the Dutchman is another full-back transformed into a defensively sound passing machine.
He may ultimately still just be the midfield admin guy—sitting back to deal with the onslaught of on-field paperwork that comes with every bad pass and dangerous breakaway—but rather than getting bogged down in the minutiae, he looks capable of cutting through the red tape to offer a renewed sense of clarity and direction from deep.
The appeal of the defensive midfielder may not always be obvious, but when it comes to players like Blind, they are at least able to show their workings in a way that’s a bit more engaging than the humdrum world of the old style holding midfielders.