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Attacking Central Midfielders (Recreating Scholes/Lampard)

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Introduction

Most attacking tactical discussion on this board revolves around strikers, wingers, and attacking midfielders. This is understandable because by virtue of where they are positioned on the field, they are best positioned to create chances and score goals. I think this make some people forget the central midfielders, which used to be considered a mainstream viable and important source of goals for many teams, especially in England. In the modern era, names such as Scholes, Lampard, and Gerrard pop up as examples of great goal-scoring midfielders.

Why do we see less of them now?

1. The change of Wingers' roles

Wingers, the position, not the role, used to be mainly creators. They used to hug the touchline, stretching defense and create chances from wide positions through dribbles, crossing, and penetrative runs. In the past 10 years, we have seen the rise of inside-forwards playing in the winger positions. In England, Arsenal showed the way with the likes of Ljungberg and Pires who consistently cut inside into scoring positions, while Henry, Wiltord, Reyes, and even Bergkamp dragged their marker wide. Later, Mourinho's Chelsea with the likes of Robben and Duff stormed through England with inside forwards. In Continental Europe, blessed with an abundance of great attacking midfielders (many of which imported from Latin America) many managers opted to employ 2-3 attacking midfielders in the same line-up, usually supporting 1 striker. These attacking midfielders, such as Ronaldinho, formerly operating just behind the striker, had a tendency to cut inside. Later on, inside forwards went mainstream, and specialists began to prop up in numbers as we see today.

How does this affect central midfielders?

Back when the world was full of 4-4-2, most teams either had the combination of one attacking central midfielder, and one defensive central midfielder (Scholes & Keane) or two box-to-box midfielders (Vieira & Petit.) The reason this was possible was that despite having two strikers, the wingers were operating on the touchline. This created the space for one of the central midfielder to push forward and operate in said space. He could create chances from behind the strikers, or even attack the box from chances created by the wingers.

With the change of wingers role from mainly creator, to inside-forwards, which are goal-scorers, this clogged up space in front of the central midfielders. Central Midfielders are relegated to creative and supportive roles that wingers used to have. Even the great Busquets, Xavi, and Iniesta combination doesn't score that many goals. Instead, they create chances for the Barcelona front three, usually Messi, Villa, Sanchez, and Pedro. Even in a 4-4-2, Vieira, despite being a box-to-box midfielder, did not find himself in as many scoring positions as Henry, Ljungberg, or Pires.

2. The Rise of Attacking Midfielders and lone striker

I need not go into the history of attacking midfielders and lone striker because it is extremely well record by those who are far knowledgeable than me. The rise of these two roles is linked because it is a natural evolution from the two striker partnership. Having an attacking midfielder, one again, clog up space in front of the central midfielders. Without space, they can't push forward.

The 4-2-3-1 trend, combined with inside forwards, have almost killed bombarding central midfielders. The two wingers (inside forwards) are usually goal-scorers. This leave the AM-ST combination. Sometimes we get a supporting attacking-midfielder and goal-scoring striker (Oezil and Gomez for Germany) and sometimes we get a goal-scoring midfielder, and a supporting striker (I can't think one from the top of my head right now, but Arsenal play this way when Chamakh is the lone striker.) Regardless, the amount of goal-scorers remain 3, which seems to be the magic number, except now central midfielders aren't involved. Central midfielders have been relegated to creative and supportive roles, like ones we see all over the world such as Arteta-Song for Arsenal, Khedira & Bastian for Germany, Alonso & Mascherano for Liverpool, etc etc.

3. Specialization

The trend of specialization has also hurt marauding central midfielders. This is because they are, by nature, all-rounded players. They usually operate in central midfield with one other, so they had to be able to push forward, dominate midfield, and shield the backline. With specialization, they're not needed for all those roles anymore.

The rise of specialist attacking midfielders and inside forwards, and how they clog up space, have already been discussed. The rise of specialist defensive midfielders, a natural evolution to combat the specialist attacking midfielder, also in a way, hurt attacking central midfielders. More and more, they're pushed into a defensive-supportive role. In the old days, the likes of Gareth Barry would probably be considered box-to-box midfielders, but today, with at least 4 players in front of him, and fullbacks to his flanks, he has been specialized into holding midfielders.

Some Observations:

I noticed that in most formations, there are usually 3 main attacking positions. In 4-4-2, there was usually one main goal-scoring striker, one more attacking central midfielder, and one more attacking winger. This is probably true with Man Utd in the 90s, when Giggs was the more offensive than Beckham, and Scholes than Keane. At Arsenal, the two wingers, Pires and Ljungberg, and Henry were the main attacking outlet. In modern day 4-2-3-1, the two wingers are usually goal-scorers, while the AM-ST combination changes accordingly. The same rule of thumb applies. In a 4-3-3 (or FM's 4-5-1) the front three is usually the 3 main attacking outlets backed by three supportive central midfielders, such as at Barcelona. There is the variation with a supportive striker, and a more attacking central midfielder, such as Mourinho's Chelsea when Drogba was the striker.

The rules are obviously blurred when you have great players who can do a number of things. Drogba's ability to provide a focal point in attack, and bring others into play (eg. supporting striker) allowed Lampard to push forward, but it didn't stop Drogba from scoring goals, as strikers should. Or how Bergkamp, although mainly played in a supporting role, did not stop scoring goals either.

How do we bring them back?

For those who want to see, again, attacking central midfielders like Lampard and Scholes, who used to score 15+ goals/season, you must first identify what kind of tactical framework did they flourish in. For me, the key to getting central midfielders to properly push forward into dangerous positions is the same as getting any player from deeper positions to push forward: SPACE. Wingbacks do their best work when in front of them are inside forwards who will cut inside, and open up the flanks for them to attack. The same is true for central midfielders. If you want them to push forward, you need to create the space for them to do so.

The role I'm going to choose to represent the attacking central midfielder in FM is obviously, the attacking central midfielder:

b7iI6.jpg

As said in the tactic creator, the attacking central midfielder needs to be able to attack the box, create chances, and also roam around to support plays everywhere. The key is his often FWR and TB, his roaming, and high creativity. Who you choose to play here depends on how well supported this player is. If he's well supported, as in he's got a ball-winner next to him, and a DM behind him, then you can afford to play a more naturally gifted attacking player like Iniesta. If he's part of a 2 man CM, then you need a more all-rounded player like Marchisio. Take note that in FM12, the ME bug make 2 CMs inherently weak defensively.

The most basic way to get this role to work is to go back to the formation that they once flourished in: 4-4-2

H1NZI.jpg

Basic 4-4-2, but one that the attacking central midfielder can really do well in (think Scholes.) Working on the right side on the midfield means he doesn't get blocked off by the DLF, who will drop deep, and he can also attack the box freely. He can push forward and create chances for the striker, or when the Adv. Forward drifts wide (due to roaming and "move into channel" WP) he can attack the box. Keep in mind of how weak the 2CMs set up is though.

However many, if not most, of the big teams nowadays use only one striker, due to the rise in the two roles I've already discussed above.

I've identified the two roles that hurt central midfielders: 1) Attacking midfielders 2) Inside forwards.

If you have both in your team (ie. 4-2-3-1) then I think you're going to struggle to get your central midfielders to push forward. There's just not enough space. If, you only have one or the other, such as no attacking midfielders (FM's 4-5-1) or no inside forwards (4-4-1-1, 4-1-4-1, 4-1-2-1-2, or the 4-3-2-1) then the task become much more probable. If there isn't an attacking midfielder, then you can create space for the attacking central midfielder to exploit, as long as you don't clog it up with other players (ie. 2 inside forwards and a supporting striker.) If you have no one on the flanks, then when the attacking midfielder and/or striker drift wide, space will open up for the attacking central midfielder. If you have both, then a number of scenarios could limit your attacking central midfielder's space. For example:

1) Attacking midfielder and inside forwards. Just as attacking midfielders drift wide, your inside forwards drift inside. If the inside-forward only drift inside, the the area become even more congested

2) Attacking midfielder and wingers. The flanks are taken up by the wingers and full backs, so your attacking midfielder can't move out of the way

3) Attacking midfielder and support striker (ie. False 9 & False 10, combo.) Even if the attacking midfielder pushes forward, the striker drops deep to take up space.

Etc. I'm sure you can imagine other scenarios as well.

If there aren't inside forwards, attacking midfielder and strikers drifting wide can create space for the attacking central midfielder. For example, the 4-4-1-1:

nantk.jpg

In this formation, the two wide-midfielders take supporting roles. This is so they remain out wide and deep. Staying wide means they don't clog up the space in front of the central midfield. Staying deep gives space for the Treq and Adv. Forward to drift wide (both with roaming and "move-into-channel' WP) creating space for the central midfielder to push forward.

The formation I used to implement the attacking central midfielder is the FM's 4-5-1.

2dzix.jpg

This formation was inspired by Mourinho's Chelsea. Lampard scored 15+ goals/season playing as the attacking central midfielder in this formation. In this formation there isn't an attacking midfielder blocking the way. Wingers, with "hug touchline" WP also prevents them from cutting inside and clogging up the area. The support DLF helps the central midfielder in 2 ways. One, he drops deep. Although this may seem like it'd block the CM's run, it actually gives him the license to push beyond the striker because there is no one there anymore. Two, the DLF has roaming ticked, and move-into-channel WP, so when he drifts wide, the CM can push forward. The attacking central midfielder has freedom to push forward because he's paired with a ballwinner or box-to-box player (Essien IRL, and Fellaini in my save,) and covered by a defensive midfielder (Makelele IRL, and Song in my save.)

Conclusion

Attacking central midfielders remain a viable tactical option, despite us living in a world full of attacking midfielders and inside forwards. Just like any other tactical option, the role must be accommodated by other roles. Having an attacking central midfielder usually means other attacking roles need to be relegated to more supportive roles. The magic number for a balanced tactical framework seems to be 3 attacking players from midfield and frontline. For those looking to recreate the famous scoring midfielders the most important thing to remember is to create space for them to exploit.

Cheers!

***NOTE***

English is not my first language so please excuse any errors in the post...

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I could show you clips of attacking central midfielders creating chances, but I don't think that's particularly exciting. I could show you clips of them attacking the box, or providing cut back options, but I think you've probably seen that many times from other central midfield roles. Even the defensive ones push forward to provide cutback options from time to time.

So I got a clip of an attacking central midfielder making a forward run from deep into scoring position. This, I think, is far more interesting. It clearly shows what I discussed above. It shows how wingers need to stay wide, and how strikers need to create space for the attacking central midfielder to exploit.

The clip is Diaby who when I use in this role, I lower this TB setting to "Sometimes" because his passing isn't that great.

[video=youtube;BGXsKpOT0-E]

Notice how Podolski (my left winger) stayed wide to receive the counter-attacking pass. He was able to give it to Bendtner who, with his roaming and "move-into-channel" WP, drifted wide to pick up the ball. Bendtner laid it back to Song, the DM, who made a through pass for Diaby who by then has pushed forward into scoring position that the striker usually occupies.

This shows how the opponents failed to deal with the various movements, both in terms of drifting wide, and forward runs from deep. It also shows how players create space for others, and how their teammates were able to take advantage of the space created for them.

Cheers!

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Nice post.

I think 4-5-1 is the best formation for attacking CM, because there is naturally space ahead of him (only one player in AMC/FC positions). Also from a defensive standpoint there are two midfielders still covering. In a two-man central midfielder CM/a is too offensive for my taste.

I don't use a traditional TC role for the attacking CM though, but use box-to-box as a starting point, give him often RFD, increase his mentality and reduce his TTB. Often this guy will take plenty of wasteful long shots, but it'll result in spectacular goals as well. Last time I played this way I had two players scoring +15 goals a season from that position.

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Great thread! I like the idea of the return of a goal scoring central midfielder.

I’d never really thought before why there’s not really a goal scoring central midfielder anymore I thought it was mainly due to the likes of Scholes and Lampard becoming older and less physically able to burst into the box so have taken on more of a supporting role.

But as you say the introduction of inside forwards cutting inside and attacking midfielders making teams play in more narrow formations has probably had a massive significance in the decrease in goal scoring central midfielders.

I think key stats to a good attacking central midfielder are obviously finishing but the likes of stamina, and pace to get them to run into the space from a much deeper position when compared to an attacking midfielder would reap dividends.

The likes of anticipation, decisions and off the ball I imagine would also be key to a great attacking central midfielder. What makes it slightly more difficult to implement in modern football is the defensive midfielder, who can block the runs of the midfielder or intercept the pass forward. But maybe playing a deep attacking midfielder will draw the defensive midfielder?

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I think MC(a) is my favourite position/role combination. It's a great role in a lot of formations, basically any formation that leaves at least two other midfielders to be more defensive should look to free up a man to play MC(a). Not doing so is leaving goals on the table.

I do disagree with one of your points though. I really think the MC(a) not only works with inside forwards, it's perfect for that setup. The threat of the three front line players creates the space. Look at a typical situation with inside forwards (or even a flat 4-3-3): you'll have the central striker marked by a centre back, and the two wider players marked by full backs, all of them lurking in dangerous positions. As soon as the spare centre back is required to move and help out on one of those players you have a gaping hole that's perfect for the advancing MC(a) to storm right through. And if the centre back decides to step out to cover the MC(a) instead, then he becomes a perfect decoy. You've now got your three true forwards playing a one on one game, if any of them can beat their man then they're left with only the keeper to beat.

It's not the size of the space that matters, it's where the space is. With three players pushed right up and occupying the defense as goal threats then any hole that opens up is going to be in a very dangerous area. So your MC(a) may not ever find himself in acres of space, but when he does get space it'll be a CCC more often than not.

Re the above point about DMs: Yes it can put a dampener on things, but I find the way to exploit it is to recognise that most formations playing a DM don't have a lot of defensive support out wide. If you can use an attacking full back to draw him out of position (and if the full backs are covering the inside forwards, the DM is forced to do so) then he's a lot less of a problem. Of course playing inside forwards plus attacking full backs you're vulnerable out wide too if you turn the ball over ... but there's nothing that is without trade offs!

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Great thread! :thup:

Like you I'm quite fond of the attacking central midfielder, and I agree 4-5-1 is probably the best way to implement him. I started a Liverpool save recently and by January Gerrard had already scored 12 goals from open play. With an anchor man and a deep-lying playmaker protecting his runs and a front three of Kuyt keeping width on the right, and Podolski/Suarez playing as a complete forward dropping deep or an inside forward in the left Gerrard's perfectly placed as a CM®, exploiting the space the forward leaves with his movement, the left inside forward pins back the fullback and the right winger stretches the play. Like this he often gets in shooting positions at the edge of the box or rushes past defenders to latch on to through balls. Not surprisingly he's leading the scoring charts, level with Podolski (also 12 goals), and just before Suarez (11 goals).

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I have (and have for last several editions of the game) played a straight 442 using MC(a) and MC with defensive duties. His role is exactly as you lay out in the initial post- he adds scoring, while also being a key ingredient of my offense. Despite the variety of formations available- this remains my preferred style of play.

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