There is a particular breed of Premier League central midfielder that divides opinion like no other. To some fans, they are the unsung heartbeat of their team; the modest metronome seamlessly tying everything together with minimal fuss. Others simply shrug their shoulders: square balls don’t win you football matches.
Their cause isn’t exactly helped by the flavour of the month culture that predominates in the modern game. A couple of years ago the likes of Tom Cleverley and Ashley Westwood were touted as the answer to English football’s midfield dilemma; today they both struggle to command starting spots at their woefully under-performing club sides.
Even Gareth Barry and Michael Carrick – who share over 80 England caps between them – have enjoyed patchy reputations that seem to not so coincidentally correspond with their teams’ overall performances. Carrick was cited as a key component in United’s 2008 Champions League success, but has come under increased scrutiny during the drab post-Ferguson era.
In 2016, Leicester’s Danny Drinkwater is the new prototype. The Red Devils academy graduate was largely ignored at the beginning of the season, more eye-catching performers like Vardy, Mahrez and even Kante – a proficient tackler with the ability to carry the ball the length of the pitch – having kept him out of the spotlight. Drinkwater eventually earned some belated recognition as his team settled into their role as runaway league leaders, culminating in his first international call-up in March.
Another factor is that British players – particularly those who arrived in the Premier League via a steady climb up the tumultuous lower leagues – carry a reputation for being dogged and determined, ostensibly lacking the panache of their Spanish or French counterparts.
Where statistical data and obvious technical prowess cannot measure a player’s influence – midfielders like Drinkwater enjoy high pass completion rates, but are usually short on decisive contributions – pundits and fans are left grappling with the intangibles.
He reads the game so well, it is often said and yet rarely expanded upon. The sentence usually accompanies a clip of the player making a routine interception, as though the ability to follow the trajectory of a pass amounts to evidence of a footballing sixth sense. Surely a competent reader of the game is able to identify when to keep it square and when to hunt for the goal, when to hold his position and when to support his forwards. Forget stats, there are not even any clips that can illustrate this; if the player is truly adept at reading the game, the fire will be put out before the match is even lit.
It follows that proponents of the quiet midfield mastermind, appearing to profess an understanding of the game beyond that of the average fan, are sometimes accused of being pretentious. Often, it’s not unwarranted: try to keep a straight face when one of your friends attempts to argue that it’s Sergio Busquets, and not Lionel Messi, who is Barcelona’s most important player.
Then again, there is surely no better authority to appeal to than that of the Premier League’s leading coaches. Cladio Ranieri and Slaven Bilic were quick to make Drinkwater and Mark Noble figureheads in their new teams after arriving in England in the summer. It’s easy for fans to call for more flashy players, but the man whose neck is on the line is understandably wedded to steady performers on whom he can rely.
The truth lies somewhere in between. Club partisanship aside, it probably won’t make much difference whether it’s Drinkwater, Noble, Carrick or Barry lining up for the Three Lions in the summer. But conservative possession and a viable ‘out ball’ for the more adventurous players can go a long way to closing out a nervy 1-0 win.