Gedion Zelalem and the interpretation of a role

Match Analysis
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There has been a frustrating recurrence of the entrenched idea that a player is either an attacker or a defender; and, going further, that a midfielder either has to tackle robustly or play defence-splitting passes and/or score every few minutes. This belief is predicated on the superiority of the "position", when in fact to speak of a "holding midfielder" merely describes a player's position on the pitch, and not the interpretation of that role. From this, players providing a more under-the-radar role rather than the final flourish can often be overlooked. Overlooked, but nevertheless crucial to the team.

The game has changed. We've seen a shift from the 3-band formations (4-4-2) to the 4-band (4-2-3-1), leading to a split in the role of the central midfielder. The box-to-box players of yesteryear have been left to one side, in favour of midfielders with narrower roles, generally defined as holders and creators. But, then there are more splits, as players wrestle within the confines of these broad roles.

We all know that, in football, there are 11 players in a team, with each assigned to a particular position of the pitch: a goalkeeper and 10 outfield players. The 10 outfield players fill various defensive, midfield and attacking positions, depending on the formation employed. These positions are fairly fixed and don't reveal much, other than the player's area of operation of the pitch and a general role. Within these positions, it's fairly fluid.

As 4-band formations have come to the fore, the term 'midfielder' has become ever more vague, and so players have thrown off the shackles of their 'position'. So, while they all occupy the same third of the pitch, their roles come in many different shapes, sizes and styles; and each role can operate in any potential position.

Four roles are fairly obvious to the eye: Regista (Italian for 'director') is used to describe the deep-lying playmaker (Andrea Pirlo being the supreme example, with Luca Modric and Steven Gerard occupying these roles over the last few years); the Destroyer, or Makelele role, tasked with stopping attacks, breaking-up play and generally 'destroying' the opposition's rhythm (Claude Makelele made this role his own, but Javier Macherano and Nigel De Jong have come to play this role recently -- Rino Gattuso being another to make this role his own); the Runner, tasked with providing the energy and carrying the ball (whether that's the powerhouses like Patrick Viera and Yaya Toure, or more slight and nimble players like Jordan Henderson and Vidal); and the Trequartista, the more advanced playmaker (generally referred to as the No.10, or Enganche) tasked with linking the midfield and attack, and usually playing in the hole (Juan Roman Riquelme epitomised this role, but Mesut Ozil and David Silva are modern practitioners).

These roles can be employed in many different positions. Previously, the holding midfielder was expected to resemble Claude Makelele. At Real Madrid and Chelsea, it was Makelele’s ability to snuff out attacks, win the ball back that allowed the forward players the freedom to play. Makelele never veered from this remit: when he won the ball back, he simply passed it square or back to a team-mate as quickly as possible.

Now, the defensive midfielder has evolved to employ a different role, the "Guardiola" role -- another term for Regista. Whereas tackling was Makelele's main responsibility (Destroyer), the holding midfielder now sees his main job as to recycle possession and build attacks. The new breed is Sergio Busquets: physically slight and almost never tackles, the Spaniard nevertheless plays an extremely important role for Barcelona with his positional sense and technical ability.

We've even seen old-style holding midfielders such as Javier Mascherano increasingly being used as centre-backs, where they are tasked with keeping the passing simple, without losing that tough-tackling nature. Javi Martinez at Athletic Bilbao under Marcelo Bielsa and at Bayern under Guardiola has often been deployed in the back-four despite being ostensibly a Destroyer.

Positions are fairly fixed, but roles within are fluid. Some midfielders combine a variety of 'roles'. Xabi Alonso can be categorised as a Regista, but also a runner (in his younger days); Bastian Schweinsteiger fits into the same category; Sami Khedira is a destroyer with running ability; Luka Modric a runner with Regista tendencies.

The latest role to be 'identified' is the Metronome. Named after the musical device that indicates tempo, the Metronome has to have the ability to recycle possession quickly and effectively whilst remaining constantly in control of the ball, moving and picking passes into space and using the pitch to the greatest advantage. The Metronome appears where the man in possession needs him to be when under pressure, whether in front of the back four or in between the lines, always offering an outlet. It's an unglamorous role -- there's no goal at the end of it, and there are no defence-splitting passes -- but vital to the team functioning smoothly.

It's a position that's still underused in the British game, but, there are three players in particular that have performed this role: Mikel Arteta, Joe Allen and Paul Scholes. Arguably the finest English midfielder since Paul Gascoigne, Scholes was described by Xavi as 'the best midfield player of the last 15-20 years'. Starting as a runner and Trequartista, he most recently occupied the Metronome role for Manchester United: the creative hub upon which the whole team operates. He is pivotal in ensuring Man Utd effectively recycle possession providing the platform upon which all offensive play is built. (He also played the Regista role, but we'll concentrate on the Metronome role.) Allen and Arteta, occupying a level below the great Scholes, similarly perform this role, dictating play, recycling possession and influencing the whole team. Unnoticed, but crucial to the team.

Then there is Leon Britton -- perhaps a little more at Rangers' level (maybe...?). The 5ft 5in Metronome at Swansea was crucial to the teams of Roberto Martinez, Brendan Rogers and Michael Laudrup. He has played over 500 games for Swansea, rarely scoring and rarely assisting. Their meteoric rise through the divisions would not have been possible without this little maestro; crucial to the possession-based, attacking football developed by Martinez.

Rangers don't have a bad situation when it comes to player roles. We have Registas (Halliday, Shiels), Runners (Law, Holt), Destroyers (Ball, Halliday -- Perhaps I'm pushing it here...), and Trequartistas (Shiels, Holt) -- albeit lacking the quality that we'd ideally like! McKay can play Trequartista and Runner too. Generally, we're well equipped, which is not the case in Britain as a whole.

In Britain, there is generally an over-enthusiasm and a lack of diversity in midfield roles: we either have a Regista, Runner or a Trequartista. One sits deep and the other plays quite advanced; the runner is the link-up man, but is often bombing forward. Players tend to want to attack the opponent's goal at every opportunity. This enthusiasm and directness can be a good quality but it can often negatively affect the team's rhythm because players want to immediately dribble or run forward in search of a goal -- less patient fans often desire this... -- creating a disconnect between the deeper players and the forward players. There must be patience and a planned method of working the ball forward. It is often better to remain patient in possession and wait for the correct space and time to attack: by passing the ball from side to side, the team will keep its opponent on the run, resulting in tiredness or an attacking opportunity.

This two-dimensional set-up (where deeper players and forward players are too far apart) is generally predictable and easy enough to try and negate, with opponents happy to press or sit off a Regista (Halliday) and man-mark a Trequartista (Holt). It then comes down to the individual quality of these players, which results in success or failure: Can Holt find that yard of space? Can Halliday ping a pass accurately enough?

When these roles come into difficulty, the team needs a link-up man, or a Metronome. The player that can drift into space, shield the ball, recycle it to keep it moving and the opposition guessing, before passing it off onto someone to make that final play. It's an unassuming role, but important for the rest of the team. Rangers only have one player that incorporates this metronome role: Gedion Zelalem.

Inevitably following a bad team performance, young Gedion Zelalem is first in line for criticism. This criticism invariably consists of the following: "he never makes a telling pass", "too weak", "never wins a header", "can't shoot to save his life", "only passes backwards" etc. Blah, blah nauseam.

He is an easy target, simply because his role doesn't consist of the eye-catching moments: scoring a wonder goal, playing a defence-splitting pass, or even getting 'stuck in' with a hard tackle. Whereas the other roles are fairly visible -- we can see the runner bursting a gut, we can see the Regista spreading long passes, and we can see the destroyer making hard tackles -- the Metronome goes under-the-radar. But that doesn't mean they are not influential or an important part of the team. As such, Zelalem has no immediate need to display these qualities to have a positive influence on the team.

It's difficult to quantify 'influence'. A defensive midfielder's influence could be measured by the number of tackles they make, the number of passes, accuracy of those passes etc. But, then if they don't make many tackles, does that mean they are not contributing? Well, no. Sergio Busquets averages a meagre 3 tackles per game -- and this ignores whether he wins them or not! -- but this doesn't mean he's a bad player: he's demonstrably not a bad player!

A striker generally gets judged on goals, but then if he doesn't score is he not contributing? Tory Deeney has only scored 7 from 25 games, a poor record by anyone's standard, but his contribution is undeniable to Watford. Bojan fairs even worse, with 5 goals from 22 games. Again, a big player for Stoke.

Midfielders -- in the broadest possible sense of the word -- are judged on assists and goals. Looking at the stats of the Metronome players mentioned above, it doesn't make for great reading: Allen, Arteta and Busquets average 2-4 assists per season (when playing over 30 games). The great Scholes averages the same. And goals-scored only reach 1 or 2 in a season. Are they then not contributing to the team? Certainly not: they are vital to their respective teams.

What unites these players is the number of games played. All play over 30 games in a league season, regularly. The measure of a player's importance, or influence, can maybe be quantified by the number of games played. If a manager -- a greater judge of a player's contribution than any fan -- continues to play the player, then surely he must deem him influential?

What does this say about Zelalem? Well, yes, he may indeed not "play a telling pass", or score goals, or win aerial duels and tackles, but that's not his role. He is a Metronome; his influence is more subtle and, in my view, important than that; to recyce possession, create space, dictate the tempo. (I'd like to judge him on number of passes, accuracy of those passes, but these stats are not available in the Scottish Championship -- and simply counting from the stands is not going to do it for me!) Even if we to judge him on assists, he doesn't do that badly, contributing 4 assists in 15 games (and 8 in all competitions). But, perhaps the best judge of his influence is the fact that Mark Warburton has played him in 85% of games this season.

The Metronome is a unique role, often overlooked because they don't get the glory, or their contribution is not as visible. Nevertheless, the most successful sides of the last decade have utilised this role to great effect, overlooking a lack of goals and assists, preferring control of possession and tempo. Some of the best players in the world have adapted to this role, sacrificing individual glory for the needs of the team. It's time to recognise the positive influence Zelalem makes to Rangers, instead of criticising him for not conforming to out-dated, preconceived ideas of what a midfielder is 'supposed to do'.

Times have changed: the box-to-box player is obsolete. Players are defined not by their position, but by what they can do. Let's catch up with the rest of the world.

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