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The importance of the holding midfielder

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I have to confess that the Montreal Impact is not the only team I root for. For years now I have been an Arsenal FC fan. Since I started watching the team on a weekly basis in about 2006, I've had a love/hate relationship with the team and it's coach, Arsène Wenger.

Seemingly blessed with a plethora of talent, the team always seemed to find a way to disappoint me.

In recent years, or more precisely since the Impact became my new team, both teams began to mirror each other in their defensive fragility and other weaknesses, such as set-piece defending and set-piece offense. Both squads seemed to lose games in very similar ways: a late header in the box by the opposing team, or just a lack of interior defense up the spine of the team.

You'd be surprised how much in common two teams who are on completely different ends of the salary spectrum could be. For years, Arsenal have lacked a defensive force in midfield and in central defense. All the offense in the world can't win you games if you're fragile in the middle of the pitch. It's a point that I've argued for years because, well, I've seen it play out a weekly basis for so long.

So when the Impact went out and acquired six central defense/midfield players (Laurent Ciman, Bakary Soumare, Wilson Cabrera, Marco Donadel, Nigel Reo-Coker and Eric Alexander) this year, many of who have a history of success on their respective teams, I was obviously very pleased. This was after all exactly what the team had lacked for much of its time in the MLS, and the beginning to what I think will be a big turnaround in Montréal.

To the casual fan, goals that are scored on a counterattack are all about the key pass and the eventual goal. But most of these goals never happen if not for a key tackle by a defensive player and a key outlet pass that springs the attack.

Most of the time these important plays are performed by a CDM. If played at a high level, this player's job is to stifle the opposition's attack with good, hard physical play, while also being technically apt at quickly distributing the ball to the creative players up front.

Why fouling is important

While watching an Arsenal match this week, I commented to a friend about the risk/reward of a forceful tackle on the pitch. There are many types of tackles and fouls. A good foul, in my opinion, is one where the tackler tries to provoke a turnover near the middle of the pitch or in the opposing team's half. If done without too much ill will, only two outcomes can take place. Worst-case you foul the opponent, resulting in a stoppage of play and a subsequent free kick, or you steal the ball and provoke a counter attack.

Fouling is often viewed as a negative action, but in reality it is often no worse than deflecting a pass out of bounds for a throw-in. It kills the play and lets the defense reset. For the holding midfielder, it also establishes a precedent on the pitch. It shows the opposition that they will have to work that much harder to keep possession.  

Obviously a bad tackle in a bad spot can be devastating, but if performed properly and often, tackling and fouling is often a recipe for stifling opposing team's moves, and re-launching one's own attack.

Experience and technical ability

Enter Nigel Reo-Coker and Marco Donadel, two players who have a ton of experience at the highest level (BPL, Serie A), and understand the importance of a good tackle. There's a reason why most teams in the world give the captaincy armband to CDM's or CB's. These players are the hub of the team, and are at the heart of every defensive stand and subsequent counter attack. 

In this humble blogger's opinion, the Impact's biggest problem last year was the lack of physicality in the midfield, as well as technical ability. The goalies and defense were picked on the most, but much of the opposition's attacks were created due to a lack of pushback and grind in the middle of the pitch.

You may say, "where is the new, high-priced striker?" and "how many midfielders do we need, anyway?"

Well to answer the latter, you can't have enough midfielders. They work the hardest, run the most, and subsequently are the most likely to get hurt. If there is a position on the pitch that needs a ton of depth, it's at midfield. 

As for the striker issue, give Jack McInerney and Dominic Oduro a chance. I can't foresee the future, but I can predict that with our remade midfield, there will definitely be better service to the striker this year. If it were up to me to build a franchise, it would be from the defense out, with the striker being one of my last priorities.  

The glory goes to the would-be goal scorer and creative playmakers, but without solid play from the midfielders, especially the defensive ones, most teams don't have a chance.