By Ben Wright (@benwright), editor.
The role of a holding midfielder has evolved tremendously over the past decade as tactics have changed. As teams move away from employing a traditional "number 10", the job of a deep-lying midfielder has changed dramatically.
Teams have shifted away from fielding players in the Juan Riquelme mold. Instead of having a pure creator in that central role, coaches often deploy their 10s in wide areas, allowing them to drift inside to create, allowing them to play more two-way players in central areas. Even MLS has moved this way, with players like Nicolás Lodeiro and Pity Martínez, traditional 10s in any other generation, starting wide and drifting inside to create.
The shift in 10s has resulted in a shift in emphasis on the skills required of a 6, and even an 8. No longer are holding midfielders asked to be pure destroyers, tackling machines focused on nothing more than taking the ball from the opposing 10. Instead, their role has become more dynamic. Tackling is still a huge part of the job, but intercepting passes has become an even bigger hallmark of the holding or "defensive" midfielder. Thus, positioning and an ability to read the game a step ahead is a more crucial skill than ever before.
Distribution has always been a major part of the holding midfield role. 6s are often criticized for being slow in possession, passing the ball aimlessly sideways and backwards (an accusation often leveled at Sergio Busquets and Michael Carrick, two of the best holding midfielders in recent memory). However, holding midfielders are often required to be patient in possession, cycling the ball around the field to open up passing lanes in the opposing defense. Then, when the time is right, they're asked to play a line-breaking pass into the final third.
In Aníbal Godoy and Dax McCarty, Nashville SC have two reliable holding midfielders who tick all the boxes for the position, and in Derrick Jones they have a young prospect with an impressive skill set and tremendous upside. Matt LaGrassa was a very good box-to-box midfielder at the USL level, and has the potential to contribute in MLS.
Aníbal Godoy was acquired from San Jose for an eyebrow-raising $650k in Targeted Allocation Money. All said and done, it was probably an overplay for a 29-year-old who missed most of 2019 with an injury, but in the big picture, expansion sides are going to be forced to pay an expansion side "tax" (they have more allocation money than any team in the league their first year, and every GM knows it). Nashville have spoken about Godoy and what a massive part of their plans he is, and felt he was worth the premium price. Time will tell if the move pays off, but he has all the tools to be a cornerstone of this team.
I pulled his stats from 2018, as 2019 was marred by a strange injury (complications from a surgery to remove scar tissue on his abdomen, not a worry for recurring issues). The numbers are pretty ideal for a holding midfielder. He's secure in possession (18 pass attempts per turnover, 91st percentile for pass quality) and consistently able to win the ball (7.8 loose balls recovered per 96 minutes).
Joining Godoy in midfield is MLS veteran Dax McCarty, who has been one of the league's better all-around midfielders in his 14 seasons. More of an 8 than a 6 (think Matt LaGrassa to Godoy's Bolu Akinyode), McCarty still has the legs to play a box-to-box role and consistently gets on the field (3,037 minutes in 2019).
McCarty is highly involved in possession, demanding the ball and playing third line passes to split the defense. With players like Randall Leal and Hany Mukhtar ahead of him, McCarty will be able to cover ground and win the ball back in midfield before finding pockets of space and allowing the attacking midfielders to run onto the ball.
A starting central midfield of Godoy and McCarty is an immediately strong spine, and will do a lot of the dirty work defensively before the ball gets into the final third. They'll eat up space in front of the back line and will be able to exploit space ahead of them.
Derrick Jones spent most of 2019 recovering from an ankle injury, and has been somewhat overlook by fans this offseason. Jones has a tremendous upside (he was called up to the US U-23 side in May, just before his move to Nashville). He struggled to consistently get on the field in Philadelphia, bouncing between the first team and their USL affiliate, but is highly regarded around the league and looks ready to take on a larger role in Nashville.
Matt LaGrassa is the fourth central midfielder signed to Nashville's roster, and the expectations for him are minimal in his first year. "We’ll probably try to under promise the roles that these guys have and hope that they’re able to find their way with the other group," said GM Mike Jacobs of LaGrassa and the others signed from Nashville's USL roster. " Maybe these guys will start out with roles you more commonly associate with college draft picks."
LaGrassa's work at the USL level didn't always stand out, but the role of a box-to-box midfielder rarely does. He lead the midfield with a 0.10 xG/96 and 0.09 xA/96 and 30 key passes. It remains to be seen how much of a role he'll play in 2020, but he knows head coach Gary Smith's system well and was arguably the most consistent player in the club's two seasons in USL.
Central midfield has become arguably the most important position in modern soccer, and teams who can consistently win the ball back and limit turnovers of their own are hard to beat. If Nashville's midfield can stay healthy, it will go a long way towards a competitive debut season.