How Declan Rice and Rodri are transforming the role of a defensive midfielder

Over the past decade, a single defensive midfielder has been a hallmark of some of the best sides in European football. Those that screen their defense, dictate play, and disrupt opposition attacks before they can even begin. They provide a platform for their more creative and attacking teammates, all whilst rarely stepping into the final third. 

Whether it be Fabinho for Liverpool, Fernandinho for Manchester City, Casemiro for Real Madrid, or, perhaps most famously, Sergio Busquets for Barcelona, all of these have played a pivotal role as their teams’ out-an-out ‘number six’. 

Whilst this trend has somewhat diminished among the other European league leaders this season (e.g. Real Madrid, Inter Milan, and Bayer Leverkusen), the Premier League’s top two sides still maintain the archetypal ‘number six’. namely in Arsenal’s Declan Rice and Man City’s Rodri. Or, at least, they do on paper. 

See, although, due to Arteta and Guardiola’s frequent 3-2-5 in-possession shape or 4-4-2 out-of-possession shape, these players are no longer single pivots at the base of the midfield, but they are still seen as their teams’ main defensive midfielder, tasked with the aforementioned role of breaking up and dictating play in the first two thirds of the pitch.

However, this season, that hasn’t necessarily been the case. In fact, Rice and Rodri are having an ever-increasing influence on their sides’ attacking play, and are perhaps beginning the next evolution of the typical ‘number six’ role.

Looking purely at output, Rice has contributed seven goals and eight assists in the league so far, compared to Rodri’s seven goals and nine assists – both by far and away their respective career highs. Furthermore, diving into some more detailed statistics – courtesy of FBref – displays their attacking influences more evidently.

First focusing on Rodri. With the caveat that his overall touches and passes per 90 minutes are up significantly on all his previous seasons at City, the Spaniard’s key passes, passes into the final third, and passes into the penalty have increased, whilst he is completing just under double as many shot-creating-actions (the two offensive actions leading directly to a shot) as he has previously – demonstrating his contribution in decisive attacking moments.

Most notably though, he is receiving more progressive passes than last season, taking less touches in the defensive third and defensive penalty area, more in the attacking penalty area, and the percentage of all his touches that come in the attacking third has jumped from 18% to 25%.

Additionally, whilst this has impacted his defensive output – his tackles, interceptions, and ball recoveries are at their lowest rate since his first season in England – this decrease is only minimal and he is actually winning the ball more in the final two thirds than last season. This shows the 27-year-old is simply being tasked with playing higher up the pitch, utilising his outstanding reading of the play in more game-changing situations; something that has undoubtedly played a key part in the treble winners leading the league for high-turnovers made and goals scored from them, as per Opta analyst.

As for Rice, due to the drastic difference between Arsenal and West Ham’s play styles (and the subsequent difference to Rice’s role in each side), it’s difficult to assess the Englishman’s attacking contribution compared to previous seasons. He’s also occasionally been used alongside either Jorginho or Partey, which has allowed him more freedom to push forwards when the opportunity arises.

However, the 25-year-old is making more tackles in the first two thirds, and has seen a substantial rise in his touches in the final third and penalty area. These figures rising has coincided with Rice tripling his previous league high for goal contributions, evidently highlighting the midfielder’s quality in reading the game and making effective decisions, both in and out-of-possession.

As outlined, these are traits which Rodri shares too, and this weekends’ fixtures displayed that perfectly, with both players contributing two goals in their sides respective victories. Crucially though, in each game, one of these goals included Rice and Rodri playing a pivotal part in the high press by stepping in front of opponents and turning over possession, before then either making the right pass or movement, to create space and set-up their teammates to score.

Overall then, Rodri and Rice’s roles’ are perhaps marking the end of the traditional ‘number six’ at the top level of European football. They are now not only tasked with protecting their defense, reading play to win back possession, and progressing play from deep positions, but in a high press and in attacking areas too.

Both men are carrying out extraordinary tasks, at the highest level, to the highest quality, week in, week out. And, with the seismic influence each player has in both Arsenal and City’s all round play, a minor slip-up from either Rice or Rodri at this point in the season could well decide the title winner.

Whoever walks out with a Premier League medal though, both deserve huge credit for not only putting up player-of-the-season contending performances, but for possibly setting the staging for the next evolution of midfielders in modern-day football.

Travis Levison | Get Football

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