wrong side XI: holding center mid

this is part VII in the “wrong side XI” series, where i’ll be selecting my very own starting eleven, assuming of course that i could choose any player from any team in the world. you can read the rules i’ll be following to make my team selection, and what formation i’ll be squeezing them into, on the first post in the series.

three spaniards, a turk and an italian battle it out for my midfield maestro role.

Since we’ve already talked about the two positions I’ve played for most of my life (wing back and center back), I figured it would be best to start off the midfield lists with the position I always wanted to play growing up: holding central midfield.

Why did I want to be the holding mid? Because that player always seemed to be involved. Whether my team had the ball or not, they looked like they were in the run of play. I jokingly labeled the position “rover” because whoever played there appeared to be allowed to rove the entire pitch. I was always so jealous of that freedom and responsibility.

And though I classified this player as a “defensive” central midfielder in my initial post in this series, it’s important to note that the holding center mid is at times a very offensively minded player. Ignoring his defensive responsibilities for the moment, this player’s sole purpose on the pitch is the crucial role of linking the play between the forwards and the defenders. Of course this means that he must be extremely strong in possession as well as a tactically adept passer.

And to be completely honest, in the system I’ve chosen to implement in this team, this player is much more of an offensive player than a defensive.

But the defense role isn’t to be completely ignored with this position, and I’ve left offensively solid holding mids off this list because they’re defensive skills are lacking (Joey Barton or Jack Wilshire for example). Clogging up the passing lanes and stifling counterattacks before they start in the offensive third are typical tasks that this player will be assigned.

So who’s good enough going both directions to lay claim to this spot? Read on…

Real Madrid's new midfielder, Nuri Sahin
sahin's star shined brightly in germany, and i think it could shine even brighter in spain.

5. Nuri Şahin (Borrusia Dortmund Real Madrid)
Turkey international (26 caps)

When I first drafted my picks list for each position months ago, I was shocked to see that I had included not just one player from Borussia Dortmund, but actually two. But considering the way the club, which you probably wouldn’t classify as a “normal” European power, powered through the Bundesliga last season, it really shouldn’t be that surprising. And the thought of leaving Şahin off my list, the engine that drove Dortmund to that paradigm-breaking title, seemed like a major sin.

The newly signed Galáctico will go a long way to calming down Real’s disorganized midfield, and I expect Mourinho will have him play either just in front Xabi Alonso (behind the attacking center mid) or in his absence as a deep-lying playmaker. Strong in distribution and vision, the German-born Turkey international can orchestrate an offense while also filling passing lanes.

If Şahin could move be a bit more of a stopper (he’s known for his offensive, play-making prowess), and develop his weak right boot, I would probably rate him a bit higher.

Roma's Daniele de Rossi
de rossi and his beard are debating eating your face.

4. Danielle de Rossi (Roma)
Italy international (63 caps)
Serie A Young Player of the Year (2006), Italian Player of the Year (2009)

Sissy name be damned, as Daniele de Rossi is anything but a weakling. A combative midfielder to the core, de Rossi is often times much more of an enforcer than a holding center mid. Well known for throwing an elbow or two during his time at Roma, he’s nearly unrivaled at dictating the pace of the game on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball.

Typically simple in possession, de Rossi’s neat touch is coupled with a keen sense of tactical awareness. Defensively, he’s great at both directing teammates and positioning: he’s just as likely to unexpectedly pick off your pass as he is to blow you up with a tackle.

But, I’m passing over the Italian because I’m wary of his hot head personality, both on and off the pitch. And as a patriotic American, there’s no way I’m picking the guy that bloodied Brian McBride’s face during the 2002 World Cup.

Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas
it's body language like this that kept me from selecting one of my favorite players for my own squad.

3. Cesc Fàbregas (Arsenal… for now)
Spain international (58 caps)
UEFA Team of the Year (2006, 2008), Premier League Player of the Month (7/07 & 9/07), PFA Young Player of the Year (’07-’08), PFA Team of the Year (’07-’08, ’09-’10), European Championships Team of the Tournament (’08)

This was really tough. I imagine that what I’m feeling right now, after not picking Cesc as one of my starters, is a little like not picking my child for a rec league starting eleven. But my longtime man-crush with Cesc isn’t strong enough to look past his recent form.

I’m not doubting Fab’s ability by any means, as he’s easily one of the most class midfielders on the planet. While de Rossi is respected for his simple style of play, Fàbregas takes it to the next level. Playing in a league known for lightening quick counterattacks, his ability to consistently play the simple 1- and 2-touch passes can be simply mesmerizing. I often worry as I see his teammates feed him a ball with two defenders rushing his back and side, but am usually left astounded when he simply plays a neat and tidy pass away from the pressure like those players weren’t even coming in the first place. And, he has shown a knack for scoring, which can be useful considering it’s a position that would normally be considered defensive.

What I am doubting these days with the Spaniard is his commitment. The whole move back to Barcelona saga has at times appeared to affect his play for current club Arsenal, and thus my perception of his work. Sure, I get why Cesc wants to move home, but nobody held a gun to his head and told him to sign a 10-year contract a few years ago. Doesn’t he realize that until Xavi starts to decay, he’s going to play the same role for Barça that he does for Spain?

Real Madrid's Xabi Alonso
why liverpool ever thought they should sell xabi alonso is beyond me.

2. Xabi Alonso (Real Madrid)
Spain international ( caps)
Spanish Player of the Year (2003) 

Anyone who watched Liverpool during the Rafa Benítez era, you completely understand why I rate Alonso so highly in this position. There are few in the world that, when they bring their A-game, can match Xabi’s abilities.

Probably the best long-distance passer in the sport, the former Espanyol star is now the linchpin of Madrid’s midfield. His short game is equally impressive (though not the best). Typically, when Xabi has a good day offensively, Real have a good day with the ball, and vice versa. Defensively, he’s an excellent marking defender and a solid tackler (though he can be a tad quick to go down to do so).

He’s a leader on the pitch, too: the strong silent type that leads by example and demands respect. And for these reasons, Alonso would definitely be my number one for this spot, if it weren’t for one other player…

Barcelona's Xavi Hernandez
a gift from the footballing gods.

1. Xavi (Barcelona)
Spain international (101 caps)
FIFA Team of the Year (2008-2010), European Championships Player of the Tournament (’08), La Liga Player of the Year (2005)

Let’s level here: anyone who doesn’t pick Xavi Hernández to be in their hypothetical starting XI’s probably needs to have their head examined. He is the heart and rhythm of Barcelona’s and Spain’s recent dominance of world football, and easily one of the most brilliant players of all time.

Xavi is revered for his ability to completely control the flow of a match, mainly through his mastery of the tiki-taka mentality. Despite my reluctance to manage a squad that plays in this fashion, I’m 100% certain he could just as easily conduct a team that plays a bit more quickly. No other player can currently match his ability to dictate tempo and style, and I’d rather have him in my ranks even if he doesn’t fuse well with my tactical ideology… simply so no one else can have him.

Defensively, his best quality is that the teams he plays for rarely have to play it. He almost never turns the ball over. But, when his teammates do, he’s very adept at orchestrating his teammates to high pressure the ball to quickly force a turnover.

So what if he’s getting up there in years and he really hasn’t had a break in about four years? With Xavi directing the squad as my midfield maestro for at least a few seasons, I’d feel pretty confident that success would come before the onset old man legs takes its toll.

Wrong Side XI - Holding Center Mid Choice

So there you have it. Xavi’s my pick; would you choose someone different? How do you feel about Spaniards occupying the top three spots for this position? Confused how I could keep Cesc out of my starting line-up? Let me know your thoughts, and who you would rather see standing in the middle of my pitch. And just in case you want to see who else I’ve considered for the squad, check out the links below.

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