Strong focus on defensive ideas in midfield

When I played the session COMPACT YOUR MIDFIELD I found that using the grid helped the players working in midfield to spot where the gaps in the defence were – each time the attacking team broke through and scored I got the players to tell me why that happened.

Compact Midfield

It is a great way to test player understanding when you want to test if they get what it is you are trying to coach. The grid is a great way to do this – experiment with the size of the boxes and make sure all players try the blocking idea.

I like to run this because although it is midfield weighted, it strongly focuses on defensive ideas, which is important because defending is traditionally a less appealing topic in the minds of players. The introduction of specific defending zones for midfielders in this practice gives clarity to job responsibilities and adds competition from an individual perspective.

This session will be run frequently so that the principles of unit defending can be periodically reinforced.
Because of how it focuses players’ mindsets, I used this session in advance of a game against opposition who play ‘through the lines’ into a traditional no.10.

Once the team had worked on the compact formation I gave them a test in a more game-like situation. For a game set-up, I will use three quarters of my normal pitch with four players in a midfield unit. While this gives them success it also serves to build the relationship between centre-midfielders and wide players.


If you want your Midfielders to come away with the ball when pressing, they must remember the key points…

    > The angle of approach is important to force the attacker one way or the other.
    > Communication is vital – midfielders must be in close contact at all times and should help each other
    to cover positions.
    > Players must interchange positions so that when the first midfielder presses, there is cover and support from the second and third defenders.
    > The body shape of the pressing midfielder is key to ensure that the play goes one way.

Nemanja Matic
Nemanja Matic running the midfield for Manchester United


Nemanja Matic is key to Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United midfield. He believes defensive midfielders offer that “balance to the team offensively and defensively”, but also so much more. These are the players he has variously described as his “tactical leader”, his “assistant coach on the pitch” and who he most charges with interpreting and applying the manager’s approach. They are the centre of the most organised part of the team, and are absolutely key to releasing the more expressive players in the team, allowing the whole side a greater fluency.

Matic knows what Mourinho expects from their time together at Chelsea, and already deeply understands the manager’s call-card words to his defensive midfielders of “position, stability, control”.

All of this is precisely why the Portuguese signed a player who did not require any time to adapt so that United began firing straight away, and to offer something more than just sitting and holding.

For a United side that were last season so often withdrawn, uninspired or just awkwardly ill-fitting, Matic allows the side to be solid but also be solid much higher up the pitch, while freeing up those more creative players.

Former United defender Phil Neville agrees with this. He said: “Every time we watched Pogba last season it was, ‘Where do you play him?’ Now there is no excuse.

“He has somebody in there that will fill the holes when he vacates them, he has licence to go wherever he wants and he [Matic] will provide that stability for the back four. Of all the signings United have made, Matic is the best one.

“Pogba teased us last year. In some games it was, ‘Wow’, and in others it was ‘Dear me’. This year is his year.

“Last season he reminded me at times of when United signed Juan Sebastian Veron. He was a brilliant midfield player, one of the best in the world, but he kept chasing the ball and vacating areas. That is difficult to play with and Pogba was like that last year.

“Pogba scored nine goals last season, I think he can get 15.”

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