The midfield enforcer was, until recently, the unsung hero of the team, however that trend seems to be changing. The enforcer is that player in the centre of midfield who is the heartbeat of the team. Not everything has to go through him but his role in the side is absolutely crucial. The role doesn’t involve creating chances but instead preventing the creation of opposition chances. An enforcer needs to show his real talents off the ball and does this by breaking up play as much as he can, making endless tackles and denying the other team any rhythm. When his team is in possession, the enforcer acts as a bridge between defence and midfield and provides the perfect opportunity to break the opposition lines by sitting in that pocket of space between them. This is vital as he gives his team momentum to move forward rather than simply going through the motions and passing sideways. Even when not involved he can often commit a player to create space for a different move. Whatever way you look at it, the role of the midfield enforcer is absolutely crucial and it is starting to feel like clubs are finally realising this.
When you think of the type of player that I’ve just described the first player that probably comes to mind is Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante. Previously I mentioned the publicity of the role as changing and I think Kante can take a lot of the credit for this. I simply cannot think of a player in the last 6 or 7 years who has done what Kante has done, especially not in such a short space of time. Don’t get me wrong, everyone is familiar with the Claude Makelele role, I’m not claiming it has only recently been invented but you often forget how long ago that was and my opinion is that the role has now been reborn.
Kante came into the Premier League as a relatively unknown entity but not even 2 seasons later and people are attributing a Premier League title to his endeavours and there could even be another one on the cards this time out with his new side Chelsea rampant at the top. Kante opened everyone’s eyes as to just how important players like him are and it seems that clubs are finally starting to realise this. It hasn’t completely taken off yet but slowly similar cases, albeit not on the level of Kante, are popping up. For example you’ve got Moussa Dembele at Spurs, a man who was initially labelled a flop and really struggled at one point during his White Hart Lane career yet now he is one of the best defensive midfielders in the league. His ability to break up play is excellent and he also has an eye for a pass. Dembele is different to Kante in stature and this has also showed how versatile a player in that position can be. Kante is electric and gives opponents no time on the ball whereas Dembele effortlessly muscles opponents out of possession then uses his body to retain possession himself. Although there are these differences, the fundamentals of the role remain the same.
Arsenal fans and pundits have long been citing the reason for Arsenal’s flaky title runs as a lack of a world class striker and defensive midfielder. Everyone can appreciate the stylish and often effective fluidity that Arsenal play with, however there are serious doubts over their ability to mix it up when the game gets physical and rough. Arsenal are simply crying out for an enforcer, someone who continuously wins the ball back and starts new attacks, someone who isn’t afraid to battle it out with the big boys. Coquelin looked just the player for a while but although he is a quality player, he’s just not good enough for what Arsenal need. Xhaka looked a good signing, if not a little overpriced at £30m but his ‘poor tackling technique’ as Wenger described it has let him down. Xhaka is an excellent player but I feel Arsenal need someone with a little more energy in that role, allowing Sanchez to focus on attacking amongst others. Overall, Arsenal serve as almost as good an example of the importance of the enforcer as Kante and Dembele.
Kante and Dembele are just two successful cases but there are other rising stars in the league too with Pedro Obiang gradually proving what an excellent player he is, especially with his league-high tackle percentage. We also have Everton’s Idrissa Gana Gueye who has instantly become a fan favourite for his displays at Goodison Park.
With the recent successes of the likes of Kante, Dembele and many more that I haven’t mentioned, will we see more clubs looking to invest in this role? I think we could be entering an era in the Premier League where players who fit this bill become more and more common in every team. Although possession is rapidly becoming less valued as dominant sides seem to struggle to break down well organised ones, I don’t think any club would be opposed to having a certified ball-winner in their squad who simply stops the other team from creating chances. The Kante era has begun…