In Aztec culture, there were warriors called ‘Jaguars’ in the middle of the 12th century who fought for their people. They came from the people and they were willing to die for the people. On the other hand, there was another rank of warriors- the elites called ‘Eagles’: they never fought on the front lines but they were the ones who always got the recognition while the Jaguars were the ones who did all the hard work, at times sacrificing themselves for the greater good in complete anonymity. Jaguars were never seekers of glory, for they were the seekers of freedom and victory. Defensive midfield is one such position in modern day football which is just like the Jaguar, for they hold the key to absolute glory or complete downfall
Defensive midfielders have become an integral part of modern day football and arguably the most important piece of the puzzle which can elevate the level of your team from underachieving glory seekers to Champions of the World. This is a position where players are under a lot of pressure during the match. A small moment of complacency can change the course of an entire match (and season as well). There is a reason that there are not a lot of younger players whose natural position lies in front of the center backs, shielding and anchoring them from the onslaught of opposition’s marauding players because mastering this position requires a lot of experience, a big reason why a lot of midfielders with great technique and positioning sense start to venture into deeper areas of the midfield when they start to hit the peak of their playing career: the likes of Toni Kroos, Marcelo Brozovic et al who used to play in advanced areas of the midfield during their initial years of career were able to make the switch into the deepest areas of the midfield without any issues when they got enough experience at senior level. Plus, their skillset allowed them to excel in their new role as well.
This is a position where the margin of making errors is paper thin, even the slightest of miscalculations while making a tackle or attempting a pass can result in a change of momentum of the match. And this miscalculation will be amplified the most if it results in an error leading to a goal against your team otherwise the immense work done by the defensive midfielders will go unnoticed since they are ‘the Jaguars’ while the other players are ‘the Eagles’.
The stereotype around the position has been deepened by games like FIFA, PES and half cooked information from the media houses that the players doing majority of the work ‘off the ball’ in the midfield are “CDM”, so the midfielders who may have just the tenacity and good physical build will be casually labeled as defensive midfielders. Many times, black midfielders are casually labeled as ’CDM’ despite their strengths lying further up the pitch. Best example being Tanguy Ndombele being labeled as a defensive midfielder by many British pundits or Ngolo Kante having a “CDM” on his FIFA Card while he hasn’t even played as your typical defensive midfielder in his career (many of whom themselves were brilliant players back in the day, which is ironic that they can’t even judge the pros and cons of the player correctly while being in their place many years back).
Rather than limiting the player to a certain area just on the basis of his/her physical build, people should judge them on the basis of their strengths, weaknesses and how that certain player can maximize these strengths in a team which not only increases the player’s output but boosts the morale of the entire team with consistent performances.
One such player who has had a similar impact on his boyhood club is Olympique Marseille’s Boubacar Kamara.
“Bouba”, a nickname given to him by his French mother and Senegalese father, took birth in the city of Marseille. Kamara was born and brought up in a family of hardcore OM supporters, his parents attending every home match. That love was then instilled into a young Bouba as well. At the age of 5, he joined the academy of Olympique de Marseille where he progressed through all the categories, reaching the U19 stage when he was just 15 years of age. Kamara excelled even at the U19 stage despite being the youngest of the bunch. He displayed natural leadership and soon was given the captain’s band. He led his team to the finals of the famed Coupe Gambardella, the cup competition for U19 teams in France. He was soon promoted to OM 2, the reserves team of Olympique de Marseille where he formed a good relationship with then manager Jacques Abardonado who made him an undisputed starter for the reserves team. Soon, the senior team came knocking down on the door. Boubacar Kamara frequently started training with the senior squad and making it into the matchday squads. He finally made his debut for OM against Sochaux-Montbeliard in a Coupe De la Ligue tie where OM lost on penalties. He soon paved his way into the first team, getting more regular minutes under Rudi Garcia. The pinnacle of his OM career has to be the dream run in UEFA Europa League where OM, against all odds, reached the final of 2017-18 edition, at the home ground of their fierce rivals: Olympique de Lyonnais. But, Atletico Madrid proved too strong for this young Marseille side. In less than 5 years, Kamara has already amassed upwards of 100 league games for his boyhood club before turning 22.
His statistical profile shows what Kamara is all about; a ball-winner in multiple forms: winning the ball back in the form of interceptions mostly but at times, pressing the opposition players and duelling. The pressing and duelling numbers seem less, but he has great efficiency in both. The 22-year-old is typically Marseille’s deepest midfielder in possession, comfortable in drawing opponents in through ball retention then bypassing them through silky footwork or combinations with teammates. He has a knack of delivering accurate through balls and diagonal long balls to wingers and fullbacks on opposite flanks to provide verticality in possession phase of the game.
Overall, he is an excellent defensive-minded midfielder. His game sense has developed so much thanks to the plentiful minutes he’s earned at the French club. He started at the senior level as a center-back, but his natural skillset lay further up the pitch, a position where he has excelled now. It was Andre Villas-Boas who regularly played him as a defensive midfielder, shuttling between 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 where he was the player staying back, providing Valentin Rongier to progress the ball further with carries and passing. When playing in a 4-3-3, Kamara’s game shone the strongest, giving him a lot of space and time to start the attacks and protect the defensive line by shielding them during defensive transitions.
On the ball, Kamara handles himself well, and has demonstrated good passing range, vision, and ambition. He is central to Marseille’s build-up play, but this is part and parcel of being the central-most midfielder in the system. Jorge Sampaoli eventually switched to an asymmetrical 3-5-2 shape, where Kamara plays like a #6, typically playing quick, zipped short passes between himself and the teammates around him. He seemingly has a strong understanding of when to pass the ball laterally or vertically.
In possession, Kamara is very conscious of his surroundings, scanning around him before receiving the ball if he can. In this sense, he is quite a press-resistant midfielder, capable of evading pressure and laying off to a more progressive teammate. Outside of his decent progressive abilities as a passer, Kamara is a decent dribbler of the ball, too. The volume and completion rate isn’t the highest but for his role in the team, it is still decent.
One glaring weakness in his game is that he isn’t athletic and agile since his game under various coaches and managers has allowed him to rely on positioning sense rather than raw brute force. He, at times, can be troubled by fast and physical players in open space. But this glaring weakness can be easily fixed with enough experience and coaching. A tenacious box-to-box midfielder alongside him can easily help combat this weakness, which was shown by Morgan Sanson under Andre Villas-Boas. A midfield trio of Kamara, Sanson and Rongier provided a great balance to OM, with Kamara being the watchdog, Sanson being the connector between the watchdog and Rongier who progressed the ball further up the pitch. This resulted in a remarkable comeback to Champions League in 2020 under Villas-Boas.
Now that we are clear about Kamara’s strengths and weaknesses, his style of play should become apparent and derive a logical conclusion that he is an anchorman, with decent ability to recycle possession. He facilitates the progression of the ball rather than progressing the ball himself.
With an expiring contract and OM signaling his potential suitors than he can be bought for a cut price 10 million euros in January, this is a sensible piece of business for the clubs who are in market for an anchor man and provide them with a young player with loads of experience for his age in a position where calm and composure is of utmost importance.
Host of clubs in Spain, Italy and England have enquired about Kamara’s availability for an immediate transfer during the winter window including the likes of Atletico Madrid, AC Milan, Newcastle United, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Juventus (who have Dennis Zakaria as an alternative in their agenda for winter window)
Many sources have linked him with a potential move to Manchester United who are in desperate requirement of a defensive midfielder with Scott McTominay and Fred being the only players suitable to play in a double pivot but both players lacking the spatial awareness to play as the deepest midfielder, which leaves their CBs exposed and out-numbered during transitional play.
Tactical Analysis: Kamara at Manchester United- a case study
In terms of making a rough comparison, Kamara can provide competition to Fred since both players have the tendency to win back balls by the means of interceptions, duelling along with ball retention. But Kamara has the experience of playing in a deeper role and the footballing iq to excel in the same since this is his natural position .
Boubacar Kamara will fix the issues of defending transitions and protection to the back 4 given his natural skill set, but Manchester United will need to recruit at least 1 more playmaking central midfielder who can provide the means to control the tempo of the game from deeper areas of midfield.
Given, Ralf Rangnick still has very little say in the decision making at the club (ironically he was brought for same after leaving his ongoing project at Lokomotiv Moscow abruptly) and his insistence on keeping up with his 4-2-2-2 vertical shape during build-up, Kamara alone will not solve all the issues in the midfield which Manchester United have, at best he can add some quality and depth and provide neck to neck competition to Fred (in ideal scenario: a Boubacar Kamara-Scott McTominay pivot will be more stable and do the work on temporary basis but an upgrade on Scott McTominay is due).
Along with Kamara, Manchester United desperately need a player who can help them progress the ball from deeper areas of midfield, taking the primary load of ball progression from their CBs and LB, dictate the tempo of the game and have a good defensive contribution as an icing on the cake. A host of players who fit the criteria are surprisingly available with the likes of Bruno Guimaraes, Aurelien Tchouameni on the market already. Ismael Bennacer, despite his recent injury issues, has a good amount of quality and ticks all the criteria. Some out of the box options for the same can be Florian Grillistch who, again is available on a free transfer- having conveyed his decision to leave TSG Hoffenheim. Maxime Lopez is having a stellar season for Sassuolo. Cheick Doucoure is another youngster shining in Ligue 1, playing a crucial role in midfield for RC Lens.
Now, the onus is on the higher ups of Manchester United to first figure out how they actually want to run the club first, whether run it like a superclub and buy the biggest names only or step by step fix the issues patiently and accelerate this process when others are showing the signs of transition period. Just as Ralf Rangnick said in a recent Coaches Voice conference: “You can’t have a little bit of this, little bit of that and expect that your football club will grow”.
The fan culture in England has been built on the same ever since the Etonians kicked the ball on their school field yet Manchester United have now gone on to hire a person who is polar opposite of it and very rigid is his stance of building a team. Again, questions about what the club actually wants to do should be asked by the fans rather than “sign someone @ManUnited” on social media.
Manchester United is doing the same for the last 10 years, they had Sir Alex Ferguson for the initial period to steer them clear but after his retirement as manager, Manchester United have still not figured out how they want to do their business which has become their primary motive. Despite spending upwards of billion in every possible currency, they are still years behind their arch rivals in England and Europe while many other clubs are also catching up with them with a fraction of resources. Even from a business point of view, it is a bad sign. You can show the skewed financial figures about revenue and the interactions on social media to the investors at year end meetings but the inefficiency of managing your resources, not only financial but human resources is catching up. You cannot cover these cracks in the foundation with a band-aid anymore when everyone around you is upgrading with changing times (either ethically or unethically- in most of the cases unethically; is a topic for another day).