The box-to-box midfielder.
Every team needs an all-action midfield general to boss the game.
Think Bryan Robson – but with a body that actually works – or Steven Gerrard – minus the Hollywood-ball fixation – and you’ve got the idea.
Usually partnering a silky-skilled playmaker, the role of the box-to-box midfield man is part minder, part ball-winner, part destroyer, part creator, but always a powerful presence in everything the team does. The ball is channelled through him at every stage of play, whether it’s a well-read interception (Lothar Matthaus) or just a five-yard square pass (Ray Wilkins), or even actually applying the finish to a move he started on the edge of his own box by hammering home from the edge of theirs following a surging run upfield (Frank Lampard).
Often the captain, usually one of the best players on the park, and always prepared to put their body on the line whilst picking up a card or three (Roy Keane) and generally getting in the faces of the opposition (Johnny Giles), they keep the team ticking over, issuing bollockings and pats on the back in equal measure throughout the match.
Here’s my top four … let the arguments commence !
My Top 4 Box-to-box midfielders … Ever.
If his body actually worked, Bryan Robson may well have lifted the World Cup at Spain 82. Well, maybe if Keegan and Brooking hadn’t also been injured and unavailable till the quarter-finals, anyway …
That’s a lot of ifs, but Robbo really was that good. He had an engine like no other player I’ve ever seen, able to bomb up and down the pitch all day long, putting in a last ditch, perfectly-timed tackle in his own penalty area, before walking away with the ball, only to spread an inch-perfect forty yard pass to a team-mate, leg it back up the field and get a toe on the cross to put the thing in the back of the net twenty or thirty seconds later.
Yes, he was a piss-artist (but wasn’t everyone ?) and yes he had the mother of all dodgy perms (but didn’t everyone ?) and even sported an ill-advised “Big Sam” style ‘tache at one point (no, not everyone did that) but … what an inspirational figure for West Brom, Manchester United and – most crucially – England.
Alongside Ray “The Crab” Wilkins – who was a far better player than he’s ever given credit for – the pair made a formidable partnership in the middle of the park and were it not for all those injury woes, Ron Greenwood’s England surely would’ve made more of a mark at a tournament.
Still, Bryan Robson had an outstanding career amassing 90 England caps (26 goals), as well as over 600 club appearances for WBA, Man U. and – briefly – Middlesbrough, picking up one League Cup, two League titles and three FA Cups along the way as well as the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup.
William J. Bremner, Esq. was the embodiment of both Leeds United and Scotland.
Fiery, classy, skilful and determined almost to the point it became a negative, the diminutive midfield general brought out the best in those around him and made Leeds, at least, into a team that was at its peak way more than the sum of its parts.
Truly world class, Bremner could out-pass, out-muscle, out-tackle, out-head and generally out-play pretty much anyone he came up against despite standing a mere 5’6” in his stocking feet. This wee man was famously described as “ten stone of barbed wire” by his mentor, Don Revie, and nobody wanted to get on the wrong side of his captain … yet he actually didn’t need to resort to violence for the most part, so good was he on the ball.
A true team player and years ahead of his time as a deep-lying play-maker cum box-to-box schemer in the mould of a modern day De Rossi or Schweinsteiger, Bremner had it all and made a staggering 771 appearances in all competitions for Leeds as well as 54 for Scotland, a figure that surely would’ve been higher had they actually qualified for more than one major tournament in his playing lifetime.
The kind of guy you’d want alongside you in the trenches as well as covering every blade of grass on a football field, Billy Bremner deserves his place in the pantheon of the greats of the game.
Another trailblazer who would have improved any team from any era, Lothar Matthäus raised the bar for midfield excellence in the 1980s and 90s and was named the first ever FIFA World Player Of The Year in 1991. Like many of the players in my top fours, he could play in multiple positions and straddled the game like a leviathan during his playing career.
A true champion in every sense of the word, Matthäus amassed an amazing haul of silverware in his time:
7 Bundesligas, 3 German FA Cups, 3 German League Cups, 2 UEFA Cups, 1 Serie A at club level along with one Euro and one World Cup for Germany, as well as two European Cup runners-up medals with FC Bayern and two more runners-up medals in the World Cup with the national side. That’s not counting minor trophies or individual honours …
Playing mostly as the archetypal box-to-box man and usually captaining the team, Matthäus was like the cyber-Robbo, half-man, half-machine. At Italia 90 he was the player of the tournament, yet by then he was playing in his third finals in a row, eventually ending up playing in five altogether, making a record 25 appearances along the way.
His glittering club career began with Borussia Mönchengladbach, progressed to FC Bayern, took in Inter Milan for four years, before he headed back to Munich for a second spell, ending up in the US for a year with the Metrostars (where he again picked up a trophy).
His style was all action, like Robson and Bremner, but graceful at the same time, combining the best of both the playmaker and the destroyer roles.
He actually finished up playing as a latter-day libero, like a Beckenbauer Mk II from a deep-lying position, breaking up opposition attacks before launching one of his own in that inimitable trademark way.
Though Beckenbauer stands alone as the greatest German sporting hero of all time, Matthäus is stood right behind him and there can be no greater honour if you’re of the Teutonic persuasion. With a record 150 international caps, he did manage to eclipse Der Kaiser in one respect … and that’s a fitting word to end with.
Sir Bobby Charlton
The greatest ever Englishman to play the game, Sir Robert Charlton came from an illustrious sporting family, survived the Munich air crash, formed part of the famous Charlton-Best-Law triumvirate that saw Man Utd lift the European Cup ten years later, and was, of course, the lynch-pin of the victorious England team in 1966.
With an economy of movement and the grace of a ballroom dancer, Charlton was the original ghostly assassin in – and most famously outside – the penalty box. Able to shoot from distance with either foot, he lashed them in from 30 yards on a regular basis, his boot like the hammer in a cannon and was both a great goalscorer and the scorer of great goals.
With energy to burn and a sublime first touch, Charlton was really the antithesis of an English footballer and would not have been out of place in the Brazil sides of 1970 or 1982, the great French sides of the early 80s and late 90s, or indeed the current Spain or Barcelona line-ups, such was his ultimate quality on the ball. When coupled with that indefatigable will-to-win and sheer athleticism, Sir Bobby had it all and was the ultimate attacking footballer.
… and he’s still England‘s all-time leading goalscorer.
Honourable mentions: Johnny Giles, Alfredo Di Stefano, Roy Keane, Andrea Pirlo, Zico, Francisco Gento … and Vinnie Jones.