Deep lying midfielders are a vitally important part of Premier League sides. In attack they're expected to constantly offer a passing option, either by checking back to receive passes from the back four or offering a drop for more attacking players, then circulate possession around with accurate passes. As a rule of thumb good deep lying midfielders should have a pass success rate in the high 80's.
Defensively, deep lying midfielders are tasked with offering protection for the back four, winning tackles in midfield and slowing opposition counter attacks. In this post I'll focus specifically on the defensive aspect of the deep lying midfielder's job.
The relentless pace and openness that defines the Premier League means rapid counter attacks are a major feature of fixtures. In the modern game fullbacks push high up the pitch to offer width in the attacking third, leaving space in behind them down the channels for the opposition to counter into when they regain possession. It is largely the responsibility of holding midfielders to either stop or slow down these counters. They're expected to be able to move laterally across the width of the pitch to win challenges before the opposition can break at the center backs with a numerical advantage.
Another feature of the modern game is that wide attacking players often tuck inside into central positions. As a result, the center of the pitch is often crowded meaning central midfielders are in the thick of the action competing to win the ball. Therefore deep lying midfielders frequently find themselves in positions where they need to commit to challenges. Committing fouls is an inevitable byproduct of challenging for a tackle. It should be little surprise then that deep lying midfielders made up 7 of the top 10 spots in successful tackles per game last season (Lucas Leiva, Morgan Schneiderlin, Nemanja Matic, Claudio Yacob, Mile Jedinak, Alex Song and Francis Coquelin) as well as 7 of the top 10 spots in fouls committed per game (Victor Wanyama, Jedinak, Lee Cattermole, Song, Fernandinho, Gareth Barry and Schneiderlin).
Committing fouls isn't always a bad thing for a deep lying midfielder to do and in fact it's often the right decision to make- how often in a match do we see a player take a yellow card for the team by hacking down the opposition in order to prevent a dangerous counter attacking opportunity? This gives the side time to organize itself and prepare for a more manageable defensive set piece. Given their position in front of the center backs it's often the deep lying midfielder getting booked for those challenges. However, on the other hand we also often see holding midfielders committing needless fouls that give the opposition dangerous set piece opportunities that didn't need to be conceded.
So although there are occasions when committing a foul is the only option, it's preferable for a holding midfielder to win a tackle versus committing a foul. Using this bit of logic, I've calculated a very basic metric of defensive efficiency among deep lying midfielders. By dividing a players tackles per game by their fouls per game, we get a ratio of number of successful tackles per foul committed. If a player averages 3 tackles per game and commits 1.5 fouls they have a ratio of 2 tackles per 1 foul committed. The higher the ratio the more efficient the holding midfielder is from a defensive perspective.
I've calculated this ratio for the 11 holding midfielders that featured on the top 10 tackles per game and top 10 fouls per game lists from last season (Jedinak, Schneiderlin and Song feature on both).
Liverpool's Lucas was the most efficient tackler with 2.79 tackles per foul, closely followed by Chelsea's Matic with 2.77 tackles per foul. West Brom's Yacob (2.43), Arsenal's Coquelin (2.29), and Southampton's Schneiderlin (2.06) were the only other two players with a ratio in the twos. At the bottom of the table is Southampton's Wanyama (1.38), Everton's Barry (1.39) and Sunderland's Cattermole (1.42). Unsurprisingly, Wanyama, Barry and Cattermole also have three of the worst disciplinary records on the list. Wanyama accumulated 10 yellow cards, Barry 10 yellows and a red and Cattermole 14 yellows (Matic also had 10 yellows and a red, no other player had more than 7 yellows).
I think the inclusion of Lucas on the list highlights what on effective midfielder he can be when healthy and perhaps suggests Brendan Rodgers has been a bit hasty in not including the 28 year old Brazilian in the match day squad in either of Liverpool's first two games. Lucas played an important role at the beginning of Liverpool's 13 match unbeaten run between December and March last season before suffering a groin injury. The deep midfield pairing of Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen in Liverpool's 3-4-2-1 left too many gaps in the middle of midfield, highlighted especially in the first half of their 2-1 defeat to Manchester United towards the end of March.
James Milner has come in and the extremely promising Emre Can has been used off the bench deep in midfield in both Liverpool games thus far but there could still be room for Lucas. Milner and Jordan Henderson are both more all-action box to box runners than controlled deep lying midfielders so when they play together the side have struggled to really get control of games. Can's introduction has brought more of that control and defensive cover but he's still a young player with a mistake or two in him. Lucas could provide important experience and be a steadying force Liverpool don't really have in the squad at the moment.