From Bellingham to Pedri, why we might be entering the Age of the Midfielder

Despite Lionel Messi's best efforts, modern soccer will eventually enter a new era. Back in July, I suggested that the Messi-Cristiano Ronaldo era was officially over. I was right -- but only halfway.

Each month, a group of European soccer magazines (known as the European Sports Media) vote on a team of the month. It's the most consistent record we have of how players in Europe are generally viewed in a given moment. (An anonymous, heroic citizen tracks it all here.) And after the season is over, you can add up the total TOTM appearances to get a sense of who people thought the best players were -- in other words, a team of the season. Although not acknowledged as such, it's like soccer's version of the All-NBA team or the NFL's All-Pro squad.

In 16 consecutive seasons, either Messi (14 total) or Ronaldo (9) were in the team of the season. That is, until last season, when neither one made a single team of the month.

Then, of course, this season happened. Ronaldo is cashing checks in Saudi Arabia, but Messi has made all four teams of the week so far. He was the best player at the World Cup, and barring something unforeseen, he's going to win his eighth Ballon d'Or. I'm going to stop saying that it's going to end; I will acknowledge that it's over once he tells us that it's over.

Whenever it ends, though, what might come next? The easy answer: The era of Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland. Mbappe, too, has made all four teams of the month, while Haaland has featured in just three -- mainly because he didn't play much in November since Norway weren't in the World Cup.

Although a decade of dominance from Haaland and Mbappe is the most likely outcome -- they're both way more productive at their current ages than Messi and Ronaldo were at the same stage -- there's still so much that can prevent that from happening. And even if it does happen, there were plenty of secondary eras coming and going and defining phases of the game underneath Messi's and Ronaldo's dominance.

What else might happen? We might be about to enter the Age of the Midfielder.

Midfielders don't matter -- until they do

In my book, Net Gains: Inside the Beautiful Game's Analytics Revolution, there's a whole chapter on how hard it is to measure midfield play. Even the most sophisticated attempts at valuing everything that happens on a soccer field have generally come to the same conclusion: all the stuff that happens in the middle of the field is way less valuable than what happens near either goal.

By doing anything successfully near either goal, you're going to increase your team's chances of scoring (or not conceding a goal) by a much larger degree than you would by accomplishing the same thing near the midfield line. Any great attacking play in the midfield still needs to be converted into a goal-scoring opportunity by the players in the final third. And any poor defensive play in the midfield can still be salvaged by the defensive players still behind the ball. Midfielders do rack up more of these low-value actions than any other position on the field, but the quantity usually doesn't make up for the lack of quality.

If you think this isn't just a calculation issue -- and it actually represents the essence of the sport -- then midfielders are overrated. At least, in the popular conception -- where they're the brains of the operation, the ones who control the game, the players who only the true fans can really appreciate -- they are.

This isn't to say that midfield play doesn't matter: just look at Liverpool's and Chelsea's struggles so far this season and it's clear the midfield as a whole is still vital to team success. But rather it's to say that the difference between, say, the 10th-best midfielder and the 100th-best midfielder would have way less of an impact on winning than were a team to swap the 10th-best attacker for the 100th-best attacker.

It's not like the transfer-market disagrees with this premise, either. Among the 20 most expensive transfers of all time, here's how they shake out by position:

  • Forwards: 17

  • Defenders: 2

  • Midfielders: 1

That one midfielder: Paul Pogba, who offered the promise of being a midfielder (winning possession, being safe on the ball, and springing play forward at the right moments) while producing like an attacker. In his last season with Juventus, he averaged 0.57 non-penalty goals+assists per 90 minutes -- a top-20 mark in Serie A. Pogba provided whatever value a great midfielder provides and he provided the value of a great attacker, which is why he moved for a six-figure fee to Manchester United.

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While that specific move never quite came together as everyone hoped, there's a new generation of similar players on the way. Actually, they might already be here.

How the modern game made new midfielders

The list of the most expensive transfers ever is, by definition, backward-looking. It's how teams valued players in the past -- not how they might value them going forward. While it's a deeply imperfect system, the crowd-sourced player valuations at the site Transfermarkt offer a much better picture of where we are now and where we might be headed. And among their 20 most valuable players, nearly half of them are midfielders.

The three most valuable players are attackers: Mbappe, Haaland and Real Madrid's Vinicius Junior. Right behind Vinicius, though, is Borussia Dortmund's 19-year-old Jude Bellingham, and not far behind him is Barcelona's 20-year-old Pedri. They serve as instructive side-by-side examples of the trend.

Let's quickly oversimplify what's happened to the soccer world over the past 15 or so years. First, Barcelona's tiki-taka dominance kick-started a global reevaluation of what mattered in a soccer player. It seems ridiculous to say it, but teams across the world began to value technical skill more than ever before. These values eventually trickled down into the youth-development apparatus, and smaller, more technical players were being produced than ever before. Perhaps somewhat in response to the Barcelona/Spanish dominance, then came the Red Bull/German model that valued players who took more risks, used their athleticism, pressed voraciously and aggressively pushed the ball upfield.

When those two currents combine, you get players like Bellingham and Pedri. The former is good at everything. He wins the ball a ton, carries it forward, passes it forward, receives forward passes, scores goals and creates chances for his teammates. Although Bellingham is essentially the ideal of the modern German midfielder (despite not, you know, being German), he's also frequently getting into forward positions and then executing in those crowded, high-value areas.

Pedri, meanwhile, might've been a "tweener" in a different era -- a player who wasn't dynamic enough to start as an attacker, but also wasn't physical enough to start as a midfielder. He doesn't score enough to play up top and he's too small to anchor a midfield when you don't have the ball. Not anymore, though. He lives in the area between the midfield and defensive lines, is always available for a forward pass, and he rarely loses the ball once he gets it. He's sort of a fail-safe for every Barcelona possession -- letting them play aggressive passes into his feet without the typical risk of turning it over. But if they do lose the ball, he's as effective at pressing as someone his size can be.

So in a way, the system helped create two kinds of players: (1) midfielders who push the ball forward and break into the penalty area to do the things that are obviously valuable, and (2) midfielders who are so good on the ball in space that they're touching the ball as often as midfielders typically have, but are doing it in more advanced and more valuable areas of the field. Traditional midfielders are becoming more aggressive, while traditional attackers are starting to play in the midfield.

After Pedri on the Transfermarkt list is 17-year-old Gavi, who fits into a similar mold, followed by the Real Madrid pair of Federico Valverde (24) and Aurelien Tchouameni (22). The former is one of the most vertical and aggressive midfielders in the world, while the latter mops up behind and then pushes the ball forward once he wins it back.

Funnily enough, the next player on the list is the most similar in style to Tchouameni, according to the algorithm on the site FBRef: West Ham's Declan Rice (24). Then there's Manchester City's Rodri (26), whose most similar player on FBref is Tchouameini, and Bernardo Silva (28), whose third-most-similar player is Pedri. Rounding out the list is Bayern Munich's Joshua Kimmich (27), who ranks in the 99th percentile among midfielders in assists while still ranking in the 77th percentile in tackles+interceptions.

Those aren't the only names, either. After a stellar World Cup with Argentina, Benfica's 21-year-old Enzo Fernandez is being linked with a nine-figure transfer. Bruno Guimaraes (25) looks like Newcastle United's first true superstar. Eduardo Camavinga (20) was a key contributor for Real Madrid as a teenager. And Martin Odegaard (24), with eight goals and five assists halfway through the season, is the best player on the best team in the Premier League.

Over the previous 10 editions of the Ballon d'Or, Luka Modric is the only midfielder to win the award, while Andres Iniesta, Jorginho and Kevin De Bruyne all finished third in the voting. No other midfielders, though, have finished within the top three. That's just four out of 30 spots -- 13 percent -- for the guys in the middle.

Eventually, Messi is going to stop winning the Ballon d'Or. The most likely heirs are Mbappe and Haaland. But after that? Don't be surprised if we start seeing more midfielders not only making the proverbial podium but winning the actual award.