What is a Holding Midfielder in Soccer? (and How to Play It)

The holding midfielder is one of the most important positions out on the pitch. 

The role guarantees stability at the back while providing a platform for the forwards to attack.

Also known as a defensive midfielder, these players have great influence on the game.

Holding midfielders should have a great sense of positioning and the ability to sniff out danger early. 

Having a combative, calm, and controlling player in the centre of the park is often the difference between a good team and a great one.

Aside from defending, modern day holding midfielders also take part in the offense. 

Their offensive tasks include:

> Advancing the ball
> Keeping possession
> Initiating attacks from deep

With all that in mind, let's now take a closer look at the holding midfielder position. 

Where Does the Holding Midfielder Play?

In today's game, many teams opt for a defensive-minded player to fill the role of the holding midfielder.

This central midfielder lines up in between the defensive and midfield lines.

Their main tasks include (1) plugging gaps, (2) sniffing out danger, and (3) cutting passing lines as they see fit. 

Managers can use this unique role in a whole host of different formations -- from 4-2-3-1 and 4-5-1 to 4-3-3 and the 4-4-2 diamond.

The idea here is that occupying a deeper and more defensive position allows the other central mids and wide players to attack with more freedom.

In essence, the holding midfielder covers for them as they attack the opposing team. 

What is the Role of a Holding Midfielder?

In the past, defensive midfielders had a simple remit – defend and destroy. 

In the modern game, however, holding midfielders have a wide array of responsibilities.

This makes it a very multifaceted and demanding role as players have to develop a great feel for the game on both the offense and defense.

They need to clamp down on defense, read the opponent's attack, tackle, and intercept.

At the same time they should also learn to keep possession and initiate attacks from deep.

Defensive Responsibilities:

The holding midfielder's primary objective is to defend -- disrupt the opposition's attack and win back possession. 

This means that they must have a fantastic feel for the game and the ability to read the opponent's attack.

They should also have a good sense of positioning, knowing exactly where to be at all times.

To make sure everyone is picking up the right players, they also need to communicate well with their teammates and call them back if necessary.

Holding defenders need to be able to read the game well in order to block off passing lanes and make timely interceptions.

Aside from reading the attacks and predicting the plays, they also have to be quick and strong in the tackle.

Another aspect of their defensive role is blocking long shots and crosses from deep into the box.

Some holding midfielders may rely on their superior athleticism while others, instead, rely on clever positioning and brilliant read of the game.

These players need to have great conditioning to be able to cover a lot of ground.

Great conditioning will give them the ability to screen the defense, cover for their teammates, and plug any gaps that open up at the back.

They serve as the defensive anchor, allowing the rest of the midfielders and forwards to attack with more freedom. 

Indeed, it's the specialised holding midfielder that is the key to many formations' flexibility, fluidity, and success.

When their teammates are attacking, they need to keep an eye out and make sure to cut out any possible counterattacks.

This could either involve tackling, intercepting, clearing the ball, or committing a tactical foul. 

The holding midfielder may also act as a passing option when on  the attack -- but should not sacrifice their defensive positioning by doing so. 

Offensive Responsibilities:

As we touched on earlier, holding midfielders now have a lot more responsibilities than they did in the past.

It's often up to them to pick the ball off of the defenders and play accurate passes forward. 

As such, they need to have a good range of passing, excellent decision making, and be able to dictate play from deep.

While they may spray the ball out wide or play a pass behind the opponent's defense, in general they should refrain from risky passes and play it safe.

As they operate in a very congested part of the pitch, they also need to have great footwork and agility and be able to receive a pass under pressure.

This means they need to remain calm and collected in possession and have great ball control.

On top of all this, holding midfielders need to have great tactical awareness and flexibility. 

Many managers ask them to drop back into defense from time to time and form a back three.

This then sees a 4-1-4-1 formation for instance turn into a more attack-minded 3-4-3.

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Key Skills and Qualities:

Before moving onto some tips that can help you master the position, let's take a quick look at the key skills and qualities of a top holding midfielder.

While we have covered them above, listing them here will help you see what aspects of your game you can improve on.

1. Discipline and Positioning 

Key to being a great holding midfielder is your discipline and positioning. 

Being in the right place at the right time will not only help in tackles and interceptions, but give you more time and space on the ball when you are in possession.

In this role you will have to be very disciplined and hold your position.

Keeping your concentration is important if you want to thwart the opposition's attacks.

2. Know How to Defend and Tackle

Another essential element to this role is knowing how to defend, tackle, and win back possession without fouling.

This includes tasks such as screening passes, slowing down attacks, and intercepting the ball.

This also involves consistently winning 1-on-1 challenges and gaining possession.

In addition, being able to defend well also relies on your discipline and outstanding awareness of what is going on around you.

3. Spatial Awareness and Reading the Game

Related to both of the points above, the positions you take up and how you defend is your spatial awareness and reading of the game.

Holding midfielders need to know exactly what is going on around them at all times.

This gives them the ability to win back possession, cover their teammates, and sniff out any danger almost before it occurs.

Key to this is being able to read the game and making quick, smart decisions.

4. Decision Making and Handling Pressure

As holding midfielders play in such a crowded part of the pitch, they need to make smart decisions and remain calm under pressure.

Whether it is receiving the ball with an opponent at their back, dealing with a counterattack, or making an important tackle, they need to make the best play possible on a consistent basis.

In addition, they need to stay calm and collected and avoid picking up any needless bookings.

They need to keep things simple and safe when passing and playing in front of the defense.

5. Communicate Well and Be a Leader

Quick and clear communication is crucial as they occupy a central position on the pitch. 

They could call teammates back into position, alert defenders to danger, or tell players what opponents to pick up.

Due to this, they also need to be a great leader out on the pitch. 

Managers rely on this player to dictate play and marshal the positions of the other players.

6. Maintain a High Level of Concentration 

If players want to succeed as a holding midfielder, they have to remain focused for the entire duration of the match.

A single lapse in concentration can see their opponent get away from them and carve out a goal-scoring opportunity.

While it is easier said than done, maintaining a high level of concentration is key to being a great holding midfielder.

7. Excellent Speed, Strength, and Stamina

Just as important as mental toughness is having great physical fitness. 

This allows holding midfielders to cover the pitch and lock down opponents for the whole ninety minutes of the match -- or more. 

A lot of the above depends on how much ground you can cover with your effectiveness largely relying on how quick, fit, and strong you are.

As well as being strong enough to hold opponents off, you need to be fast enough to get to the right positions at the right time.

Great stamina will help in doing this over and over again throughout the match.

8. Brilliant Footwork and Ball Control

While awareness and positioning is key, holding midfielders need to do more than defend. 

The game today now demands brilliant footwork and ball control from them as well.

(Recommended Post: 10 Soccer Ball Control and Footwork Drills to Do at Home)

This is because they operate in a such a contested part of the pitch.

They will need to bring the ball under control quickly before passing it on to a teammate.

They may also need to weave their way past an opponent or backpedal and get their feet in the right place before making a tackle or blocking a shot.

9. Accurate Passing 

As holding midfielders are now expected to pick the ball up off of the defense and make a pass, they also need to have great passing abilities.

These are usually safe yet accurate passes either to the sides or backwards.

However, they should also be able to ping a ball forward or out to the wings to initiate an attack.

Although it is often up to them to dictate the play from deep, they should refrain from making risky passes.

An intercepted pass may leave them vulnerable to quick counterattacks.

10. Hard Work and a "Never Say Die" Mentality

Holding midfielders are competitive players who work incredibly hard and never give in.

This mentality has a huge impact on the entire team -- inspiring teammates, increasing team cohesion, and improving unity and trust.

This is how holding midfielders lead by example.

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Tips for Playing Holding Midfielder

By working skills and qualities above, you'll soon start to see improvements in your game.

Mastering all these things is key to if you want to make it to the very top.

Thankfully, there are also lots of small things you can do that will help you improve and be a better player.

1. Know What's Going on Around You at All Times

While this is easier said than done, you can improve your spatial awareness and positioning with a few simple tricks.

Keeping your head up and taking a "peek" over your shoulder every couple of seconds is a great way to improve your awareness during matches.

Constant communication with your teammates will also help with this.

This way you let each other know where the opponents are and if you are under pressure or not.

2. Focus on Your Positioning

As a holding midfielder, you will often be drawn to the sides of the pitch as you cover teammates.

However, most of your time should be spent in the centre of the pitch, between the defensive and midfield lines.

As such, always keep an eye on the space you're occupying and take a look to see where your teammates are.

This also helps when it comes to quick decision making and knowing what to do with the ball when you receive it.

3. Keep Talking All the Time

Remaining in constant communication with your teammates really helps!

It not only helps build a picture of what is going on around you, but also helps organise the setup of your team.

This also keeps you focused for the whole duration of the match to avoid making needless mistakes and gift the ball back to the opposition.

4. Learn How to Read the Game 

While reading the game well often comes with time and experience, it's essential that you work on this part of your game. 

Aside from building on it through experience, you can also learn from the best watching and analyzing videos. 

Keep an eye on their tendencies and what positions they take up.

Study how they prevent goal-scoring opportunities by jockeying and tackling players, intercepting the ball, and screening passes. 

5. React Quickly to Danger

As we tackled earlier, the holding midfielder's main responsibility is to support the defense.

A key skill is being able to make quick, clean tackles on a consistent basis.

Reacting quickly pays huge dividends when it comes to playing this position. 

Getting to the right spots at the right time helps prevent risky challenges and needless bookings. 

6. Stay Cool, Calm, and Collected

In the centre of the pitch players are under a lot of pressure.

It's a very congested area where opponents can swarm around you. 

Holding midfielders need to bring the ball under control and release it in a split second.

You must win your challenges, keep ball possession, and refrain from picking up needless bookings.

To do all these under pressure, you have to stay cool, calm, and collected.

7. Improve Your Footwork and Ball Control

You definitely want to improve your footwork and ball control so you don't get caught out in the centre of the pitch.

Thankfully, here on SCP there are lots of exercises and drills you can work on to help hone your touch and technique.

(Recommended Post: How to Improve Your First Touch in Soccer (16 Tips and Drills))

8. Work on Your Stamina, Speed, and Strength

Due to the nature of the position, it's important to work on your stamina, speed, and strength. 

This is because you will need to cover a lot of ground for the entire ninety minutes (or more).

All the while, you will need to hold off opponents and win challenges.

Working on your overall physical fitness will see drastic improvements in your game. 

Above all that, it helps you stay fitter, fresher and more focused for longer.

9. Keep it Simple, Stupid

A key aspect of being a holding midfielder is keeping things simple. 

This includes not overcomplicating things when you pass the ball to teammates.

As you play right in front of the defense, don't take any unnecessary risks.

Making the right decision quickly and consistently is crucial as a holding midfielder. 

10. Put in Hard Work All the Time

Giving everything you have every time you take to the pitch will help you master the position.

This will also encourage your teammates to give their all, inspired by your example and leadership. 

This will help your team win more matches and at the same time increases team cohesion, unity, trust, and belief.

holding-midfielder-soccer

Conclusion

So there you have it...

Almost everything there is to know about the holding midfielder role and how to master this influential position.

While it takes years of practice, experience, and hard work to make it to the very top, working on some of the these points can help improve your game in no time. 

Although the holding midfielder's primary task is to defend, the modern game has expanded the position's role.

Today, they're also expected to retain possession, keep the ball rotating, and dictate the play from deep.

With so many sides to the position, it is a very fun and important role to play as you get lots of touches on the ball.

The position also gives you an opportunity to play an influential part in leading your team.

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