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Check their DMs: Fernandinho, Matic, and others key to a manager's tactics

Throughout the Premier League era, English football has never entirely embraced the defensive midfielder. In fact, the very concept has routinely prompted dissent from English fans.

Traditionally, the English game has produced plenty of box-to-box midfielders and the natural urge was therefore to field two players in that mould together. David Batty's outstanding performances for Leeds, Blackburn and Newcastle sides were often overlooked, as was Michael Carrick's excellent work for Manchester United. Those two represented what managers wanted from defensive midfielders in the late 1990s, and late 2000s respectively. But how about the late 2010s?

From analysing the current top six Premier League sides, the picture is somewhat unclear: there's no particular template, and a broad range of styles. However, what becomes obvious is that looking at the defensive midfielder serves as concise summary of a side's tactical style.

The prime example is Fernandinho, holding midfielder for Pep Guardiola's Manchester City.

Fernandinho is not naturally a defensive midfielder: at Shakhtar Donetsk he played a box-to-box role, and with Brazilian youth sides he was sometimes fielded as a classic overlapping full-back. His early days at Manchester City were spent as the more defensive player in partnership with Yaya Toure, but Guardiola was the first manager to regularly deploy him as the sole holding player behind two attack-minded midfielders -- in fact, the most attack-minded "No. 8" pairing the Premier League has witnessed: David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne.

But while Fernandinho necessarily plays a withdrawn role, he's also the Premier League's most positive holding player in terms of distribution, something he's improved considerably since playing under Guardiola.

"He knows the position very well," Fernandinho recently said of his manager. "Since he arrived, we've had a lot of conversations about tactics and movement, the way I can control and pass the ball, the way I keep my position, the way I help the team attack, the way I help the team keep the balance between attack and defence." And, in terms of those qualities, no-one does it better; Fernandinho embodies his manager's style.

There is certainly a clear pattern. Across the city at Manchester United, Nemanja Matic is a different type of footballer entirely: less mobile, more physical, a careful passer rather than someone who genuinely starts attacking moves. That style is more typical of Jose Mourinho, the man who helped Claude Makelele to re-define defensive midfield responsibilities in his first spell at Chelsea, then brought Matic to Stamford Bridge his second spell.

Mourinho is a fundamentally reactive manager, and even the signing of Matic was essentially a reactive move after it become obvious United required someone to clear up behind the expansive Paul Pogba. That's something Matic was accustomed to for Mourinho's Chelsea, where he was always covering for the space vacated by Cesc Fabregas. Matic has often started seasons strongly before tailing off, and the same might be happening again -- but nevertheless he's still a classic defensive midfielder for a Mourinho side: sturdy, physical, reliable.

Things become more complex at Matic's former club Chelsea, because Antonio Conte has regularly switched between a 3-5-2 and 3-4-3 system this season. The latter still appears a better fit, partly because their two central midfielders, generally N'Golo Kante and Tiemoue Bakayoko, perform extremely disciplined roles.

Kante is a pure ball-winner who lacks guile in possession, while Bakayoko is an energetic box-to-box player who often appears somewhat lacking in either box itself. But their combined positioning is excellent, always in the right shape to protect the central defensive trio, which allows Chelsea to effectively attack with five players because the wing-backs become bonus forwards. This is Conte all over: no other manager works so relentlessly upon team shape, and Chelsea's overall structure largely remains excellent.

Liverpool's defensive midfielder this season has generally been Jordan Henderson, whose struggles compared to his impressive 2016-17 have reflected Liverpool's different strategy. Henderson is another combative, natural box-to-box player who worked excellently when Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool were at their fiercest, pushing up and helping Liverpool to press quickly.

But since Liverpool have retreated into a deeper block to utilise the speed of Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah on the counter-attack, Henderson has been less comfortable. His positional sense has been found wanting, he's become dragged out of his natural zone to shut down players and left Liverpool's defence exposed. Emre Can, who has experience of playing in defence, has fared better recently, and Henderson (Liverpool's captain by the way) will be fighting for his place upon his return from injury. Klopp's change in style may necessitate a change in defensive midfielder.

Tottenham's first-choice holding midfielder Victor Wanyama has spent much of the season injured, leaving Eric Dier the obvious choice in that role. Dier is another who reflects his side's tactical approach -- with his ability to play as a centre-back or a defensive midfielder, he's perfect for Mauricio Pochettino, who has switched between a three-man defence and a back four more regularly than any other manager this season. Furthermore, his natural aggression works perfectly in a side all about physicality and constant pressing.

Then there's Arsenal, whose holding midfield role is the biggest question mark of all. Granit Xhaka has endured a disappointing 2017-18 and his precise role in the side isn't clear. Although signed as a defensive midfielder, his positional sense and tackling have been lacking, and he seems more comfortable when given license to attack. However, given that Jack Wilshere or Aaron Ramsey are his usual partner, he's forced to hang back.

Wednesday's 2-1 performance against Chelsea, though, saw Arsenal playing in a different manner: Mohamed Elneny started in the holding role in a 4-3-3, then dropped back into defence to turn Arsenal into a 3-4-3, the type of tactical flexibility witnessed rarely from the Gunners but which could be vital if they are to embark upon another late-season run to challenge for the Champions League places.

So, six sides, six different strategies and six different defensive midfielders. Nevertheless, these players remain something of an afterthought. None could be considered their team's star midfielder: they're largely playing functional roles in response to the qualities of a teammate.

For a side's most pivotal player, the man who generally touches the ball more than anyone, it feels like managers should be searching for more genuine creativity from that role, and the absence of a genuine deep-lying playmaker in the mould of an Andrea Pirlo, a Xabi Alonso or a late-era Paul Scholes reflects the widespread emphasis upon pressing, rather than possession.