Growing up, most of us dreamed of being a prolific centre-forward.
We celebrated each and every in our back gardens as if we’d just racked up our 30th of the season.
Nobody was going to deny us yet another Golden Boot.
This is probably still true for the kids of today.
But how far away are we from a generation that roams their back garden pretending to cover the ground in front of an imaginary back four, with the commentator of their minds bellowing “He’s been everywhere today!” as they soak up the crowd’s appreciation for another tireless 90 minutes?
N’Golo Kante was named as the 2016/17 PFA Players’ Player of the Year and FWA Footballer of the Year.
The Frenchman’s dynamic performances once again propelled his side to Premier League glory, albeit with a different blue shirt on his back.
While Kante is undoubtedly one of a kind, his success has coincided (or perhaps caused) a surge of popularity and appreciation for all central defensive midfielders.
Victor Wanyama, Oriol Romeu, Idrissa Gueye and Fernandinho have all been celebrated in recent times for their selfless industry.
Away from the Premier League, Casemiro is held in high regard in Spain, with many believing him to be the key to Real Madrid’s league and Champions League double last season.
So how, when and why did defensive midfield (or CDM as FIFA players are fond of calling it) become everyone’s favourite position?
For years managers, players and fans have believed that a first-rate goalscorer could win you the league.
And many teams have won titles built around an air-tight defence.
Kante is proof that a world-class defensive midfielder can also inspire a team to glory.
His crusade last term was not a one-man mission of course; Eden Hazard, Diego Costa, David Luiz and many other Stamford Bridge residents enjoyed good form.
But what about the season before?
Leicester’s historic title win was utterly inexplicable; and that’s what made it so fantastic.
The closest reasoning we can apply given the evidence at hand is that Kante’s superhuman energy ignited the Foxes’ inextinguishable fuse.
Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez scored the goals, but how did they get the ball in the first place?
By the end of the season the answer to that question was clear in everyone’s mind, especially Roman Abramovich’s.
Defensive midfielders have always been there.
Somebody has always had to do the dirty work.
But very rarely have we seen them identified as the standalone key influence on a team’s success.
Zinedine Zidane famously named Claude Makelele as Real Madrid’s most important player during the Galactico era.
Similar praise has been heaped on Sergio Busquets by various modern Barcelona legends.
Kante’s Player of the Year double acghieved a new level of recognition, one with tangible results, one that leaves ink in the record books.
Man United hero Roy Keane won the award in 1999/2000 but since then, with the exception of John Terry, it’s been dominated by attack-minded players.
Kante is ushering in a new age; the age of the spoilers.
What else has contributed to the rise of the defensive midfielder’s popularity?
Casual football fans, those that would never watch it on their own but are happy to tag along to the pub to watch a big game or feign excitement for a tournament, acknowledge goals only.
For them, football is just goals and the gaps in between is time wasted.
But proper football fans see more than just goals.
A bulging net still provides the ultimate thrill but satisfaction can also be extracted from a well-timed tackle, a throughball, a whipped cross, a deft first touch, and so on.
Once you start to appreciate all the details of football, the micro-goals, that’s when a good defensive midfielder comes into their own.
Appreciation of a reliable workhorse is like a secret handshake among true football fans; a way to check who are genuine members of the club, and who are simply fair-weather pretenders.
That’s all well and good.
But it’s also led to a minor disturbance in fan culture; the try-hard football hipster.
Defensive midfielders have become more popular than ever, possibly even overrated in the case of some, as some fans sing their praises in an attempt to show off their knowledge and understanding of the game.
It’s too easy to say Lionel Messi is the primary reason for Barcelona’s success in recent years.
The ‘insightful’ fan points to Busquets and then sits back and waits for others to applaud his wisdom.
Except of course, he’s wrong.
While Busquets has done a superb job in facilitating his attacking team-mates, Messi is superhuman.
Defensive midfielders deserve to be recognised and applauded for their efforts.
Just make sure you’re clapping for the right reasons.
Football is dead, long live anti-football.
- 7 weird and wonderful moments you half-remember from World Cup third-place play-offs
- England would have won three World Cups in a row if we’d played 3-4-2-1
- England’s second-best player has to start on the bench at the World Cup