When football fans talk about Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering treble winners of the 2022/23 season, they speak of the goals of Erling Haaland and the creativity of Kevin de Bruyne. The likes of Rodri barely get a look in. Consider the all-time greats of FC Barcelona, and it’s the flair of Lionel Messi, Johan Cruyff and Andres Iniesta that get the headlines – the conservative midfield stylings of Sergio Busquets are commonly overlooked. Remember that great France team that won the World Cup in 1998 and the European Championship in 2000? Again, it’s Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry and Youri Djorkaeff that people recall, not the under-the-radar work of Didier Deschamps.
The point is that the work of the defensive midfielder often goes overlooked, and yet they can be just as important to the success of the team as more celebrated sorts that, typically, play higher up the pitch. But the role of the defensive ‘water carrier’ has been given a revamp by tacticians and football intellectuals in recent times, and a rebrand to pivot – and double pivot where two deep-lying midfielders are deployed – has led fans to consider this otherwise forgettable position in a new light.
What Is a Pivot in Football?
The pivot, sometimes referred to as the number six role on account of the general area of the pitch that they occupy, acts as a bridge between a team’s defence and advanced midfielders. Their primary objective is to enhance the defensive solidity of their team. They screen the defenders behind them, looking to make tackles and interceptions and prevent the opposition from building threatening attacking moves.
Some pivots have that sole responsibility – they might be known as a ‘destroyer’ or, to coin a phrase used to describe the former Chelsea and France midfielder, Claude Makelele, a ‘water carrier’. Other pivots have a more creative role, acting as deep-lying playmakers that are involved in building attacks and retaining possession without abandoning their defensive duties. This is the kind of multi-faceted take on the pivot as expected of modern midfielders like Rodri.
The role of the pivot came about in the 1970s, when Ajax and the Dutch national team began to popularise the 4-3-3 formation. This involved a pivot in midfield sitting behind two other central midfielders, who were given more of a licence to break forward in attack knowing they had the insurance of the pivot behind them. Here, the pivot is performed by the number six:
Barcelona also adopted this 4-3-3, pivot-based shape, as did the France team that dominated world football in the late 1990s and early 2000s. José Mourinho also favoured this approach in his early, most successful years at Chelsea, and even a tactician as forward thinking as Pep Guardiola, who himself acted as the pivot during his playing days, started out as a 4-3-3 merchant in his first managerial spell at Barcelona.
What Is a Double Pivot in Football?
Now we know what a pivot is, it doesn’t take too much fathoming to work out what a double pivot looks like and the role it performs. This is a defensive midfield pairing, bringing together two players working in conjunction – hence why it’s also sometimes called the ‘double six’. While the single pivot generally stays central on the pitch, the double pivot may have more flexibility to close down wide players and space in the channels that can be so dangerous for attacking teams.
In an attacking sense, one of the pivot players may be allowed to join in with attacks, either by dictating the play from deep or by bursting forward and hitting the opposition’s penalty area – Granit Xhaka during Arsenal’s excellent 2022/23 campaign was an example of the latter, with the Swiss star enjoying the insurance provided by double pivot partner Thomas Partey.
Believe it or not, the double pivot has been around longer than the single version. Herbert Chapman, an innovative head coach of the 1920s, deployed two number sixes in his ultra-successful Arsenal team of that era, while Brazil’s brilliance in the 1970s and eighties came about via a sort of 4-2-2-2 formation – a double pivot behind a more advanced central midfield pairing, with all of the width provided by barnstorming forward runs by full backs like Carlos Alberto.
Generally, the double pivot is used in formations like 4-2-3-1, which was popularised by the likes of Spain in their dominance of international football in the 2000s. The double pivot was also evident in Leicester City’s shock Premier League title win of 2005/06, with boss, Claudio Ranieri, deploying a sort of 4-4-2 shape with two central midfielders, usually N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater, sitting deep.
Who Are the Best Pivot Players in Football?
While the basic positioning of the pivot on the pitch remains the same, the style of the players that play there can differ greatly. One type of pivot is that of the midfield shield – those players that do the dirty work of closing down opponents, putting tackles in and reading the game perfectly to make interceptions.
Makelele was one of the first to perform this role in the Premier League, while Kanté arguably mastered the craft – delivering his best Gandalf ‘thou shall not pass’ impression during Leicester’s scarcely believable run to the title in 2016.
Other pivots are rather less industrious – they’re more like orchestrators or NFL quarterbacks. Andrea Pirlo springs to mind; the hirsute Italian who could land a pass on a sixpence from 60 yards away. He didn’t score many goals and he didn’t offer many assists, so deep did he sit in front of defence, but Pirlo has been inducted into the Italian Football Hall of Fame as a World Cup winner and two-time Champions League victor.
In this modern age, managers are looking for players that can – to some extent – combine elements of both Kante destruction and Pirlo artistry. Sergio Busquets, Rodri, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Joshua Kimmich are all on that spectrum, and they have each been vital to teams that have thrived at domestic, continental and/or international level.
Declan Rice, another hybrid-style pivot, is – as of August 2023 – the second most valuable British player in history after joining Arsenal for £105 million. Anybody that tries to downplay the importance of the pivot in football simply does not know what they are talking about.