What is the 6?
Checking your six is really just about looking behind you and ensuring your back is covered. This analogy applies perfectly to the most overlooked position in American Soccer.
- The world class 6 controls the tempo, tone and temperature of a good team.
- They are equally adept at being a quarterback or free safety and thrive in both proactive and reactive modes.
- They make unselfish and correct decisions, 99.9% of the time.
- They possess deft touch and ball distribution with both feet.
- Their headers range from feathered angles to powerful, precision cannon fire.
- They are box to box trustworthy teammates, in any game play situation.
- They are coaching liaisons that adjust and overcome circumstances, in real time.
- They are the orchestrator’s of the buildup and breakdown of play.
- They find the signs, that reveal the intent, in their opposition’s play.
- They are “the composure, inside the chaos”.
In almost any sport, your ability to play at the higher levels is determined by your ability to play/execute as the “speed of the game” increases. In America, this reality is usually mapped directly to your physical attributes. Here, we identify the most athletic players first and foremost and then we focus on honing their skills. I would attribute this to our primary sports of Football and Basketball, where your ability to play at the highest levels, is determined by your athleticism, 90% of the time.
In the rest of the world, your ability to “think at the speed of the game” is 50% of your ability to play at the speed of the game. A perfect example would be Michael Bradley, one of our most productive players in the past decade, and a solid number 6. If Michael’s father Bob Bradley, had not been in a position to get Michael looks/opportunities, the US system would have missed him completely. He did not possess any physical attributes that made him stand out and therefore, would have been passed up in any selection process. But what he did possess was the desire, work ethic and intellectual capital to “think and play at the speed of the game”. He deserved to be in the system, and we are a better team, because he had a chance to be seen.
Why is this important to an article on the 6? Because the 6 needs to think at the speed of the game before he can play at the speed of the game.
The 6, also known as holding midfielder, defensive midfielder or even the #4 in the Barcelona system is one of the most important pieces for any possession based system. This position can best be summed up by one term, risk management. They must always manage risk versus reward, for every decision they make. While the responsibilities of this player include much more than just this, it is vital for the player to always be assessing risk and maintaining balance in the team. In order for a player to succeed in this role, they must be a strong leader, both by example and verbally.
For the Americans reading this, the 6 can relate most to a quarterback. They determine the pace of the team, take in the strategy of the opposition and find a weakness in it, and are respected and well listened to on the pitch. The job of a true 6 is to bring out the best of every player on his team, for the sake of the team. He keeps the ball moving one and two touch the majority of the time. Johan Cruyff once told Pep, “If you’re fouled, you held onto the ball too long.” The only reason a 6 sits on the ball for a moment longer than normal is to lure the defense into making a positional mistake.
Getting the ball from the left side and letting the ball come across your body to switch the field and allowing the defense to begin to shift, opening up a lane for a penetrating pass. It is crucial for the 6 to be able to switch between speeds of play like this and set the pace. He also will cover for a defender that has gone forward into a dangerous space, this more often than not being the outside back. But it is not limited to that. A 6 needs to know how to play anywhere along the back line and more importantly, willing to do so. The job of a holding mid has many responsibilities from keeping possession, switching the field, being a dominate presence defensively, to organizing and intercepting. Interceptions is one of the most important.
Seeing the field and reading the play allows the 6 to snuff out passes and immediately start a counter attack while the other team has an attacking mindset leaving them vulnerable. This not only helps your team’s confidence, by keeping an attack going, but it slowly chips away at the opponent’s. Influencing the minds of both teams is a role that the 6 must embrace and be very good at, meaning they must always have control of their own thoughts and the ability to adapt and overcome in any situation.
The 6 in America
As a player who has played at every level in America except the MLS I have seen what Americans think the job of the 6 is. They view it more as a defensive midfielder, meaning their responsibilities are mainly defensive. At the lower levels this position is often someone who is a hardworking player who loves to get into crunching tackles, and focuses less on the tactical side of the game.
This happens because we don’t teach tactics in America nearly as much as we focus on the physical side of play. We don’t worry about finding players who can think the game at the next level, because the majority of coaches here can’t, so how could they recognize a player who can. In America the defensive midfielder is often tall, in order to win the copious amount of long balls that are played at every level. Also strong, to deal the physicality of play here, and hardworking, because we don’t understand positioning and therefore have to run in large amounts for no reason. This player here is more focused on attributes that are required to be reactive, instead of having the mind to be proactive.
An example of this is a meeting I had with my college coach before my sophomore year. He asked me what I was doing when he saw me training earlier and I told him I was working on my left foot. He actually told me to not work on that anymore because I will mostly be able to play out of any situation with my right foot. He instead told me to come into the gym more often to work on my strength. He actually valued strength over being able to play with a balanced mind in a position that is all about balancing the team. How could I complete this task if in my own mind I was dominated by my right foot? My coach gave the perception of being an intelligent coach. But now I as understand the game more and continue to look at training sessions of the top coaches I realized he would just copy their drills but miss the most important part of each drill, the why. So when I revisit this memory it makes complete sense as to why he still values the traits most American coahces do.
The 6 in Europe
We all know the magnificent story of Leicester City’s title run last year, but at the start of this year they are struggling to get results and put in similar performances. The only player that they let go from last year’s squad was N’golo Kante, their 6. After six games this season they have already lost as many games as they did all of last year, 3. How can a team go from best in the league to bottom half so quickly? By losing the player that puts the team first in every situation. That’s what a holding mid does. To take that player out, is to lose the mindset that player brings to the pitch.
Another example of this is that Real Madrid have tied their last three league games against Eibar, Las Palmas and Villareal without their only true 6, Casemiro. Since he has been injured Zidane has been forced to play Toni Kroos as the 6, but that doesn’t work well because he doesn’t take on all the defensive responsibilities as Casemiro does. So Zidane flipped the midfield triangle and is now sitting Modric alongside Toni, but that takes the advantage of having two creative players sitting in the channel between the outside back and center back away. This then takes away the ability to overload a side in the final third and then have a quick switch to a numerical advantage, often with the attacking mid playing the final ball. Which explains why they went from scoring 5 against Osasuna to scoring 4 in three games, despite having the entire BBC back. They don’t have another player who can perform all the required roles of the 6 and are therefore sacrificing a number going forward.
The 6 in Europe varies greatly from its American counter-part. They are the player that every coach loves because they are very coachable and willing to do whatever it takes to ensure the team’s success, and often goes unnoticed until they are no longer in the team. Then the team’s play seems to be slightly off and the blame will fall on other players, but these other players find it very difficult to do their jobs without this player.
The Role of the 6 in Training
The holding midfielder may find themselves in a greater number of situations than any other player on the field, so their training must reflect this. Not only must they master their own positioning and required skill set, but they also must be able to change their mindset into that of another players’. They must know how to defend and play along the back line as if they were both an outside back and a center back. Often when they find themselves needed in the back line it is because a player has attacked and been caught out, which requires the holding mid to step into that position in order to halt the counter attack. The ability to change mindsets to these positions in an instant is a requirement. At the next level being one step too slow in your thought process along the back line is the difference between an easy offside decision and an easy break away opportunity.
The defense is not the only mindset the 6 must be able to step in to. In possession in the final third it is difficult to break down an organized defense. As the 6 you can see the entire defense, each player’s movements, and most importantly a defender who is caught in the wrong position. In this situation the 6 may make a late run out of the midfield without being tracked in to that space, which may cause your own center back to step into that position. But if the opposition has a man or two who stay high then this movement requires another center midfielder to step into the 6 position. So the 6 has to know how to play in the attacking mid position as well if the team wants to be able to create problems with this rotation. All of these rotations means that the 6 has to train the skillset required for not only the holding position, but the entire defense as well as the midfield. In order to be great at the 6, you must be willing to spend extra time on the training ground to develop these skills as well as watching film. But having all the right skills means nothing if the 6 is unable to switch between positional mindsets in an instant, once again strengthening the idea that the greatest asset of a true 6 is his mind.
The Role of the 6 in Pre-Game Strategy
The best 6 will always help to control the mindset of a team going into a match. This means that they are one of the most well-rehearsed players that know how to implement a strategy over 90 minutes. Forwards may have their minds focused on that first chance they get to put away, defenders are generally more conservative in the opening minutes. It is the 6’s job to make sure all players settle down from their initial mindset and remember to game plan for the 90. This reason is often why coaches will discuss tactics more with this player than anyone else. When Philip Lahm was making the switch from right back to holding mid under Guardiola he would spend 15-30 minutes after every practice discussing strategy with him. A similar situation at Barcelona, but they’ve been playing very similarly for quite some time so less dialogue is needed. Because the 6 sees all he must be ready for everything possible in a game and know how to adjust the team accordingly.
The Role of the 6 During a Match
When in an actual game the 6 must relax and let all the preparations flow freely. The most important first step for a 6 is to show confidence in every touch, giving confidence to the rest of the team. Knowing how much the 6 prepares gives the other players around him the mentality to succeed. To be a great 6 you must fall in love with the work you must put in before you step on the pitch, but even so every player loves to play more than anything. The holding mid manages the flow of the game, deciding when to increase the tempo, when to break on a counter or hold the ball and have the team regain their breathe in possession. The 6 needs to understand how the flow of momentum is changing and do what he needs to do to change it, sometimes that might be going into a sliding tackle to get some energy into the team, sometimes words of encouragement are all that is needed.
There are also lots of times during a season in a tight match that some teammates might begin to lose their head, whether its from constantly getting fouled or missing a few opportunities it is the 6’s job to help keep that player’s mind on the right path. Whether the team is winning or losing the focus will begin to shift during the 90. With the 6 being well-prepared and coached it is his job to bring the coach’s desired strategy to life in every situation. If the team is down in the last 10 minutes the role of the 6 might be to stay back and ensure that the ball never leaves the final third, and to press a center back like Pique forward for more of an aerial presence. Depending on the ability of the 6 the player to step up might even be him.
If the team is winning it is the job of the 6 to make sure the team doesn’t overstretch themselves in search for another goal to kill the game, because attacking minded players often lose sight of whats best for the team when the goal is near. This may come by holding an outside back, or having an attacking mid drop to play beside you to help with the barrage of the final minutes. The 6 is the player that always makes the right decsion, whether on the ball or not, and does what needs to be done to get the result.
The Role of the 6 as a Teammate and Coaching Ally
The ability to be a good teammate during the game stems from the personality of the player off the field. In the holding mid it is essential that all players have absolute trust in him, and that correlates to relationships. Being a good friend to players around you will show that you’re willing to go out of your way to do what’s best for your teammates, and even if the other players don’t see it, it makes a huge difference when crunch time comes. Knowing that each player on that field has each other’s backs off the field will show in the team’s personality. Even at the highest level nearly every player is there because they love to play the game, and everything that comes with it. Bus rides, plane rides, team dinners, victories, and especially defeats are far more rewarding if the team has great chemistry.
Just recently Pep cut the WiFi from Man City’s training ground because he wants his players to come together as a team more because he knows these undeniable truths. Team synergy is one of the most vital qualities a team can have. The 6 is often one of the most entrusted players a coach has. He is the player that the strategy is shared in depth with, because the coach knows how the 6 influences the play and can change mindsets in an instant to reflect the desire of the coach. He is the player that gets the dangerous attacking players the ball in the right spaces. He is the player that sacrifices personal desire for the team’s sake, similar to a coach. That is why lots of holding mids end up becoming coaches later on because they have such a good understanding of tactics, and the roles of all 11 players. The holding mid will sometimes see things that the coach will miss and can help to address the problem, whether it be at halftime or before the game.
The Impact of a World Class 6 on the US National Team
The single most important trait that America is missing in both national team players, and the team itself is confidence. This lack of confidence stems from the fact that our players aren’t willing to step out of their comfort zone. The number I’ve seen of players who are good enough to play overseas but aren’t willing to take on that challenge is way too high. The most recent of these players is Jordan Morris, who chose to stay in Seattle and play and live near his family where he was already a guaranteed starter. He chose this over going to Germany and fighting for playing time and his right to stay in the Bundesliga. It’s understandable why he made this decision but it brings to light one very important piece of information; Jordan Morris values the comfort of living that comes from living in a place like Seattle over his desire to become the best player he can be.
Our national team lacks their own style. When you think of past teams you remember their dedication and desire that is shown through their work ethic on the field. I remember the fight we showed against Germany in 2002, a team that was better in every position and yet we pushed them into what should’ve been overtime. I no longer even see these qualities. In the game against Mexico last year in Los Angeles that was for a spot in Confederations Cup there was no single characteristic each player showed. We didn’t move the ball well, we weren’t as organized defensively as we should’ve been, and most importantly we lacked what USA has never failed to bring to the pitch, that never give up mentality. I blame this new weakened mentality on our players’ decisions. On that night only three of our eleven starters were playing their club ball in Europe. Which means only three players had played against players at the world class level that year. If you’re someone who thinks the MLS is a strong league, let me share one simple reality: Jozy Altidore has played 70 premier league games as a forward, and only scored 2 goals. Since he has returned to the MLS he has 21 goals in 43 games. These numbers, are a key piece of validation for European leagues and managers, that define the actual strenght of the MLS. If it were simply one player, it can be counted as an anomoly. But that is not the case, as we can list an entire block of just forwards. And as you know, that is the most quantifiable position in soccer. But this topic is for another day.
How only having three players that have played at the highest level that year translates to the field is a lack of confidence. That night our team’s mind looked a half step slower than Mexico’s. The most noticeable player that was playing below his normal self was Michael Bradley, and I don’t blame him. He went into the World Cup training with players like Totti, De Rossi, and Benatia. He played against players like Pogba and Pirlo every year. That’s why he was our best player for the years that he lived in Rome. Now he’s playing in the MLS where he has one of the quickest minds, so he doesn’t get pushed everyday like he used to. This resulted in our national team looking slower and less decisive. Bradley was our 6, he dictated the pace, controlled the press, and organized the defense. So when he was a half-step slower because of his move to Toronto, boom, there it is. The answer to why our national team looked slower that night. In any possession-based system, which Jurgen is trying to implement, the 6 is one of the most critical roles, and as a country we are lacking that position now. Having a world class 6 can bring more positive change to this country than any other single position.
The only reason I wrote this article was to kickoff a discussion on the topic. The world needs your feedback on the 6 position and how it impacts your team, as a player, coach, GM, club staff, high school stakeholders, etc. We will showcase some of the top feedback and package it up as ancillary blogs.